Traditional Guangcai Masters Share Their Secrets on How To Keep The Craft Alive

Master Xu’s Guangcai at K11 ARTUS. Image courtesy of K11 Craft & Guild Foundation.
(Left) Master Tan Guanghui, (right) Master Xu Enfu. Image courtesy of K11 Craft & Guild Foundation.
Master Xu’s K11 ARTUS Limited Edition of Guangcai Manhua Rose Plate. Image courtesy of K11 Craft & Guild Foundation.
Master Tan’s Guangcai at K11 ARTUS. Image courtesy of K11 Craft & Guild Foundation.
Master Xu in execution of product modernisation. Image courtesy of K11 Craft & Guild Foundation.
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K11 HONG HONG'S SILICON VALLEY OF CULTURE

Established in 2018 by K11 Group Founder Adrian Cheng, K11 Craft & Guild Foundation is a registered non-for-profit focused on the preservation and conservation of traditional Chinese craftsmanship. To learn more about these fast-disappearing crafts, we sat down with guangcai porcelain masters Master Xu Enfu and Master Tan Guanghui, who together, have over 70 years of knowledge and experience between them.

TEXT: Camilla Russell
IMAGES: Courtesy of K11 Craft & Guild Foundation

Master Xu’s Guangcai at K11 ARTUS. Image courtesy of K11 Craft & Guild Foundation.

 

In Chinese culture, pottery is referred to as earthenware (low-fired ware) and porcelain (high-fired ware). Porcelain originated as proto-porcelain during the Shang Dynasty (1600–1046 BC), found popularity with the Silk Road trade (130 BC–1453 AD), meanwhile scientific advances in the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644) saw an increase in appreciation for Guangzhou Zhijin Porcelain (also known as guangcai). The 18th century saw Guangzhou craftsmen transform their city into the epicentre of pottery and ceramic production.

Prized as “white gold” throughout history, porcelain’s cultural importance established China as a major player in global export production. Fast forward a few centuries and guangcai is considered an integral part of Canton history. However, there are less than a hundred master craftsmen remaining in Guangzhou, while Hong Kong records only six craftsmen with knowledge of traditional guangcai techniques. With these figures, how do we build up awareness on the conservation of traditional crafts like guangcai?

Within Hong Kong, there are several organizations taking it upon themselves to cultivate an interest in the city’s heritage arts and crafts. K11 Craft & Guild Foundation (KCG) is one such initiative. Established by Adrian Cheng in 2018, KCG collaborates with cultural institutions and master craftsmen and was created to conserve Chinese handicrafts such as guangcai, as well as identity disappearing crafts and preserve them for cultural safety. Meanwhile K11 MUSEA—Hong Kong’s cultural-retail destination in the heart of Victoria Dockside—regularly hosts pop-up exhibitions and displays from KCG’s collaborations. Master Xu Enfu and Master Tan Guanghui are two senior guangcai masters who KCG invited to work together on educational projects and exhibitions.

 

(Left) Master Tan Guanghui, (right) Master Xu Enfu. Image courtesy of K11 Craft & Guild Foundation.

 

As part of KCG’s goal to encourage interest in younger people and invite them to learn more about guangcai, both senior masters are developing their own creative projects to showcase their skills as master craftsmen. Master Tan is developing a collection of guangcai homewares that will be unveiled next year, while Master Xu recently created the Guangcai Manhua Rose Plate inspired by the famille rose pattern popular in the Qing Dynasty (1636–1912), and reinterpreted into a contemporary design with European roses with Asian peonies to create a Manhua pattern. The Guangcai Manhua Rose Plate is part of K11 ARTUS’ permanent collection of guangcai wares.

Since 1962 Master Xu has dedicated his life to guangcai and is leading the charge for Canton porcelain appreciation. He explained: “Even though it was popular in the Ming Dynasty, the reason why guangcai porcelain still exists today is because of its unique artistic style. Everything has its own process of evolution, and whether guangcai will modernize or keep its traditional style is yet to be determined fully. However, we can review guangcai porcelain style throughout history to see how it changed. Every era had its own different style while retaining a traditional style. Even each dynasty had a different guangcai style too.”

 

Master Xu’s K11 ARTUS Limited Edition of Guangcai Manhua Rose Plate. Image courtesy of K11 Craft & Guild Foundation.

 

Similar with Master Xu’s Guangcai Manhua Rose Plate that pairs Eastern and Western motifs together, Master Tam explains guangcai to foreigners by saying it is a hybrid of both cultures. “When a foreigner asks me about guangcai art and culture, I proudly introduce it by saying how diversified its colours and patterns are, and how it befits the aesthetics of both the west and the east. It is a hybrid of these cultures. I’m proud that guangcai was popular amongst royalty around the world. The Americans even call it “the colours of roses and generals (玫瑰將軍彩),” he said.

While guangcai wares remains popular amongst collectors—especially so in auctions and museums that highlights Chinese history and crafts—there is little interest to actually want to learn how to keep the craft alive. Guangcai master craftsmen have very few apprentices who want to follow in their footsteps.

 

Master Tan’s Guangcai at K11 ARTUS. Image courtesy of K11 Craft & Guild Foundation.

 

“I think young students have to build a solid foundation by thoroughly learning the craft and tradition, and then learn how to be innovative with the craft. Our goal is to focus both on conservation and development. If there is a market, then there will be students. This is the golden rule of development. You can never truly conserve a craft without a market. Therefore, I ask the new generation of guangcai artisans to think of their [future] direction while seriously learning the traditional craft,” Master Tan said.

It is the objective of organizations such as KCG to build up interest in heritage crafts, and prioritize their preservation in a fast-paced urban society like Hong Kong. Meanwhile it is the responsibility of master craftsmen like Master Xu and Master Tan to modernize guangcai for a contemporary public. Master Xu believes that guangcai must transform in the 21st century so that it can move away from the East-West hybrid relationship that Master Tan observed earlier and become something bigger. He identified two directions that guangcai can move towards as it evolves into its own creative art form.

 

Master Xu in execution of product modernisation. Image courtesy of K11 Craft & Guild Foundation.

 

“Contemporary guangcai porcelain has absorbed the artistic influences of traditional Western paintings and Chinese classical paintings, and has integrated them into a new style of guangcai that combines modern characteristics and traditional styles. This new style of works is well recognized by the market. Compared to guangcai‘s history, its development over the next 10 years is under development. The future trend [of guangcai] will be in two directions. One leads to a new era of mechanical printing products, for guangcai must also move towards high-tech technology printing to have a way out,” he said.

“The second direction will be to develop high-precision, hand-painted guangcai porcelain. Guangcai porcelain is famous for its composition and brilliant colours. During the reigns of the Kangxi, Yongzheng, and Qianlong emperors, it was very exquisite. But in the late Qing Dynasty, followed by the era of the Republic of China, guangcai was made in a rough way. In the future, I believe the trend will focus on a painting style that is more refined, and more like traditional works of art,” Master Xu concluded.

 

K11 Craft & Guild Foundation
Instagram: @k11craftandguild

 
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