Some Memories of Professor Li Jiazhi(Nigel Wood)

  From the mid-1950s through to the early years of the present century Professor Li Jiazhi was a towering figure in exploring the technology that lay behind China’s ceramic history. His work and life are highly revered in China, but he was also held in special regard by scholars beyond China itself, especially in the US, the UK, Korea and Japan. He earned this esteem through his pioneering work on his subject, but also through his energy and vision in organising the international conference entitled Scientific and Technological Insights on Ancient Chinese Pottery and Porcelain, held in Shanghai in November 1982.  

  In preparing the conference Professor Li formed a committee that included Professor David Kingery of MIT (USA), Sir John Addis, former British Ambassador to China, and Professor Tsugio Mikami of Japan. The conference was attended by some of the world’s greatest scholars in the field of Chinese Art, as well as scientists from research laboratories in the USA, France, Japan and the UK. It set the pattern for a series of international meetings on the scientific investigation of Chinese ceramics that has continued to the present day, most of which have been organised by the Shanghai Institute of Ceramics, and many of which I have been fortunate enough to attend.   

  From a personal perspective, my encounters with Professor Li have always been memorable, and have helped to shape the course of my career in Chinese ceramic studies. As a young researcher in 1982 I was able to attend this first Shanghai conference, which was also my first visit to China. The event was a revelation to Western attendees, as I reported to The Oriental Ceramic Society in 1986: -   

  ‘…. until the Shanghai conference took place, Western information on Chinese ceramic technology was very sparse, with some of the more important work dating back to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  A shaky but workable structure had been constructed in the West to represent the technical history of Chinese ceramics, but large parts, such as the compositions of north Chinese porcelains, were entirely missing – and even some of the more finished areas did not bear examining too closely. The Shanghai conference allowed us to pull down this temporary structure and rebuild on solid foundations with the best materials available – a process that has also involved the removal of some familiar features.’ i 

  One of the ‘familiar features’ that I had in mind, when I wrote this piece, was the idea in the West that early Chinese high-fired glazes were ‘feldspathic’ – a view that we now realise to be incorrect in most cases. The term ‘feldspathic’ was also extended by Western ceramic scientists to Song dynasty qingbai porcelain, or ‘Yingqing ware’ as it was known at the time.  

  It was the mineralogical nature of qingbai porcelain that formed the subject of my own modest contribution to the Shanghai conference. Based on earlier Russian technical work on Jingdezhen raw materials, I suggested that qingbai porcelain was probably not feldspathic at all, but was made instead from a single highly micaceous porcelain stone, with modern Nankang stone showing all the chemical and physical characteristics for a successful ‘one material’ porcelain of the qingbai type.  

  Li Jiazhi showed great interest in this paper, which I found most encouraging as the idea was highly speculative. However he then explained to me that he and Professor Zhou Ren had reached exactly this conclusion in 1960, again with Nankang stone as the most likely modern parallel to Song dynasty Jingdezhen qingbai ware.ii  I don’t remember being particularly disappointed to hear that my ‘big idea’ had been so thoroughly anticipated – I think I was far more encouraged to learn that I had been on the right track.  

  To help me in my work, Li Jiazhi generously gave me an inscribed copy of the comprehensive paper on Jingdezhen ceramic technology that he had written with his great mentor and predecessor at the Shanghai Institute, Professor Zhou Ren. With its flimsy paper and Abstract in Russian (it dated from the time of the Sino-Soviet accord) it is still one of my prime references.  

  Li Jiazhi was an entertaining and thoughtful host to us all at these early conferences, and he was determined that we learned as much about Chinese culture and history as ceramic technology. For example, on a boat trip on the West Lake in Hangzhou he pointed out to me a lakeside grotto where a famous Chinese alchemist had experimented with red mercury oxide, decomposing it to mercury to release oxygen, and then back to HgO again, centuries before Joseph Priestly’s work in England. Likewise, in a garden near Hangzhou he described the ‘Orchid Pavilion’ tradition that dated from the fourth century AD. Cups of wine were floated along on a meandering course at literary gatherings in formal gardens. If a cup paused by an attending scholar the wine was drunk and instant poems were demanded – the former, to some extent, assisting the latter!  

  There was a lighter side to Li Jiazhi as well. Relaxing at the end of a long ISAC meeting at Shaoxing in 1989 with the overseas and Chinese attendees, I remember Professor Li performing a spirited sword dance that culminated in a coup de grace to his friend and colleague the ebullient Professor Chen Xianqui (also of the Shanghai Institute of Ceramics) with his collapsible plastic sword. This met with general laughter and applause, particularly from Professor Chen.  

  The last time I saw Professor Li was not in person but on TV in 2009. I was at an ISAC meeting in Beijing and suffering from a combination of jet-lag and insomnia. At 3 am I turned on the TV in my hotel room to watch Central Television, and there was a familiar figure talking compellingly about the origins of high-fired glazed wares in Zhejiang – the 90 year old Professor Li Jiazhi. This brought back to me all the meetings that I had attended in China since 1982, and with them the incomparable contributions to our subject that had been made by one of China’s finest, and most generous, of scholars.  


  Nigel Wood  

   i  Wood, N., 1987, The two international conferences on ancient Chinese pottery and porcelain. Transactions of the Oriental Ceramic Society (1985-1986). London, 37-57.     

  ii Zhou, R., and Li, J., 1960, The study of Jingdezhen ceramic bodies, glazes and firing techniques of various dynasties, 景德镇历代瓷器胎, 釉和烧制工艺的研究, Journal of the Chinese Ceramic Society, (2), 49-64.