Dainty in Dingshan

Written by Jun 25, 2006 07:06
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As a foreign teacher in China one cannot escape ‘English Corner'. Whether it be on one’s own campus, another school, a local square or even KFC you will eventually be invited to attend these gatherings where English is expected to be spoken and a current topic is chosen for discussion or debate by those in attendance. I arrived very ‘green’ at my first ‘corner’ with my very young interpreter come ‘minder’ about the time the US entered Iraq – a very sensitive topic which also monopolized the English language station CCTV 9 for weeks until the SARS flu crisis swamped the news in China. This ‘corner’ is usually held each week at the Chongqing Normal University or Teachers College and just a few weeks later the students would no longer be allowed off campus without special permission until well into July.

These were the circumstances under which I met and made friends with a couple of young second year students during my first months in the country. You may well be asking what this has to do with Dingshan? It has as much to do with one of these young ladies as it has with the teapots that put Dingshan on the tourist map. Both are delightful and dainty. One of the girls is from Yibin, just a few hours from Chongqing in Sichuan Province and the other is a very dainty young lady from Wuxi not far from Shanghai near the mouth of the Yangtze River. She was a long way from home but I have since discovered that this is not unusual for students all over the country.

These two girls from opposite sides of the nation shared a dormitory with six others and just this week I visited them on campus for the last time and got to see where they have spent the past four years. In a cluttered room six meters by three meters, four double deck bunks, four desks, stools, suitcases and clothes vie for the very limited space. Despite having no shower or running hot water all year round the girls are always well groomed and chick when we meet for meals and outings. One would sometimes invite herself to my apartment during the winter but I never understood why for so long – she just wanted to enjoy the luxury of a hot shower to wash her lovely long hair.

When I was finally free to leave for that first summer my plans took me down river to visit friends in Xiamen and Shanghai, Suzhou and Wuxi. Having already visited Jingdezhen, a city famous for it’s porcelain I considered visiting yet another of China’s well known centres of pottery in Yixing County near Wuxi. The Lonely Planet gave it a good write-up for both it’s pottery and limestone caves. But the area held much more interest for me. I would have a chance to visit my dainty young friend in her hometown, which I understood to be Wuxi. It was not until I had arrived in Wuxi telling her that I wished to visit Yixing that she told me told me she lived in Yixing.

I settled into enjoy the bus trip knowing that she would be meeting me when I arrived. Wuxi lies on the shores of the massive lake Tai into which flows the most impressive canal system ever built – it once linked Beijing in the north to Hangzhou in the south. The lake continues to play host to one of the largest fleets of merchant shipping in the form of barges of various sizes, many of them rafted together as they travel the canals before stringing out across the lake like long snakes. We skirted the lake to the south over low and undulating the hills. Stalls selling fresh apples from the local orchards stretched along the roadside for several miles. As we got closer to Yixing it became obvious why the place is just a little famous.

The apple stalls gave way to large stands of limestone rock sculptured underground by nature’s hand. Now exposed they stood like sentries watching and waiting to attract the attention of buyers – waiting to be chosen as a centrepiece or accent in some far off park or garden. Others came to life in less abstract form by the hand of man – with cold chisel and hammer a pair of lions spring to life from formless rock. For miles, it seemed that either side of the road was lined with business houses selling stone tiles and sculptures but despite this art there was little beauty or aesthetics about the place.

Yixing’s bus station was through town – large and new. I waited 20 minutes for my friend to arrive to take me by taxi back to Dingshan where she really lived. It’s such a small city by Chinese standards that she didn’t think it very noteworthy and wasn’t aware that the area was quite famous. She was just thrilled to have me visit her family and show me around her little town. A dust pall hangs in the air over Dingshan and the low mountains all around sport the scars of quarrying – a sharp contrast to the thick green vegetation that otherwise covers them. After checking into my hotel room we went to visit her family. Her grandfather lives with her parents in a lovely well-appointed apartment just off the main street. We sat eating fruit while we browsed through all her photo albums in the cool interior of their home.

