Shiwan Dragon Kiln: A forgotten history

Foshan Daily 2017-05-12

The kiln fire in Foshan Shiwan has been burning for millennium. People appreciate Ancient Nanfeng Kiln and praise the millennium foundation of Shiwan ceramic, while few notice the chimneys. In fact, each reform of Shiwan kilns has close relationship with the transform of chimneys. As claimed by the scholar of Shiwan ceramic historical culture Zou Hua, the chimneys of Shiwan kilns began from zero, and different designs of the chimneys are closely related with the development of industry, fuel supply and social demand. With the development of the city, old kilns were demolished and only 20 chimneys remain as a forgotten history that is waiting for someone to discover.


(an old picture of Shiwan ceramic factory in 1960)

Ancient Shiwan kilns with no chimneys
In the case of cultural relics from Shiwan ancient kilns, Shiwan ceramic hadn’t set up chimneys during the period from the dome kilns in Tang Dynasty to the dragon kilns at the end of Qing Dynasty.

68-year-old Meng Wende is from a family of Shiwan ancient dragon kiln architects and he is also an ancient dragon kiln architect. He learned the kiln construction from his father at the age of 12 and led his younger siblings to do large repair of dragon kilns at the age of 18. He has taken part in the repairs of total 56 large dragon kilns in Shiwan and he has repaired medium and small dragon kilns for over 100 times. Meng further proved Zou’s point of view and added, “My father once told me that there was no chimneys for dragon kilns in the early days.”


(Ancient Nanfeng Kiln)

Because of the specific geographical factors in Shiwan, the renewal of kilns and raising the temperature inside the stove had become the urgent problems for the ceramic workers. With the influence of the western industry revolution, western chimneys technique became common in Guangzhou and Foshan. In the 1920s, the intelligent Shiwan ceramic workers skillfully set up a chimney at the tail of a dragon kiln. The emergence of chimneys had effectively controlled the temperature inside the stove and greatly improved the rate of finished ceramic products.


The age of chimneys
After the foundation of the PRC, Shiwan ceramic industry couldn't wait to be rebuilt. Owing to the influence by the surrounding temperature, humidity, air pressure and other human factors in dragon kilns, ancient ceramic kilns couldn’t survive in particular with the lack of firewood. In order to meet the demand of modern ceramic production, a batch of modern ceramic factories came into being. Shiwan ceramic had experienced countless important reformations between kilns and chimneys especially after the foundation of Shiwan’s first public-private partnership acid resistant ceramic factory in 1954.


Meng said that the earliest kilns built in Shiwan acid resistant ceramic factory were two annular kilns. The chimneys of annular kilns in Shiwan were the tallest. Although it was hard for the workers to run in and out the kiln to move the ceramic, it was still more relaxing than working in dragon kilns because workers could use the hand carts rather than carrying ceramic on shoulders and climbing the slope.


(the down-draft kiln in Shiwan in the early days)


After the emergence of annular kilns, tunnel kilns and roller kilns also emerged in Shiwan. The first tunnel kiln in Shiwan was built by Shiwan daily ceramic No.2 factory in 1962. The first roller kiln was build by Shiwan acid resistant ceramic factory utilizing the technique introduced from Italy. “Afterwards many other factories built their own roller kilns,” Meng added.


Say goodbye to the stage

As the significant ceramic industry zone in China in 1970, Shiwan had the characteristics of a ceramic industry, standing chimneys and billowing smoke.


Dragon kilns had been eliminated since the beginning of the 1980s and roller kilns also experienced the end in the same period. Tunnel kilns kept working till the 1990s. As entering into the 21st century, the government started to have higher requirements on building green ceramic enterprises, which widely utilize fuels like natural gas. The upgrading of Foshan City even raised higher requirements on environmental protection a decade ago. Thus, many ceramic enterprises moved the factories to faraway places like Qingyuan in Guangdong and Jiangxi Province and etc. It is known that the ceramic workshops in Shiwan mainly utilize electronic kilns and gas kilns currently, which don’t have much influence in the environmental pollution.


(three remaining dragon kilns since Ming Dynasty)


Nowadays there are only three dragon kilns in Shiwan including Ancient Nanfeng Kiln, Gao Kiln and Tongqing Kiln, as intangible culture to be shown to the public.  Most of the old ceramic factories have been demolished, and the remaining chimneys may cannot escape demolishment in the future. Some “lucky” ones have become landmarks for Foshan ceramic art galleries and these well-kept chimneys are the window for the world to discover the forgotten history behind Shiwan ceramic.