Somehow a craft workshop is the quietest place in Beijing.
Despite the lathes and carving equipment, there’s a peace, if not an absolute
silence, that makes you want to get your head down and work on an enamel plate
Due to the nature of this column, I skip the four-year foundation
course and join the apprentices on their training scheme. As a big part of the
course had been developing a ‘sense of what is beautiful’, there’s a
possibility my output might differ.
My fellow trainees have been twisting metal
in cooperative silence for an hour when I take a place at the table and realise
I have no idea what cloisonné is or what anyone is doing.
‘What flower do you
want to try?’ asks the aunt-like head of metal twisting, who’s too shy to want
her name in print. Chrysanthemum turns out to be the wrong answer. We soon switch
to a plum blossom – just five circles.
We’re doing qia si (掐丝), twisting flat copper
ribbon into shapes that are then stuck to an object and filled with coloured
glaze to make up the overall cloisonné design. If I’d done the full training
course I’d probably know how to hold the tools at the very least. Even the
scissors are alien. My mentor slows everything right down and praises each
nipping of the pliers and furling of the ribbon I hash out. ‘Let me just tidy
it up,’ she says, deftly teasing the strip into the planned plum blossom. When
I ask if my subsequent attempts are good enough, she says, ‘If they’re
comfortable to look at then they’re good enough,’ then hands them back to me to
keep as souvenirs.
The plates the apprentices are making need up to a thousand
shapes, so I use some ready-made ones when I take a turn at the gluing. ‘We use
Chinese medicine to stick the copper shapes on to the foetus,’ explains Yu Xin,
who’s co-ordinating my one-day apprenticeship. ‘Foetus’ is the term for the
framework, the base object on which the metal shapes are stuck to to make up a
design. We’re all working on a series of Peking opera designs and I have to
glue miniature clouds into rows to form the background. Totally engrossing.
Lunch comes early and on metal trays that are insultingly plain. It’s customary
to gather in a circle in the yard to play ball games, whatever your rank in the
organisation. Further entertainment is provided by feral cats padding around the
flowerbeds and basking in the sun.
I graduate to the process of dianlan (点蓝),
adding the enamel. This is done with bowls of coloured granules, water, pipets
and a brass watering can, penhu (喷壶). Instead of pouring the water out
of the spout, you blow into it, spraying a fine mist over the foetus. ‘You can’t
add enamel to a dry foetus,’ is a sentence I never expected to hear. I’m shown
how to get the powder into a pipet. Then we fill in the red for Peking opera
character Guan Gong’s face. When it comes to doing the black lines there’s a
shout of ‘get the narrower pipet’ as I start depositing black on the wrong side
of the shapes. Even this isn’t enough and we later resort to enamel ‘guns’,
though they’re really just metal scrapers. I learn to blend colours as blending
‘is one way to tell the quality of a piece’. We soak up the excess water with
cotton wool to see how uneven the enamel powder is then try to fill in the
At this rate I’ve about a month of work to do on the plate before it
could go into the kiln for just the first round of firing. Each item needs
around four layers followed by grinding and polishing. That’s why everyone is
doing the job nine till five and why I would need another five years before I
could take on something like the pens in the display cabinet that were given to
world leaders at the APEC summit.
I leave hoping I haven’t ruined anyone’s
plates and that the enamel pieces will be made in perpetuity, one copper flower
at a time.