An all-female team injects new vitality to ancient Li pottery

By Chen Shumin / HICN / Updated: 16:59,01-December-2021

“We Li women had been making our living through Li pottery. My mother had a hard time raising us by making and selling pottery during my childhood,” said  Liu Meizhen, a local from Baotu Village, Changjiang Li Autonomous County in south China’s Hainan Province, with distress on seeing abandoned Li pottery around her village during Spring Festival in 2012.

After that Spring Festival, Liu collected some Li pottery and helped sell it in the city, however, there was little demand in the market due to the monotonous patterns on the pottery. That was the same year that Liu decided to go back to her hometown to develop a Li pottery business. “This traditional craft should not be lost,” Liu said.

A startup, An all-female team

The tradition of Li pottery in Hainan originates from the early Neolithic Age, and is regarded as a “living fossil” of the craft of pottery making, recording the production methods, life style, and distinctive traits of the ancient Li people.

Li pottery exhibits in Baotu Village, Changjiang. CHEN WEIDONG

In 2006, ancient Li pottery was included on China’s first list of national intangible cultural heritage items. Yang Bailiang is the only local senior in Baotu Village who is teaching this craft to the next generation, so Liu studied with Yang after she started her business there.

Li women are trained in pottery making starting from a young age, and they tend to be better at this skill than Li men. In 2013, Liu established a cooperative focused on Li pottery making, gathering a team of over 200 women in her village with the support of local government. This has brought Li pottery to a broader market, and introduced industrialized, large-scale production.

Liu Meizhen demonstrating the process of Li pottery making in Baotu Village, Changjiang. CHEN WEIDONG

Currently, there are 6 to 8 permanent staff in Liu’s cooperative and this all-female team has injected new vitality into this ancient “living fossil” craft.

Innovation and Inheritance

There are over 10 steps in the traditional process of Li pottery making, and the pottery can be made into kettles, utensils, urns, bowls, pots, drinking vessels, and more. This traditional method leads to a relatively low success ratio, however. According to Liu, when made in the traditional way, about 20 out of 30 clay pots may crack in the fire as they are baked overnight. Instead, Liu’s cooperative now is equipped with modern tools and a gas fueled kiln, which has improved their production efficiency.

Li pottery exhibits in Baotu Village, Changjiang. CHEN WEIDONG

Liu is most eager to acquire the modern skills to make practical Li pottery attractive to the public. She even visited the pottery artisans in Jingdezhen, also known as Jingde Town, China's "Porcelain Capital" in Jiangxi Province, and has tried to improve Li pottery making with the combination of traditional crafts and modern technology.

An artisan making Li pottery in Baotu Village, Changjiang. CHEN WEIDONG

In Liu’s view, Li pottery should embrace the daily lives of ordinary people, and not just be limited to tourist souvenirs and museum exhibits.

In the past years, Liu is also engaged in teaching students the traditional craft of Li pottery in Changjiang’s primary and middle schools, as well as providing opportunities for visitors to learn pottery making at her cooperative. 

Li pottery samples made by primary students in Baotu Village, Changjiang. CHEN WEIDONG

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