For many people in China, porcelain is a familiar part of life, commonly seen and used on a day-to-day basis. But paradoxically, porcelain can also be thought of as an unfamiliar material, in the sense that many people know next to nothing about it. Despite the nickname ciguo, which translates into “country of porcelain,” most people in China don’t fully understand the beautiful intricacies of ceramics and the meticulous creation process. Enter Chifengge, a Hangzhou-based pottery studio that specializes in wood-fired ceramic wares, working tirelessly to perfect this underappreciated craft. Founded by three young ceramics enthusiasts, the studio has been producing a varied assortment of earthenware since 2014—each creation uniquely different from the last.
The studio is the brainchild of Yuan Cunze, Xu Chaoqi and Han Min, who all graduated from the China Academy of Art in 2013. Having graduated with a fine arts degree in ceramic design, the trio, like many of their peers, felt apprehensive about the future. Unlike other design-related majors, finding a stable career relevant to their field is considerably more difficult. Many of their fellow graduates chose to continue on to graduate school, switch career paths entirely, or pursue higher education overseas. After exploring their options over the course of a year, the three finally made the decision to start their own studio.
The chifeng in their studio’s name means red maple in Chinese, a tree known for its vibrant red leaves during autumn, and alludes to Chifengge’s approach of using wood rather than commonly seen modern pottery firing methods. Nowadays, electric-powered kilns are preferred for their convenience and ease. But even in the past, using wood for the firing process wasn’t the norm; the inconsistent results from ashes and scorch marks were thought of as flaws. However, the recent resurgence of interest in wood-fired ceramics is revealing of society’s ever-changing taste and how the definition of beauty has broadened over time.
The scorch marks and glazed ashes of wood-fired pottery are central to the creation process in modern times. Many different factors affect the outcome when using a wood-firing technique. The speed that wood is added during the process, weather conditions, and the kiln’s flow of air can all drastically affect how the creation turns out in the end. The final appearance of a wood-fired ceramic creation tells an unabashedly revealing story of the entire creation process, a story of its own birth laid out in plain view for all to see. Every scorch mark and layer of ash from the firing process adds unique characteristics to each piece of pottery and are considered as beautiful additions, rather than flaws.
Success stories of young people rolling up their sleeves and building something out of nothing are becoming more and more commonplace nowadays. But when I asked about how they planned to make money in the beginning, Han Min told me: “If we wanted to earn money, we would have used an electric kiln instead. Before we started this, we never thought about how to turn this into a business. The only thoughts that crossed our minds were on how can we make the best wood-fired pottery.” Coming from a design background myself, hearing such an earnest answer that focuses on creativity over profit, made me feel that much more hopeful about the future.