About

This is a space where I would like to share my personal views on art and cultures which I have encountered.

Perhaps it is precisely because I identify with the role of an art historian that this blog aims to address not only history, criticism or theories in fine art, but concerns objects, experiences or concepts in wider cultural sphere. Since, for me, my subject has never about pure artistic creations but their interactions with lived or living people, and what they reveal to us about the social and cultural context. Thus, I wish to share my own interpretation of cultural forms and the stories behind them, in the hope to give insights into the world we live in. To disclose, through my point of view, thus to preserve our culture, the most fragile part of our current society where human existence seems increasingly peripheral relative to the power of technology (although my effort would no doubt be limited as my engagements do not constitute but a small fragment of things).

This explains the name I have chosen, aletheia. To understand my intention one has to consider it in negative terms, to reject oblivion, forgetfulness, about other cultural forms across time and places, and to reveal aspects hitherto I perceived or things otherwise largely unknown to the western public. As Heidegger argued, aletheia, thus what I have put forward should not at all be equated with ‘truth’ or facts.

The word here can, however, be considered in two levels, primarily, cultural manifestations offer an opening to the way things are or were like in their immediate contexts; on the other hand, my writings, through analysis and reflections, aspire to guide my readers through the passage towards ultimate disclosure, or to offer them alternative routes.

Wengding, Cangyuan / Wa(佤)

The liberating years following 1949 have transformed the primitive society of the Wa society, and brought their standard of living forward in one great leap. While the Han Chinese had evolved through millenniums of conflicts and struggles to reach the current stage of development, ‘we received help from the Party’, said the Wa father, who owned the farmhouse where we ate that evening. Before the Liberation Army reached the remote areas of Cangyuan in the southwest of Yunnan province, heads were still being chopped off for breaking rules or for daily animosity. Ancient rituals — the kind where dead human bodies would be cut into pieces and fed to vultures on mountain summits — were still being practiced. Given these, the arrival of the Eight Route Army had at least guaranteed safety, more than anything else. Few did not feel the effects of the change brought by the Liberation Army in their immediate surroundings. The Communist China is their Saviour, the new hope. No wonder why the father’s eyes sparkled upon hearing that we had come from Beijing, the capital where Mao had ruled and lived in those glorious years. And thus, three more bottles of beer were brought over under his order.

A team of Wa people ont he site welcome us at the gate, singing in an ancient dialect and clapping with the hypnotic rhythm…

An old man anointed me with m a black mixture between the eyebrows, to keep away evil spirits. It was said that the mixture contained cigarette ashes and chocolate powder.

These Wa people are highly conscious of their own history. Their patriotic spirit and gratitude towards the Party are undeniable in every word and gesture. A passion that I had rarely seen being expressed in such a way, but that is immediately comprehensible if one was to contrast their current situation (though still regrettable) with their primitive history, to which we were offered a glimpse through the village reconstructed at the site of Wengding. Thatched cottages multiply around a tall bamboo totem which forms the focus of the village and where rituals would be conducted. Humans would live just above the sties on the ground floor that reeks of livestock and wet straws. Everywhere one would be confronted by superstitious devices: ox skulls hung on every conceivable vertical structure, omnipresent on wooden posts and beams; herbs clamped in bamboo chips. Externally, they are symbols that intimidate us who are reminded of our difference and our imprudent act of intrusion into their territories. Externally they perform a function that diametrically oppose their internal one for the community thus identified: to protect the Wa from ominous powers in Nature by calling upon divine forces.

An aged man sits with some others in the shade beneath the raised floor of their cottage.

