Age: As old as I would ever be
Motivation: To be the husband of the elegant dragon-headed ewer
Likes: Being caressed; serving tea; being displayed and complimented
Dislikes: Being buried alive
Family: Other ceramics; in particular, tea bowls
Friend: Lady Aara
Social status: Fairly low on the hierarchy (although I tend to pretend otherwise)
Ancestry: Changsha, Henan
And now that the perfunctory introduction is done, my story begins:
It has been a long while since I last saw light. For years – I have no way of knowing how long it was – sea clay smothered me. I couldn’t breathe properly. I couldn’t remember who I was, where I was, what happened. Darkness was all that I knew; that and the murmurs of salty currents. Then, as hands started to move me, to scrap away the clay hardened on my surface, I felt a delightful coolness. The sensation of air against my glazed cheeks – strange yet wonderfully familiar – brought my memories back in fits and jolts.
That disaster. The golden cup. My green-splashed lady. My birthplace.
“Let’s hurry up. We meet to excavate the entire lot before looters come in.” My fellow tea bowls protested when they were jostled about. I ignored their protests, straining to hear the conversation.
“How long more do you think we’ll take?”
“Probably one more year?”
Their conversation was boring, even by tea bowl standards. Finally, I heard what I wanted to know – we were in 1999, more than one thousand years after the dhow first sunk and all of us became unfortunately entombed within the seabed.
More than a thousand years! I couldn’t help thinking about my hometown and wondering if it was possible for me to see how it is like now. Are ceramics still produced there?
I was created in Changsha, a vital commercial city located near a branch of the Yangtze River. Then, kilns were producing ceramics on an industrial scale for export. Almost all my fellow Changsha tea bowls carry one of a few set patterns – cloud scrolling, animistic ornaments, Buddhist motifs and floral patterns. But me, I was an exception. The hands which shaped me, in a fit of playfulness, decided to write 茶盏子 – “teabowl” – in the underglaze with copper-green and iron-brown paints. He had thought that foreigners wouldn’t understand what I was made for and literally wrote it on my surface. Light underglaze patches were further created on my rims, becoming a square frame around the three Chinese characters. I was honoured when my potter-father showed me to his friends and everyone appreciated my witty design. For that few minutes, I was in the limelight, a novel but enjoyable experience; if I could sing, I’d have done so. This was before I was brutally dipped into glaze for several times and fired at searing temperatures.
[Above] In case you’re interested, this is how I look like after being fired.
My brothers and I, we were all wood-fired in the southern style of longyao, or “dragon kilns”: these kilns were built on hill slope and operated at temperatures above scorching 1000 degree Celsius in a reducing atmosphere. It was uncomfortable but, naturally, we had no way of escaping. In the heat, we sat, perspired and whined as all our bodily fluids were scorched off. The arduous tribulation was worth it when we looked at each other and saw the glint of straw-coloured glaze. This distinctive brown luster, we eventually realized, would be a characteristic common to all Changsha pottery – a millennium later, people will not mistake us as Gongxian or Hebei ware.
We were shifted into a storage space where we awaited the unknown with curiosity. It was then that we noticed other ceramics about us. There were covered boxes, water pots, paperweights and toys. Like us, they were made of siliceous stoneware and were rich in fine quartz. We talked a little, made friends and simply waited; like most stone and metal ware, we have patience. I was mildly intimidated by how beautiful some of the ewers were and tried my best not to look at them lest jealousy swamps me.
Just as we got used to the monotony of our existence, people started moving us about.
Many of my brothers were packed into a tall stoneware jar filled with rice straw. I didn’t know where we were going; I didn’t care either. I was a young tea bowl who simply wanted a change in surroundings. I was patient, really, just not as much as my brothers. When callused hands lifted me up, I tried to sing. I was about to join them on a new voyage!
“There you are!” My potter-father laughed as he picked me out. “Thought someone else packed you into a Dusun jar already.” With that, he set me on a ledge with a few other tea bowls. How I wished I could leap into that big jar and join my kin! I tried to wobble but failed to move even an inch. For the second time in my short life, I longed for the ability to walk.
In this pivotal separation from those dearest to me, I discovered my meaning in life.
I was, to my astonishment, a life-giving ceramic, an eminently important pottery, a vessel to satiate thirst. In other words, I served hot tea. In my father’s home, people drank from me, looked at me and complimented the witty characters on me. I was useful; I felt appreciated. No wonder I was called 茶盏子! Tea leaves, I found out from my neighbouring pair of chopsticks, were compressed into cakes and grounded in a stone mortar. The powder was then boiled in an earthenware kettle and served within me. What advancement! Tea was first discovered when an emperor was accidentally served water boiled with some wild tea leaves. It used to be that only fresh leaves were boiled; now they were dried, powdered and prepared only when needed. Such anecdotes filled my life with colour. Sometimes, I was so busy that I even forgot to miss my family. It was an honest, down-to-earth existence.
All along, I had obeyed the wishes of my father. He had moulded, painted, glazed, fired and retrieved me. Whatever complaints I had, I kept to myself. Like all Chinese, filial piety was ingrained within me. It was an everlasting regret that I couldn’t bid him farewell, that I left without a word. This father-son separation was, perhaps, preordained.
