Foshan Shiwan Ceramics Artistry | Foshan ICH • Charming Lingnan
Foshan China 2023-01-13 20:07

As one of the important origins of Lingnan culture, Foshan has many cultural symbols. The intangible cultural heritages in Foshan like the famous Cantonese opera, paper cutting, wood engraving pictures, Xiangyun Silk still shine brightly with the preservation of generations of inheritors after so many years.

From this January, Foshan News Network will present a new series of Foshan ICH • Charming Lingnan. Foshan national intangible cultural heritages will be introduced to people all over the world through pictures and English descriptions, displaying the charm of traditional Foshan culture.


Shiwan Ceramics Artistry mainly locates in Shiwan Town, Chancheng District and its surrounding area. It can be classified into five categories by different forms of objects, including figure ceramics, animal ceramics, household utensils, micro-ceramics and ridge tile ceramics. The characters are vividly shaped, reaching a unity spirit.

Shiwan ceramics artistry

Shiwan ceramics artistry was called “Shiwan Figurine”, whose history can date back to the Neolithic Age. Its development can be divided into four periods: developing period from the Tang Dynasty to the Ming Dynasty, peak period during the Ming and Qing Dynasty, low-ebb period during the Republic of China Era, and flourishing and innovative period since the founding of the Peoples Republic of China, especially after the reform and opening up.

Since ancient times, Foshan, Guangdong Province, has been known as the “Pottery Capital”. Especially, Shiwan Town has a history of 5,000 years in making ceramics. Stamped pottery in the late Neolithic Age was unearthed in the ruins of Shell Mound in Shiwan. In the Song Dynasty (from 960 to 1279), Foshan was one of the four famous towns in China. With the development of foreign trade, Shiwan became a production base of daily use ceramics in China. The art ceramics in Shiwan, which is usually called “Shiwan Figurine”, is produced on the basis of highly developed daily use ceramics and vigorous economy. Showing a crude, plain and natural aesthetic style, it is rooted in daily life and becomes one of the icons that represents Lingnan culture with wonderful artistry and utility. In 2006, Shiwan ceramics artistry was firstly listed in the catalogue of national intangible cultural heritage.

Outstanding figure: Liu Zemian, a master of Shiwan Ceramics Artistry

Liu Zemian, a China Arts and Crafts Master and a national intangible cultural heritage representative inheritor, was born in Shiwan, Foshan, Guangdong Province in 1937. He is the fourth successor of the ceramics art family Liu Sheng Ji in Shiwan. He learned the skills from his uncle Liu Zuochao and has been influenced by some other masters like Liu Chu'an.

Liu Zemian's great-grandfather Liu Huisheng set up a ceramics store called “Liu Sheng Ji” to make micro-ceramics “Shan Gong”, which is used to decorate rockery. The micro-ceramics could be figures, animals, pavilions, terraces and open halls. It was famous in Shiwan with the smallest size of several millimeters. A matchbox could contain hundreds of them. Liu’s uncle Liu Zuochao is also an influential master in Shiwan ceramics. He inherited “Liu Sheng Ji” and created the technique of “capture and shrink” that was still used nowadays.

Crossing Tongji Bridge

When Liu Zemian was born, Japan started full-scale invasion war sagainst China. Shiwan was occupied by the enemy soon. The “Liu Sheng Ji” and Liu family were falling apart. The whole family were living in hardship because people stopped buying ceramics during war time. The 14-year war left ceramic workers homeless and poor. There were originally 60,000 residents in Shishan but only about 3,000 people survived.

After the victory of Anti-Japanese War in 1945, the ceramics industry in Shiwan started to revive. Liu began his career in ceramics by pinching some rough ceramics of figures and animals for his family after school. After the founding of the People’s Republic of China, Liu was sent to a primary school in Shiwan and received modern education. With the encouragement of his teachers, he finished his first ceramic work——a portrait of Chairman Mao with sincere feelings. The portrait was exhibited in the association of industry and commerce in the town and Liu got a prize of 30 yuan for it. “It greatly encourages me and becomes the first step for me to go towards the ceramic palace,” he said.

In the 1950s, Liu set up a workshop called “Shiwan Figurine”. In 1955, Liu joined and organized a ceramic artistry producer cooperative. Soon it merged with Ceramic Artistry Association and Ceramic Workshop of People’s Art Club, which was reorganized into Foshan Shiwan Artistic Ceramic Factory. It takes 50 years of hard work to develop a small factory that only produces artistic ceramic into a modern company specializing in the serial production of furnishings artistic ceramic, construction artistic ceramic, decorative artistic ceramic, and artistic ceramic of everyday use.

Liu Zemian's work——The Legend of Ji Gong

In 1957, Liu attended the first national crafts and arts artisan congress as a folk artisan youth. Then he was sent to Central Academy of Arts & Design in Beijing. The tutoring of masters, the theoretical guidance of professors and the communication with artisans from different parts of China all had deep influences on Liu’s artistic creation, which helped broaden his artistic horizon. His works not only maintained the charm of traditional Shiwan Figurine, but also absorbed the advantages of sculptures from the west and other places, which showed the styles and features of age on a traditional basis. Later, Liu seriously facsimiled and absorbed the folk arts lasting for hundreds of years in Shiwan, which accumulated valuable information for researches into Shiwan ceramics. Meanwhile, he developed his own unique style on the way to ceramic creation.

Liu Zemian's work——An Old Fisherman

Liu's inspirations for creation are derived from life but not a simple copy of life. He recreates life by looking for inspirations and passion regarding life experience. In 1960s, Liu went to Pingzhou, Nanhai, Foshan to experience life. In that year, the south was suffering from droughts but farmers were optimistic because of the construction of water conservancy facilities. Liu felt the changes brought to people’s lives in the new society and he saw the happiness of farmers welcoming good harvest, so he created a figure ceramic “Happiness”. An old man was holding a bowl of tea with a big smile, which expressed the happiness when farmers were harvesting. It became one of his bestsellers.

In 1981, there was a ceramic exhibition in Hong Kong. Liu Zemian decided to make a set of ceramic with 18 Arhats with his brother and his son. They went to some places with Buddha statues like Yungang Grottoes in Shanxi, Longmen Grottoes in Henan, Qiongzhu Temple in Yunnan and Nanhua Temple in Guangdong to collect information. They made more than 100 drafts with clay. After cautious consideration and discussion, 18 ceramic Arhats with different postures and characters were made. Liu said, “This set of Arhats are not for worship in the temple. They have a sense of life and their own stories. It caused a sensation in the exhibition in Hong Kong and won the treasure champion of the National Arts and Crafts Hundred Flowers Award. It also establishes my artistic status, introducing Shiwan ceramics to more and more people.”

Nowadays, Liu Jianfen, the daughter of Liu Zemian, has become the fifth successor of “Liu Sheng Ji”. Although Liu Zemian is 80 years old, “There is no secret recipe in art. It depends on the understanding of creators. I have no formal apprentices, but if young people would like to learn, I will teach them unconditionally,” he said. Perhaps for an artist, creation will not be stopped as long as there is still passion in the heart.

Liu was making the ceramic of Lu Ban. He thought that Lu Ban embodied the spirit of craftsman.

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