Black clay pottery: A miraculous Tibetan handiwork

Nixi black pottery displayed at a villager’s home in Tangdui village. Photo: Chunmei

Located in the hot and dry valley area of southwest China’s Yunnan-Kweichow Plateau, Tangdui village in Nixi Township is a small Tibetan collective in Shangri-La city of Yunnan province. With a population of less than 800 people, all Tibetan, the name of the village has become known in China in recent years for the Nixi black pottery, an ancient Tibetan handicraft made of special black clay in Nixi Township.

While Tibetan artisans have been using primitive tools and techniques to produce the black-colored ceramics and items for more than 2,000 years, some ceramic relics discovered by Chinese archaeologists in the last century in Nixi showed that the origin of black pottery can date back to 850 B.C.

Nixi black pottery now has over 100 designs, and some are combinations of traditional technique and modern concepts. While the Nixi black potteries are mainly sold in nearby regions like Tibet, Sichuan and Guizhou provinces, they are now also sold in remote big cities like Beijing and Shanghai. Thanks to the Internet and access to information, customers from the US and UK have also learned about the miraculous Tibetan handicraft and come to the village to buy the black pottery, according to Gesang Dawa, a Tangdui villager who was born in 1969 and has been making black pottery for over 20 years.

“Nixi black pottery has a history of over 2000 years, and the texture and method of creating black potteries ensures they are harmless to people’s body,” said Gesang when asked why foreign customers like the Nixi black pottery.

Gesang Dawa, born in 1969, is the fifth person in his family to inherit the skill of making black pottery. Photo: Chunmei

While the making of a Nixi black pottery often takes five steps, which include collecting clay, making the base, drying the base, firing, and polishing, each step needs to be done in a particular way. Workers have to pay attention to the texture of the clay dug from the earth, usually with moisture and viscosity, and the bases have to be made by hand-carved wooden tools and dried by air.

The most difficult but fascinating step is firing in which a craftsman’s skill can be tested. While the bases are fired under a kiln fenced by woods, an experienced craftsman should know how to position the bases under the kiln and when to add organic ingredients to the fire in accordance with the temperature.

Some even say “it is the interaction between the fire, oxygen and the ingredients that turns the bases into black potteries.”

According to Gesang, while smaller kilns take 7 to 8 hours to fire the bases, bigger ones may take over 10 hours, and the highest temperature can reach 1,000 degree Celsius.

Although Gesang is not the most experienced master of Nixi black pottery in the village, he is the fifth inheritor of the skill in his family. Now his son is also making black pottery.

The two most renowned and respected masters of Nixi black pottery are Sunnuo Qilin and Gema Dingzhu, both with their own styles in the making of black pottery. Upon Gema Dingzhu’s death, Dangzhen Pichu, his son, inherited the career and started the Shangri-La Longba Tangdui Pottery Company Ltd. in 2005.

A photo of Gema Dingzhu placed in Gesang’s home. Photo: Chunmei

Their products are not only made of Nixi black clay, but also various mineral materials that can only be found in Tangdui village. As the Tangdui black potteries made by the company are usually referred to as “modern antique”, they are also popular among international antique collectors and tourists.


 
Many local villagers are also accustomed to cooking with a Tangdui black pottery, for example the black-pottery-stewed chicken. Photo: Chunmei

About 30 km north of Shangri-La, Tangdui village is home to more than 140 Tibetan families, with about 80 families making black pottery as it has become the fastest way to get rich for villagers, while there were only about eight in the past, according to Gesang.

“While in the past, each piece of pottery was priced at only about 3 yuan (around $0.45) to 5 yuan (around $0.75), it has now gone up to 100 yuan (around $15),” said Gesang, “Usually people can earn around 200 yuan (around $30) per day, but some who are very skilled can make 600 to 700 yuan (around $90 to $105) each day.”

As the clay used in making black pottery is affected by weather, Gesang said the best period in a year to make black pottery is from March to October. And his annual income just from black pottery is at least 30,000 yuan (around $4518). Other income comes from farming and gathering tricholoma matsutake.

Another reason why more and more people in Nixi are beginning to live on black pottery is that such a career can be inherited by many generations in the family while not having to take too much risk.


 
A panoramic view of Tangdui village in Nixi Township of Shangri-La city of Yunnan province. Photo: Chunmei


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