Under the pale glow of the midnight moon, a street urchin sneaked into my home and stole some pottery. Against my will, I was removed from where I had led a humble, diligent life. I tried not to blame him for his actions – he was dirty, starving and, I later found out, needed medicine for his ailing wife.
The next morning, this fellow displayed me on a rickety table along the crowded Changsha streets. Pudgy fingers picked me up; greasy ones held me; dirty hands touched my face. My pain was beyond expression.
Just when I was about to give up all hope of finding a kind mistress, soft hands picked me up and I heard singsong laughter. Coins exchanged hands. Wrapped in paper, tied with strings, I bobbed towards the next phase of my life.
“Aara, do you really like the bowl that much?” I heard the muffled voice of a man.
“Why? Don’t you find it attractive?” Chiming laughter.
“Well, it’s just a – Okay, okay, it’s attractive.” The conversation continued in this vein until the two lovebirds parted.
The bobbing motions ceased. Without ceremony, the wrapping papers were torn off to reveal the sights of my new home: a luxurious red themed room. Somehow, I became the property of a Chinese courtesan.
This exclusive courtesan, Lady Aara, entertained different men each night – sometimes one after another in a space of hours; sometimes a few of them all at one go. She would play music, recite poetry and dance. She mediated important meetings between noblemen, officials and businessmen with the subtle touch of a refined lady. By ceramics standard, she was beautiful. Her cheeks were brushed with white slip before being painted with a muted pink glaze.
And I, fortunately, was her latest obsession. She found great irony in drinking wine or water from me – everything but tea. I was a tea bowl that didn’t serve tea. She talked to me all the time and laughed at her silliness in conversing with a tea bowl. She confessed that she didn’t love the ambassador courting her. That she was in love with a humble navigator. She spoke of the moons and butterflies, of the inexorable tides of life. I couldn’t help but be frustrated with her languorous reflections. She shared her desire to leave the brothel with the ambassador (whom she didn’t love) before eloping with the navigator (whom she did).
Weeks passed. After a maelstrom of activities, I found myself on an Arab dhow. Lady Aara had agreed to accompany the ambassador on his trip to the Middle Eastern countries; she had feigned shyness and reluctance, but knew right at the outset that she would consent for her illicit lover would be onboard too. The ambassador brought along an array of imperial gifts, including silver jars, gold ware, exquisite blue-white ceramics and a most magnificent ewer. I wished he could cease his monologue on the impressiveness of the dhow and allowed me to soak in the entire atmosphere. Whoever cares that the dhow was tied together with coconut fibres and no nails or screws was used in its construction? I had more important things on my mind than the Indian woods used to construct this ship.
Pottery have no love, they have duty. It was what I had always believed in, until I laid my eyes on the dragon headed ewer. She was a beautiful ewer with incised lozenges and clouds, made of glazed stoneware. Unlike brown-glazed Changsha ceramics, she has brilliant copper-green dyes splashing across her white slip. Probably from the Gongxian kilns, I supposed. She whispered the way willows sang in the wind – sprightly, genteel and sensual all at once. I began to empathise with my lovelorn Lady Aara.
This dhow journey was pleasant enough. Lady Aara abused me and kept plying the ambassador with wine; once he was drunk, the mistress would sneak out to meet her seafarer. Meanwhile, whenever I wasn’t working, I conversed with the ewer about moons, butterflies and the inexorable tides of life. I quoted a few lines I saw on another tea bowl:Until this elegant ewer knows that she should be my wife, I better tone down my heavy Changsha accent. Especially with that octagonal gold cup jousting for her attention.
I miss my beloved who is traveling afar, beyond the Great River,
and my heart flies to the frontier morning and night.
It was the only two lines that I knew of but the lady seemed impressed.
The gold cup had no chance at all.
The voyage might have ended happily if not for a confluence of mishaps. Hibiscus fibres replaced that from coconut during maintenance of the hull; the substitute plant fibres just weren’t as durable. An unexpected storm arose. We were blown off-course by the monsoons, crashed into reefs and sank in the treacherous waters near the Belitung island. Humans were rushing everywhere, screaming, crying, attempting to save themselves; no one gave a thought about helpless ceramic pieces. It was the last time that I ever saw Lady Aara. [Right] This is the ewer that I love.
As the conservator picked away some stiffened clay with an acrylic needle, I was jolted out of my reverie. Looking around, I saw some familiar faces. The octagonal gold cup. The silver box with a pair of decorative mandarin ducks. The blue-white Persian-inspired plates. But where was the love of my life?
She was – and always had been – right next to me. I didn’t recognise her for she was in pieces – cracked and covered with dried sea silt. The green splashes across her surface could hardly be seen. As she was being cleaned and patched together, I thought of calling for her attention but fell silent instead.
There will be enough time to catch up with everyone. The conservator said that we’ll be displayed in museums. (What’s a ‘museum’ anyway?) Over the millennium, I learned to sit still and wait. Time moved; events flowed; how we were perceived changed. For now, let’s just enjoy the cool winds swirling throughout the room.
Whoever knows what the future holds?