Her father, a building foreman invited his brothers and their families to a banquet in my honour that evening. We sat around one of the largest circular tables that I had seen up till this point in time, sharing a glass or two of beer over one of the best meals that I have eaten in all my years in China. It was a relaxed and comfortable atmosphere, and her family were visibly proud of their daughter and her ability to communicate effectively and fluently in English. The sacrifices they were all making for her education were paying dividends. This year she graduated and will take up a teaching position in a local college in Yixing so close to home.

The fame of Yixing’s dainty pottery dates back more than 2000 years and derives from the nature of the clay that is only found around the shores of lake Tai. It is first ground to a dust and mixed again with water to form a clay known as ‘Zisha’ ("purple clay") which despite the name is not always purple in colour when either unfired or fired. It’s uniqueness lies in the rich metallic oxides found in the clay which give the finished products a variety of colours ranging from purple to beige or green depending on the kiln temperature and atmosphere. Dingshan’s teapots are dainty but more importantly each one is work of art. They come is many shapes, sizes, colours, textures and qualities and are adorned with a wide range of themes including plants, animals and objects. They are considered the quintessential pots for tea making.

After a breakfast next morning of tasty pork filled boazi and my friend’s favourite hot soya milk, which I confess, does nothing for me we visited the Yixing Ceramics Museum. Our visit was compliments of one of the curators, the mother of a classmate. Home to many priceless antiquities along side works of art by current master artisans the Museum located in Dingshan is impressive. All four of us spent a couple of hours inside escaping the soaring heat outside. Before we left I was asked to choose any little pot I liked from the small store that our friend’s mother operated near the gate. Although taken aback by this generous offer I could not refuse. I already had my eye on a cute squat green pot with fine gold criss-crossing lines. We shopped later for some great bargains at the countless stalls in the pottery markets on the edge of town. These teapots made great gifts for some of my friends back home even if only ever used as ornaments.

Just outside town are several of the most famous limestone caves in China. A fog generated by the cool air from the cave as it hit the now very hot air outside shrouded the entrance of Shan Juan cave. We descended into the opening and took a short ride in a boat along the underground stream before continuing to the exit, which was also shrouded in fog as the two air masses met. This is a large cavern with massive stalactites where several movies have made their mark. Once outside again we made our way via a chairlift to the top of the hill. This whole area is dotted with temples and gardens. From the top of the hill we donned a pair of gloves each and a bag on which to slide down the chute using only our gloved hands for brakes. I went first and waited quite some time as my dainty friend tackled the decent in her high heels at a snails pace. This was a little high energy for her but she did enjoy it.

In the temple grounds near the cave it’s possible to try your hand at pottery and using a set of moulds I was able to craft my very own miniature but not so dainty Dingshan pot. It’s not as easy as it looks and after what I’d seen mine does not feature boldly in my display cabinet. While Yixing and Dingshan may not be on everyone’s itinerary these dainty, colourful teapots should be on everyone’s shopping list for China.

 More Wuxi Travel Reviews
1. The Beauty of Tai Hu EEUREKA from US Mar 31, 2006 22:03
2. The Lingshan Buddha DENNIS Apr 27, 2004 10:04
Comments (2)


Jun 30, 2006 09:47 Reply

SANDRO007BR said:


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Vocês devem estar de saco cheio de tanta promessa na net oferecendo dinheiro,eu também pensava assim,mas um dia fiz um teste pra ver se dava certo esse negócio.Existe uma empresa em Portugal que atua na área de propaganda na Internet e ela paga para você.

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É só cadastrar no link abaixo:


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Jun 25, 2006 08:47 Reply


Yes, YiXing is very famous for its Zisha clay and they use it for making teapots.
Do u know that you can light a match by brushing it against the clay without leaving any marks on it ?

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