In the belly of the dragon

2021-02-20 12:04:39

A bird's eye view of the Qianshu Dragon Kiln, a 600-year-old installation for ceramic making, which is still in use today. [Photo by GAO ERQIANG/China Daily] Since the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), the city of Yixing has been an important center for ceramic production in China. Kilns could once be found in Qinglong (Green Dragon) Mountain, Huanglong (Yellow Dragon) Mountain, Shushan, Qianluo and other places. Over the centuries many of the ancient kilns have been lost, but in Qianshu, a village in Dingshu town of Yixing, Jiangsu province, a traditional dragon kiln has survived. Several times a year smoke can even be seen rising from the mountain ridge, emanating from that 600-year-old kiln. It stands alone, the sole kiln in Yixing that produces ceramics using the traditional method. "The last time we lit up the fire in here, China Central Television came up to make a video of us," says Zhao Chunqiang, a young caretaker of the Qianshu Dragon Kiln. "The reason we light it up only a few times a year is that it costs so much. The dragon kiln costs as much as 1 million yuan for each use." Dragon Kiln, or Long Yao, is a unique type of kiln for ceramic production often found in southern China. Usually built along the steep slope of a hill, the kiln spreads long and thin upward, like a dragon crouching on the hill, with its head at the bottom and tail tilting at the top. Qianshu Dragon Kiln is 43.5 meters long and sits on a human-made slope. Inside is a long-arched tunnel space with 42 holes on either side, through which firewood is thrown in. On the western side are five larger holes where people step in to place objects needing to be baked, the entrances so small that a grown-up needs to bend down to get in. Fire is lit from the bottom, where the dragon head was supposed to rest. When it is not in use, a small pool of water is always kept. "Folklore has it that the dragon delights in having a bit of water near its head," Zhao says.