The reality of their life gives a slightly more optimistic vision. they live in the Han way and marry freely with other ethnic groups. Throughout the years, the government has developed the region through tourism and sugar factories. Subsidies are regularly given for education and healthcare. Yet, the government’s effort is limited, and there remains more than plenty to be earned with one’s own hands. Their world is still very much framed within the shanty structures of brick piled to simulate Han housing. Hygiene signifies no more than a washing basin filled with muddy water. Ghosts of the thatched cottages can somewhat still be sensed in every corner. Beijing belongs to an indulgent fantasy reserved only for special occasions like this (encounter with us), when the televised vision can be fleetingly brought closer. Through his eyes, I saw my hometown transformed into a legendary place endowed with glorious narratives — he asked us about the street performers in Hutongs, the Siheyuan, the overpass and the highways… fantasies from a dream that is entrusted to his son: ‘if he can make me proud…’

A woman is weaving coats with flax. The coarse grass is what had covered their skin originally.

What at first glance seems traditional is in fact a relatively recent substitute for flax, but has, over decades, developed characteristic elements of decoration and choice of colours.

I did not know how to react to their enthusiasm. For him, in pursuing my study abroad, I represent the future and pride of our homeland. He insisted on giving me something to take back, for an honoured guest of the Wa should not leave without a decent gift. Having learnt that bows and arrows would not be allowed on planes, he gave me a traditional dress that his family had made for his wife as a betrothal gift— ‘on behalf of Xi’, he patted my back. The hefty fabric and his hands weighed on me unfathomably; and so did the expectations they represented. I am one guilty among those in the city who carry out their daily businesses largely imperceptible of the responsibility projected upon them.

Limi Zu (俐侎族)/ Yongde

【一】

The costume of Yi is among the most extravagant of all Chinese ethnicities. The clothing of each strand of Yi shows variations on the same black ground that is a direct result of their technique of dyeing cloth using the isatis root. The differentiations in style and ornamentation mark the divisions within the Yi population, which in Han Chinese are simply labelled by names of colour (most commonly, black, white, red and indigo), yet which, in fact, correspond to hierarchies in the ancient caste system that had governed the slave society of Yi.

We had the chance to meet the Limi people, a group that belongs to the White Yi unit, an identity to which they are subordinated but does not define. They have their own culture that differs greatly from other groups of Yi and White Yi. They grimp firmly onto the traditional way of things (as in the case of many, though not all, other Chinese ethnic minorities) that development remains limited. The Limi language seems to me more like uttering of sounds than of words; the imagery that emerges from the stories I heard seem barbarious: unfortunate women obliged to cut their own umbilical cord in forests, drinking charcoal residue from the fireplace or wiping it onto wounds.

Display of ritualistic instruments and wine jars at reception.

When material reality seems unpromising, life is sustained purely by faith. Repetition of act of worship and faith thus gives reassurance to life. In funerals as in weddings, a bronze horn wosuld be blown first by an elderly that leads the procession. Through monotonous tones and aew-inspiring volume, he wails to the world, he calls upon the God and the attention of all creatures and divinities. He announces, then leaves it to younger men who sound the trumpets.

Roast tea around the fireplace, as a tradition of family gathering.

The family that received us shows very little about the culture of the Limi people collectively. They represent the few exceptions who are willing and able to engage openly with others and share their stories by running a restaurant. That said, the White Yi strand, in general, is more widely assimilated into the Han society, and thus of which we know more (albeit only through the mouths of those who want to let known). They are more open to interaction — in fact even more hospitable than the Han — perhaps as their ancestors are less restricted by principles that govern a social group of higher status. The Black Yi, who have descended from the old Yi aristocrats, remain obstinately attached to their own order, thus are less visible to us.

【二】

If Lagu clothing already impresses for having its patterns and beads sewn on one-by-one, each step that contributes to the completion of a piece of Yi costume directly involves the human hand: from the plucking of cotton flowers, spinning, weaving, to cutting, embroidery, and even the shaping of silver appendages…

All stages of the production are carried out in accordance to the cycle of Nature, thus do not begin until autumn. Herbs were still ripening when we visited, monsoons mean that dyeing and weaving to be avoided at best. A woman nevertheless offered to demonstrate the weaving process to us, using a wooden apparatus (or ‘machine’). In order for the connected parts to move, a perfect coordination of the body and the mind is demanded, one superior to that involved in dancing. A similar strive for perfection can be sensed in the finishing. Isatis root is first boiled in lime water to extract the dark blue colour out of the herb, after which the cloth would go through a second stage of dyeing using white rhododendron flowers in order to produce lustre on the surface, giving splendour. 

