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Secrets of gold and garlic juice

FOR 40 years a master ceramist has toiled in anonymity, creating multicolored paintings on porcelain and adding gold flourishes. Finally, he has been discovered, as Wang Jie reports.

A 63-year-old master ceramist Xia Zhongyong still practices what is becoming a lost art: gilding porcelain with 24-carat gold.

For 40 years he has been toiling in solitude on his labor of love, perfecting his delicate technique. But he recently was "discovered" and is holding an exhibition.

Xia, who comes from Jingdezhen, China's cradle of china, first paints delicate classical subjects, such as ancient ladies, and fires the work, usually a vase. Then he carefully paints gold outlines and accents certain parts - it takes a rock-steady and confident hand. The work is fired yet again, to melt and fix the gold. And finally Xia polishes the gold, adding luster and elegance.

"It's pure 24-carat gold," says Xia who learned the technique from his teacher in Jingdezhen, east China's Jiangxi Province. "Unfortunately, this technique is on the verge of extinction."

Around 30 pieces of Xia's gilded porcelain are on display through January 16 at the Shanghai Art Salon, the Shanghai branch of the Art Appraisal Committee of the Ministry of Culture.

"This is incredible craftsmanship. It is our honor to identify Xia, and our duty to spread appreciation of his special porcelain," says Chen Haibo, head of the salon. He too worries that the art of gilding porcelain may be lost and hopes that Xia will teach classes.

"Certainly I want to teach this unique technique to young people, but it is almost a mission impossible," Xia says with a sigh.

When he was 14, Xia began studying with a master ceramist who was an expert in gilded colorful porcelain.

The work is extremely difficult and painstaking.

"To be exact, I paint with gold powder on the porcelain. The powder is costly and one cannot make even a small mistake. The outline must be finished in one even brush stroke while holding one's breath."

Asked if he mixes oil with gold powder, he says that instead he uses a "secret recipe" - fresh garlic juice.

"The percentage of oil in mixing is very hard to control," he answers, "so I use garlic juice in a secret recipe I inherited from my teacher. The mixture is more even and easy to control when painting on porcelain."

According to Xia, the garlic must be picked in March before the Tomb-sweeping Day (Qingming Festival), which usually falls on April 5, when prime tea is picked.

"So every morning before I start working, I crush garlic and oh, how I like the garlic smell, as it warms me up," he says.

Xia says it took him nine years to fully grasp the procedure.

It usually takes two to three months to complete one piece.

"The demanding process, the meticulous work and solitude could not be endured by today's young generation," Xia says.

In fact, Xia savored his solitude and anonymity for 40 years. While some of his peers in Jingdezhen had become big names in art circles, he continued to work alone and unnoticed in his studio.

"Some of my friends suggested I give up gilding and switch to easier techniques that were popular," he recalls. "But I am a stubborn man and I know the value behind this craftsmanship, which is the culmination of years of practice."

The meticulous work undermines his eyesight.

"I often find my vision blurred when painting some complicated patterns on the porcelain," he says. "I am worried about the future of colorful gilded porcelain ware.

"It is a critical mission to revive the unique craftsmanship," says Chen from the Ministry of Culture. "It is part of China's intangible cultural heritage."

The ministry is considering a series of promotional activities this year, including overseas exhibitions, but Chen and his team are keener on finding successors to Xia.

"It takes at least six years of learning," Xia says, "but it's worth it. It's like a process of cultivating one's heart and soul."

Xia's next project is to create gilded porcelain depicting China's 56 ethnic minorities. The task is a challenge because the traditional costumes are complex, detailed and multicolored, many decorated with silver.

"But I am not daunted," says Xia. "Perhaps this is the last big gift that I shall give to myself."

Date: through January 16, 10am-5pm

Address: 1102 Hongxu Rd


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