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Snapshot: Pottery making in northwest Yunnan

By in Features on

Nestled up in the hills of northwestern Yunnan, not far from Shangri-la, is a village known for its pottery. Nixi (尼西) is famous throughout China, and to hear locals tell it, their stoneware-making traditions date back two thousand years or more.

Over time, and with documentaries airing on CCTV, the town has become quite commercial. However, nearby in Mujugu (母苴古), residents ply the same trade in more quiet and less touristy confines.

Common items include teapots, lamps, vases and dishes, all of which are handmade and detailed by self-employed artisans. The process, often painstaking depending on the level of precision, is done in workshops sprinkled around town.

When finished, individual pieces vary greatly in price, based on the intricacy and uniqueness of the work. Simple items may sell for 250 yuan, while many, more customized items, often fetch prices running to several thousand yuan. However, the average is closer to 500.

Craftsman spend most of their time shaping and detailing their work and only fire kilns once or twice a month. Many of the best-known items from Nixi and its surrounding villages are black after they have been baked, a result attributed to the local soil.

Small, specially-made wooden instruments are used to add detail, smooth the clay and carve designs.

Here, a potter works on a custom-designed piece for a collector in the United States, carefully polishing the finished product with a cloth.

Much of the local populace is Tibetan, and the most popular items are pots for brewing yak butter tea. Often, designs are personalized for individual buyers.

Yak butter tea is a constant companion of the potters, as is barley flour, which is often eaten straight or mixed with tea to form a bread-like paste.

When we visited a workshop in Mujugu, a local Tibetan priest arrived to bless the studio. His work was nearly as intricate as the potter's.

First he mixed together barley flour, yak butter, water, and oil to form a thick, dough-like paste.

Very patiently, the priest assembled an intricate shrine of spiky spires and combined it with tiny bowls not much bigger than thimbles, parts of which he later dripped with paint.

He then read from an ancient paper scroll and used prayer beads and a bell throughout the ceremony. In total the entire ritual — from assembling the shrine to reading the prayer — lasted almost four hours.

Then it was back to business for the potter, seen here polishing a nearly finished, and highly detailed, pot.

Editor's note: The preceding photo essay was submitted by GoKunming contributor Adam Crase, who is an American photographer based in Guangdong province. He travels extensively in China in search of unseen angles and perfect shots. In 2013, Crase published his first book — a large format collection entitled "Dongguan, China 中国东莞".

He is currently working on a revised second edition and putting together shots for another book. More of Crase's images can be seen at his website Kung Fu Imaging and he can also be found on Facebook (requires proxy).

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