The attire of the Yi is characterised by an infinite sense of layering. With each discovery, more is to be unfolded. A cloth first wraps around the waist to cover up the thighs in trousers, another layer with longer sleeves is then worn beneath, though only for the sumptous pattern along the edges to be revealed beneath the external black gown. Garments build up in this way, which gives volume as well as complexity. At the sleeves and collars of the black gown are geometric shapes of decorative fabrics rolled into black cloth. Three-dimensionality is created, which contrasts with the strips flatly laid out by a Lagu woman in a the most simple configuration. In aid of roughly the same materials, Yi not only creates surface, but also texture.

A long silver chain hans down the front.

A curious element that completes a Yi woman’s wedding costume is a silver chain at whose end is attached a set of feminine tools expected to be used by the wife-to-be: a knitting kit, two bells, an ear spoon to be used for her son. It is a miniscule token of the role accorded to a woman in the Yi society. Each special occasion requires a new set of clothing to be produced by a feminine family member. Each ensemble is further worn differently on each day of an event, strictly abiding to conventions of rituals and, accordingly, their functions and messages. For example, on the first day of a wedding, the bride is crowned with an elaborate headpiece consisting of chains of colourful beads; this would later be replaced by a cloth that wraps into a hefty hat. These customs testify to the symbolic significance that the attire of the Yi embodies.

Example of an elaborate headpiece composed of synthetic elements.

So far, I have been talking traditionally. In small villages of today like the Wumulong, one is sure to find a specialist shop which sells the full set of ingredients that contitutes a Yi costume. The majority are mass-produced in factories, but the tailor also processes bits and pieces using the sewing machine. Hitherto derived its significance from quality, the clothing becomes a product of a business that thrives on minimum contact with direct human labour. Orders are also accepted for tailoring costumes for important ceremonies at an affordable price. The design can be customised — that is to say, picking and choosing this style and that pattern which would then be fitted together by the tailor like a collage. It is as if in this matter-of-fact manner, the piece would demonstrate some connection with its owner.

Pre-fabricated components.

【三】

Lining up the ceiling of the clothing shop are a row of muslin which one cannot miss. At first glance they resemble the Indian saree in garish colours of the most vibrant shade, red, pink and green…, each interlaced with sparkling gold linings. I was yet taken aback by their real function, as cloths used to cover up coffins in funeral processions. My shock stems from assumptions, from my familarity with the white and black colours used by the Han in such occasions.

What seem like Indian sarees are in fact coffin covers.

This difference in colour bespeaks difference in culture. Anything beyond this point is not as simple, if at all possible. To try to understand why this colour is chosen but not the rest would lead us to nowhere but a stalemate. The suggestion that bright colours pleases God (whose God?) and demonstrates wealth of the dead person falls into the trap of reconstructing their world in terms of ours (or the dominant one of ours). It tells nothing but that visual values are closely interwoven (that is, exerting mutual influence) with concepts that become the norms of a given society. Moreover, it digs little to the heart of the question, namely why bright colours give these messages. It remains doubtful whether it is possible and necessary to explain why a colour is less joyful for a group of people and others more so. The practice belongs to conventions which have been followed and through customs passed on by successive generations who did not make these interrogations. Because white or black is associated with bereavement in Han culture, it is thus capable of evoking instantly a subjective value – less joyful – an extraneous value accorded and reinforced by its usage in rituals. Yet this very sentence can be reformulated by placing the cause and effect in a different order. Here, we arrive at an ‘egg and hen’ question. In fact we should be cautious to even draw any similar equation to explain phenomenons in the Yi society, where our logics cease to be ‘logics’. Simply because bright colours are used for funerals, they do not necessarily become signs for mourning and death. One step further we intrude into the field of the psychologists.

