For the past 30 years, Yang Chung-chia (楊重家) has taken his ceramic masonry skills to more than 300 temples around the nation, completing many cultural monuments which help sustain religious worship and celebrations in Taiwan.
“As long as you put your heart into it, each piece of temple art can become one’s representative work,” Yang, 53, said.
He is regarded as a master of the temple masonry art known as “ceramic applique” commonly seen on the rooftops of Taiwanese temples, in the forms of delicate pagodas, colorful statues of deities, animals, flowers and other decorative motifs.
The Taiwanese applique technique uses lime, glutinous rice, black sugar, fine linen fiber and water to make delicate shapes.
Yang has worked for more than three decades throughout Taiwan.
Born in then-Sanchong City (三重) in 1960, Yang’s parents were poor farmers with six children.
As the eldest son, he had to start working at an early age to supplement the family income.
At 15, Yang quit high school and started working at a machine tool factory. However, he was not really interested in the job.
One day he was careless and a tooling machine injured his right hand.
That convinced him to try something else.
Yang then learned the temple masonry trade with his uncle and it became his profession.
“Apprentice work was very strenuous, but one must be patient and endure difficulties,” he said.
“At first, I did not know anything. I did some odd jobs for the master craftsmen, such as cooking meals, mixing the cement mortar, carrying construction materials and cutting glass tiles to size,” he said.
“I watched how the master craftsmen did their job. In the evening after work, I tried out their methods and gradually picked up the skills. After three years and four months on the job, I became qualified to be a craftsman,” he said.
Yang said the ceramic applique technique has a range of applications, and is used in temples, the restoration of cultural monuments and old buildings, decorative art and city streets.
“To produce a peacock, we first make a frame out of metal wire and tiles, then put on the cement mortar to solidify its shape. Then we cut colored tiles and other decorative materials into pieces that are pasted onto the model with clay. The rough spots are smoothed over with a wet pen brush,” Yang said.
“Each step requires delicacy and attention to detail. Even a simple job takes at least four hours to complete,” he said.
Throughout his years in the trade, Yang has worked on most of the major temples around Taiwan.
His ceramic applique work can be seen at Chingshuei District’s (清水) Ziyun Temple (紫雲寺) in Greater Taichung, the Royal Lords Temple (王爺廟) and Wude Temple (五德宮) in Miaoli County’s Houlong Town (後龍), as well as a number of temples dedicated to the Earth God (土地公).
Yang was also invited to work on traditional art projects at the San Qing Taoist Temple in Japan’s Saitama Prefecture, the Shuanglin Temple in Singapore and the Foguangshan Buddhist Temple in New Zealand.
His most memorable experience was at Yilan County’s Lord Prince Temple (太子廟) a few years ago.
“We had to climb up to the rooftop, which was 14 stories high. Most people would be frightened at such height,” he said.
For that project, Yang learned to build bamboo scaffolding, and said to himself: “Never look down. Just concentrate on the ceramic work.”
“I was able to overcome my fear of heights and I successfully completed a very challenging job,” he said.
“Our projects are mostly on rooftops. So we have to endure the hot sun and high temperatures in summer and cold winds in winter. In our trade, it is common to get sunburn and blisters. However, these things cannot diminish my passion for this traditional craft,” Yang said.
He has already gained a good name as Taiwan’s “Master of Ceramic Applique,” but Yang is determined to keep on learning.
“Art is a limitless life-long education. One must always innovate and keep up with the new, strive for improvement and to further refine one’s skills,” he said.
“Nowadays, young people are not able to toil under tough conditions and do arduous work. The traditional art forms are slowly dying out,” he said.
“The government and the public sector say they have no funding to give assistance, so it is quite difficult to promote and encourage this craft,” he said.
“It is a shame to see this situation. I really hope some benefactors can come in and help pass on skills to the young generation to preserve this traditional art,” Yang said.