SHIJIAZHUANG, Dec. 2 (Xinhua) -- A long time ago, a wealthy aristocrat went to bed and laid his head on one of the most popular symbols of wealth in ancient China -- a ceramic pillow shaped like a baby.
This baby-shaped porcelain pillow is now in the Palace Museum, but it is not the original piece. Instead, it is a modern replica by the late artist Chen Wenzeng, a master of the long-lost tradition of "Ding ware" making.
If not for a group of ceramic experts in north China's Hebei province, the secrets of the centuries-old ceramic art would remain lost, and the prospect of bringing them to the homes of the commoners would be no more than a wild imagination of the archeologists.
For centuries between the Tang (618-907) and Yuan (1271-1368) dynasties, kilns in Dingzhou county, now called Quyang, produced exquisite white porcelain, winning the Ding kilns fame as one of ancient China's "five great kilns." The technique, however, fell into decline after Yuan rule ended.
In the 1970s, China launched a campaign to revitalize this art form, sending artisans in Quyang County to research the ancient styles and techniques of Ding ware.
"What bothered us first was the absence of historical records," said He Huan, 61, who like Chen is a leading figure in revitalizing the art. Without any ancient guidebooks, artisans had to explore through trial and error every step in Ding ware making, including incising, engraving and impressing patterns.
Ding ware is distinct for its carved, incised or pressed patterns. To restore these decorative patterns, He Huan went to museums across China to imitate characteristics of ancient Ding porcelain.
"The trickiest part of our work is to find the suitable ceramic raw materials," said He's colleague Lin Zhanxian, who recounted the years spent at kiln relics and laboratories, where he collected specimens and did a chemical analysis to match them with clay from nearby pits.
Around 2000, their reproductions were eventually similar to the original pieces. In 2008, the artistry of the Ding kilns was listed in the nation's intangible cultural heritage.
FROM IMITATION TO INNOVATION
The successful replication is, however, just the start of the long journey to revitalize the art. Ding ware was once a sought-after luxury by affluent Chinese, and artisans like He believe their modern-day offspring deserve to be showcased in places other than just museums.
"We knew how to imitate ancient porcelains, but we didn't know how to turn ceramics into a profitable industry," He recalled how his replica met a chilly market for a long time.
In 1997, He and Chen made their first attempt to design two Ding ceramic artifacts, which earned a place at a huge exhibition to celebrate the return of Hong Kong to the motherland. As a reward, they received 900 yuan each, a large amount of money back then.
"For the first time, we realized that maybe we could make more money through innovation instead of imitation," said He.
Chen started to inscribe calligraphy onto the Ding ware, while Lin invented a method of producing vibrant glaze colors such as green, black and brown.
Such innovations made a surprising splash in the high-end collection market and even entered exhibitions at the Palace Museum and the National Art Museum of China.
Now the market-oriented Ding ware making has become a pillar industry in Quyang. The country is now home to over 2,000 ceramic artisans, generating an income of 200 million yuan (28.8 mln U.S. dollars) annually.
"It is a good start to decode the secrets of porcelain-making and create modern works, but only a start," Chen's disciple Pang Yonghui, who manages a company making and selling Ding ceramics. "The future prosperity of Ding ware still has a long way to go."
Their next goal is to expand the market of Ding ware, once a luxury ornament of the wealthy. "It is wrong to emphasize the cultural value of Ding ware without considering practical use."
Five years ago, 70 percent of products in Pang's company were high-end art porcelains. Now, the majority are daily products such as teapots and cups. "Daily-use porcelains have become our flagship products," Pang said.
To promote this traditional art, the Quyang government and local companies jointly built a Ding ware museum in 2017. A teaching base has also been set up in cooperation with Jingdezhen Ceramic Institute, China's only institute of higher learning dedicated to the ceramic arts.