Fortunately, the quandary becomes little relevant if we stand back to look around in the current reality. Our reasoning can be affirmed if we were to sample the older generations of the Han, who still stringently regard black as a taboo colour to be seen in daily occasions. Yet these old values are repudiated by the young who become largely unchained from traditions and open to fashions from the West. Globalisation tends towards multiculture as well as uniform culture. After all, who can resist the white colours of Coco Chanel and the Minimalists?

Close-up of silver necklace and squares lining up the front.

Mangtuan, Mengding / the Dai People(傣族)

Expeditions in the dilapidated town of Mengdian demand some real faith. Layers of sultry air seem to build up and envelop my body, making me increasingly restless. We are already in a low basin, near the Myanmar border.

The gate of Mangtuan village. The roofs lavishly gilded on the edges. The pediment and roof carvings show peacock motifs symbolising the Dai ethnicity.

‘This one.’ Our local friend orders to turn at an inconspicuous corner that apparently leads to nowhere. Another ten-miniute drive past fields of mango, leechee, orange trees, we are suddenly approaching a grandiose golden gate. This is the kingdom of the Dai that stands a realm apart from the ramshackle shopfronts of Mengding. Virtually all buildings are gilded, with elaborate carvings on the rooftops of pavilions and temples. Fencing these are tall Canna trees appearinv flattened by segments of bark that spread out in a kaleidoscopic manner.

Roof top motifs seem to allude to fire and wings, the tail rising upwards zigzagging rhythms.

A group of men and women are relaxing in the shade under a kiosk, some are enjoying cold bean noodles: the Dai people have better luck than the Lagu. They can live comfortably by harvesting from fruit trees on the plains, without needing to cultivate in the mountains. This liberates their daily attire — a long dress that wraps around the waist and a short-sleeve shirt that buttons up at the front — evidently not designed for intense manual labour in precipitous mountains. More formal costume is made in springtime, to be worn during the Water Festival in April, when all the local Dai population would gather for water fights symbolic of spiritual purification.

A Dai mother in modern daily dress largely assimilated into Han style of clothing.

【衣】

A mother offers to show me a traditional dress that her daughter had worn and insists that I try it on. Rid of my own clothes already damp with sweat, I feel pleasantly chilled by the light and cool fabric. The dress is slightly too long for my short physique, though it would have fitted perfectly on her daughter when she was twenty-three. Unlike the clothing of other minorities which are looser and whose surface decoration attracts more attention, Dai costumes rely on the form of the female body to express beauty. Each piece of costume would be specially tailored so that the body shape is clearly articulated, and would be further animated in dancing. Dai women are famous for their love of beauty that is evident in the amount of accessories – shoes, hats, golden earrings, umbrellas – and on the bold patterns employed on these. In contrast to the rigid geometry on Lagu clothes, they show organic motifs characterised by lively rythmns and variety.

To complete the attire, they gave me a bamboo hat, and pinned a lily into my hair.

Women of other ethnicities tend to own a few sets of festive or ritualistic costume, while a set of Dai dress is replaced every year by a new style. The geography in a flatland area in Yunnan is essential in understanding this phenomenon, as it enables the exchange of information and obtainment of fabric. Thus, Dai women are more aware of the latest trends, which initiates change. The mild topography also encourages a collective way of living and facilitates integration with the external society, which explains their openness and hospitality. In the village of Mangtuan, the circular court forms the centre of their communal life: it is where the Water Festival and collective worships are conducted, and where hand-made paper is dried.

Sculptures on a lotus pedestal in the circular court forms the centre of worships conducted in the Water Festival. Various daily activities are depicted, with peacocks facing four sides showing the unity of the local Dai population who gathers here every April.
Rows of Mangtuan paper mounted on frames in the central courtyard for drying.

【芒团纸】

The Mangtuan paper has been a flourishing trade for over six hundred years. It surpasses the functional status of paper to become a handicraft in its own right. Even today, it is still made by hand, in aid merely of the most basic tools. Through this primitive process, fibres from raw tree barks are retained and embedded in the surface, forming a delicate veining and a rich texture that give it superiority over ordinary paper. This guarantees a high quality that cannot be achieved by mechanised production, and its unmediated nature is associated with piety and devotion. The paper is thus a dominant writing material for Classical texts and religious scripture, and circulates widely among the Dai population consisting largely of devout Buddhist practitioners. At this special historical conjecture of today, it has received unprecedented popularity, catering to the current taste for natural aesthetics and the prioritisation of quality. The market for Mangtuan paper has expanded beyond local and national boundaries: ‘these are set for Dubai’, a Dai grandma says proudly as she picks up a bundle from the stool. Indeed, a greater thickness suffices to adapt the paper for other uses, turning it into materials for exquisite and exotic wallpaper.

Surface details showing fibres from tree bark.
By altering the amount of fibres scattered in the cotton frame, different thickness can be obtained.
A bundle of tree bark brought from Laos just across the border.
Tree barks are boiled and filtered.
Softened tree bark are flattened and rolled up.
Fibres is beaten persistently for refinement.
The hammers are made from Tamarind trees.
The cotton net used as a frame for shaping the fibres into paper form.
Fibres are spread out in the water tank by hands to form an even layer, gauged by the human eye.
Petals of plum blossoms and pine leaves are carefully embedded into the layers of fibres, after which the frame is lifted from the water to be dried under sunlight.
Decorated with natural elements, the paper can also be used for packaging and as decoration art.

Importantly, Mangtuan paper exemplifies a quality achievable at low costs. This contributes to the susbtainability of its practice and its market success. Bundles of mulberry tree bark are bought cheaply from the neighbouring country Laos, but the tree can equally thrive on the Dai’s own doorstep. Labour costs are also minimised since the paper is usually made in household workshops, through a relative simple process that demands less skills than attitudes. Tree bark is boiled and crushed with Tamarind wood hammers, like drumming on stone. It is usually a sole man of the family who would be in charge of this exhausting business all day long. Women would spread the fibres over cotton net frames set in shallow water to produce an even fine layer that can be decorated with flowers and leafs.

Nanmei, Linxiang / the Lagu People (拉祜族)

(一)

Mists become heavier with height. We seem to enter into an elusive world of Shanshui paintings.

Mud and debris have flown down the hillside in the rainy season, making our drive up the high mountain even more difficult.

Scenery repeats. At each bend where the road seems to come to an end, reveal yet more sequences of abrupt twist and turns. Ripples of fields diffuse out from the peaks, segmenting the land into agrarian categories: Nature is clarified in terms of human geometry. Order is imposed as much onto the environment as to its indigenous population. Tattered cottages have been demolished and replaced by stable and fire-retardant structures. Thanks to the government, they have been taught basic commercial skills and given equipments, so that they no longer live on God’s mercy.

Recreations of thatched cottages that Lagu people used to live. Bamboos are split to form walls in cross-hatching arrangement.

It is the busy harvest season. Houses sit in silence, bizarrely emptied of inhabitants. Occasionally by the roadside are women selling fried pancake and fruits, men pushing carts of soil or carrying baskets of crops. To my disappointment, they all wear Han clothes, that Lagu people are only identifiable by their dwarf-like physique. As we pass by, I feel the intensity of their gaze. My eyes meet their gaze in the rearview mirror, their figures diminishing.

Sprinkles of vibrant colours eventually appear in the tobacco fields, and I knew I have found what remains of the indigenous population: the older generation who very much defy Han assimilation. The colour of their turbans moved as they bended forward and reaped off tobacco leaves, like the elusive figures loosely painted in dabs in an Impressionist painting.

Conversations are difficult, even in the local dialect. There is a palpable sense of tension between us: we have intruded their territory. It is perhaps only through the old photographs taken before the government renovation that I can look at their faces more clearly. Swarthy, shrivelled men, women and children peer up to the photographer and to me, smoking long pipes on the doorsteps. Behind those eyes: perplexion, resignation, and fear.

Each time as I hold up my camera, I am overwhelmed by a repulsive sense of complicity. In my frame I cruelly objectify them as ‘the other’ to be studied with sympathy. By exposing their reality to the wider world, am I helping them in anyway? — perhaps only in my own way.

(二)

It was at last a young Lagu man on a motorbike who agrees to let his sister to show us around. The houses in their village are painted yellow and roof red, whose vibrancy has faded from persistent exposure to sunlight. Shrouded in a deserted quietness, they appear more like skins and bones, like de Chirico’s ghostly structures that shut in front of me.

A grandma sits on the doorstep weaving. By her side is her grandson. None of them moves or speaks upon seeing us.

【衣】

Lagu’s clothing is primarily functional. The loose shirts and shorts give comfort and facilitate the acts of ploughing and tilling that dominate their daily life. In this way, the whole body is covered up to protect the skin from pricks and insects. Bindings are wrapped around their lower legs and can be taken off easily when entering into paddy fields. I have seen a Lagu woman loaded with a basket on her back, walking agilely down the muddy path into the fields. Each step, her bare foot plants steadily on the soil. The sole of her feet seems firm and impenetrable, more superior than any type of shoes for free physical movement in the mountains. It seems that the land determines not only the Lagu’s life and death, but also how they dress.

At first glance, these practical aspects seem to orientate the form of their clothing at the expense of beauty. Accessories are minimised for convenience of movement, while body shape is obscured by the thick and stiff fabrics necessitated by the cool climate. This is compounded by the backwardness of their society that has been historically detached from the world outside the deep mountains of Nanmei.

Detail of aluminium beads on the gown that the grandma is sewing.

However, beauty is not compromised but is expressed through the surface of their clothing rather than the overall form, although their concept of beauty is entirely different from ours. The degree of ornamentation – the amount of silver beads and pattern strips – corresponds directly to status and wealth of the wearer’s family. Special occassions demand greater effort from the maker, as elaborateness also signifies importance. In front of me, there must be thousands of aluminium studs on the piece of gown the grandma is making for the occasion of the annual Bridge Festival, where the whole village gathers to rebuild bridges as an act of benefaction and pray for peace and good harvest in exchange. One by one she sews on the silver aluminium beads, threading in and out in a repetitive manner. We watched in silence and awe. It seems bizarre to talk about excess and restraint: the accumulation of ornaments is here equivalent to the utmost beauty.

Montage of fabrics and pattern strips in geometric blocks.

Strips of pattern are sewn on side by side in simple geometric arrangement as it is the most straight-forward form that appears to the maker. Sapphire blue and black colours dominate for reasons at once formal, functional and circumstantial. Dirts and stains from daily chores would appear less prominent on dark colours. The choice also shows availability and what seems aesthetically-pleasing for a Lagu woman, who would choose her own fabric at the market. The pattern strips equally vary with the personal preference of each maker, and are not carriers of symbolic meanings.

Cold and warm colours alternate, showing human’s instinctive appreciation for formal beauty. A primitive human aesthetics untainted by ‘culture’.
Trying the gown on…

The aesthetics are simplistic and personal, possessing a sense of immediacy and purity that supercedes many contemporary designs. The maker sews on the strips of pattern in whatever order that pleases her. Through the process the Lagu woman expresses her personal will and thus exercises a form of individual freedom otherwise denied to her in the patriarchal environment. The turban that wraps around their head is a poignant testimony to this condition. In the past, a married woman had to shave off her long hair which would otherwise impede the performance of her daily household duty. Indeed the sense of liberation that she derives from the art of sewing is only temporary and the act itself is inevitably tied into patriarchal conventions. The ability to sew fundamentally legitimises a Lagu woman for marriage and demonstrates her competence for the role as a wife and a mother.

She does not mind our questions, but nor engages with us, remains immersed in a quiet concentration. Having had few contacts with the outside world, she is timid and reticent.

For a Lagu woman, the sewing experience thus represents more than a therapeutic past-time. It is not continuous and one-off process but carried out in her own time when she is not obliged by other tasks. Thus, the sewing period can usually span over months or even years. This long making process gives Lagu clothing a temporal dimension, as if episodes of her life unfolds with each pattern strip and silver stud. As I hold the gown in my hand, it demands a certain solemnity of attention not least for its heaviness from some thousands of beads and the hefty fabric, but moreover: I seem to be holding her labour.

Here, however, there is no alienation between the worker and her product. Through the sewing process, the two are bonded in a direct and prolonged form of engagement. Although naïve in design, a piece of Lagu garment is thus modern in spirit, for its authenticity, its infinite differentiation in apparent simplicity.

The kitchen, sparsely with the most basic utensils. Time leaves its mark on the back wall darkened by fumes rising up the open fire.

Lincang / Impression

Nature’s daughter — ultimate synthesis of the ‘primitive’, the ‘innocent’, the ‘exotic’…

We were to be welcomed by a friend who returned to her home to flee from the malicious forces of the city. My friend is a small woman with big eyes; a grey cardigan drapes loosely over her slim figure that appears ever more sinuous in the flowing black dress, the long mixed-coloured hair braided into a pigtail. From the way she speaks, smiles and walks in decisive strikes, undeniable is a sense of pride and belonging to the place and the people. She has a fresh allure, an energy and confidence of a woman who has carved out a life in the wildness of Nature, and has been allowed to claim her own place in it. 

‘No need for that when I drive.’ She said to me every time when I habitually pull out the seat belt as I mount into the Jeep. She thought it a kind of relief for me not having to wear it, though I would feel much more reassured if that thing ties me onto the seat as the Jeep car speeds through the undulating mountain range. 

A place of absolute tranquility and privacy.

The landscape is ethereal. Mists wreath the green mountain tops, above the soil drips of vermilion, tinted with brown, severed like rocks or limestone. Humidity seems to have sucked away all dusts. Sparsely populated, the city is sheltered in tranquility. 

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That evening, we all ate around the low tea table, holding our own bowl in hands. It was informal and communal – we all ate together: us and members of her family, that is to say not only her parents, various siblings, in-laws, and the workers in her small tea ‘factory’. Some stand while others of us seated on the knitted stools; with the more outspoken, we exchanged enthusiastically albeit mundane things, while the more timid gestured to the dishes to invite us to have more. The two little people appear to fetch or play with something, stop to observe us adults in our business, and then suddenly disappear.  

A corner of the household — with the sink and the pinecone hooks above, the water jar, the tea ceremonial table.

They make everything they need themselves. By this I mean literally everything — from furniture to utensils, from food sources to shoes. Which other people would have thought of turning pinecones that we tripped over into chains of minuscule hooks for hanging cloths? An old tree trunk has been polished to become a large table a focus of family gathering. The air around it is charged with narratives and memory. Age and identities are incarnated on the natural  texture, the overall form, and the dramatic veining of the cross section on the table top. Just like many of the millennium old tea trees, the family is rooted in the place and their life evolves around it. Here they grew and its rich resources nourish their body and mind. It is where some of us on that day sat after the evening meal to drink tea, conducted by the sister, our friend. The night passed as boiled water is poured through the raw Pu’er leaves. They could last for many hours, as the flavour becomes denser and the colour darker. The father smoked, the brother and us toasting as we drank the transparent spirit they brewed in a voluptuous jar tucked beneath the table. They talked about daily matters in their dialect, and we listened; when we conversed in mandarin, they would smile or occassionally join in. Laughters and comforting silences — interims in which we heard the cicadas’s chanting, the occasional panting and shouts of the children in the distance. This is how the night is spent in the village. 

The tree seems still to be growing, unconstrained by its form as a table.

It is a simplicity and contentment that I deeply respect but cannot afford to desire. It is too far removed from my life: the fast-paced urban life that is sustained by ambitions and passionate unrealised dreams. I realised an element of fantasy — of the alienated, conflicted and vulnerable individual in the globalised digitalised society — towards an idealised paysan life, which is yet premised on a broken relationship with nature.

A Pisarro landscape.
21st century retour à la nature.

Lincang / Pottery

The real artisans live deep in the mountains. A small shop front that opens up to depth of  warehouse spaces that are lined up with earthenware, some stocky, some slimmer shaped like a calabash, but all are obsessively rounded. Their curves are picked up by sunlight. Physically concrete objects somehow float like scintillating halos that are infinitely sensuous — somehow we have bumpingly driven up the sandy soil into what it feels like an excavated mound, the land of Two Fields. In any case, how can one tell whether a pot is living or dead? These bare pottery vessels stand naked, waiting to become alive, to kiss the cold spring water, to  cuddle the pickled bamboo leaves. They are Bacchus’s maenads waiting to be activated. These hiding behind spiritual depths possess an infinite potential to live; while in the store front, those receiving guests in their garish painted dress are already dead. 

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The colourful storefront is a ‘decorated shed’ par excellence.
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We become the shabti figures, dwarfed by the ceramic vessels that would be carried through the River of Nile.
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Nothing special about the shape nor the surface design.
This is Han pottery in its most original, authentic and naïve form.

The father owns the shop. They say it is where his interest lies, and more importantly, in this way, he continues the family business. In worn shirt and sandals, a cigarette in mouth, he is nothing more than an ordinary middle-aged craftsman. He does not enjoy the fortune of the few nationally designated successor of the art of pottery; nor is his living guaranteed  by the intangible cultural heritage that is indeed his practice. He picks up various pots on his shelves of stock, enthusiastically showing me all the types  in a Southern dialect that I can barely understand, trying to sell me his pottery. “My son’s wife is a young girl just of your age’, he looks at me in the eye for a long time. If I were in their  village, he would find me a boy to marry. I did not talk to the son. He  sits quietly by the corner beneath the store front, moulding; yet his eyes do not look down to the earth in his hands – he looks out, onto the fields of tobacco leaves that are ripening in the bosom of the mountain; he looks at us, but does not utter a word.

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Tobacco and pottery are what the people live on.

Of course, the pots are truly alive — moulded from yellow clay in the way Nüwa, the wife of Fuxi, created mankind — how could they not be? He cuddles the lump of earth in those big rough hands of a man, and orders me to step onto the pedal of the small machine to speed up the wheel. Kinetics and motion release the mass of the soil into an abstract forms that grows in his palms, from the base, into volume. His hands seem to have lost contact with the material — they linger over it; the slightest movement of his fingertips have the power to alter the form, as though it is not his finger, but the forces they gather that have shaped the vessel.

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 As a local workshop, nothing is made for how it looks. This is why these pots are living: each model is only made because it is still widely used in daily in the life of the local people. In stark contrast to the delicately painted porcelains, the austere surface of these clay pots would become decorated with human use. Black and purple would encroach the surface through persistent contact with stove fire, sometimes orange and scented by dried fruits preserved inside.

The local soil gives them distinctive colour and properties. Apparently the health benefits are enormous — before it is fired, you can eat the pot raw. Why not?