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Cultural Inheritors: Ancient Ru Kiln embraces its new era

The Vibe

In the coming week, we restart our journey in the second season of the "Cultural Inheritors" series with four young craftsmen from across the country. Today, we follow The Vibe's Qi Jie to meet Li Keming, a fourth-generation inheritor of the Ru Kiln, one of the five most renowned kilns in the history of Chinese ceramics.


Hold your breath… and take in this fresh batch of Ru ceramics. Do you hear that crackling? It's the noise of the Ru ware crackling, a sound that goes back over a 1,000 years. It's caused by temperature changes and lasts for at least 24 hours... making it very film-friendly.

Again, in another first, I notice some big size differences in the same teacup before and after glazing. And surprisingly for someone carrying on the family tradition, 36-year-old inheritor Li Keming admits that although he was born in the home of the Ru Kiln, he didn't appreciate the true beauty of its ceramics until he graduated from college and began his career in interior design. "The more I studied Ru ware, the more I realized that it was such a brilliant cultural legacy in human history. That was the moment that changed my mind. In my childhood memories, however, I used to think it was just mud, just something fun to play with," the young inheritor recalls.

Playing with mud isn't just for kids. Adults love it, too. And Li was the perfect teacher for a complete novice like me. It was such an incredible experience to feel the water, the earth and the clay. What made it even more powerful was the feeling of shaping something out of nothing, like Chinese craftsmen have been doing for over a millennium. I believe this is called "the pulse of culture." Making a real ceramic piece is never easy. Each piece requires at least over 30 manual and technical processes. Today, natural gas instead of wood keeps the kiln temperature constant. One result is high output. While that might be good when the sole market was the imperial court, Li's priority is to make these beautiful historical treasures accessible to commoners today.

CGTN reporter Qi Jie has her first attempt at making pottery. /CGTN
CGTN reporter Qi Jie has her first attempt at making pottery. /CGTN

CGTN reporter Qi Jie has her first attempt at making pottery. /CGTN

The heyday of the Ru Kiln was from 1086 to 1106, and lasted only two decades. Although its products have been handed down since ancient times, they were once considered priceless treasures. Today, there are less than a hundred pieces surviving in the world. Their unique beauty lies in their sky-blue, greenish-blue, yellowish-blue and pale blue hues, with the grain resembling crab claws, ice crackling, plum blossom crackling, or ink stains.

The city of Ruzhou is the cradle of this particular type of porcelain. Li never misses a chance to visit the Ruzhou Museum to learn from his ancestors. "After I really gained an understanding of the aesthetics of these old crafts, new inspiration started to flood in. The Four-Season Flower Cups we recently developed are a good example," Li says. These flower-shaped tea cups have proven very popular. More than 3,000 sets were sold between their launch in March 2023 and October the same year.

And this cute pony is even more popular than the cups. In 2022, Li collaborated with the National Museum of China on this derivative art. "At that time, the National Museum of China received feedback from a customer, who said, 'This pony is cracked. It's a broken piece. Please replace it with one without cracks.' This was quite amusing. Later, we forwarded some background information to the customer, telling him that this was down to the very craftsmanship of the Ru Kiln, which has a feature called 'ice crackles'," Li recalls.

In fact, the crackles were initially considered a flaw even before the Tang Dynasty (618-907). In retrospect, the decline of the Tang Dynasty and the rise of the Song Dynasty (960-1276) represented a shift in political power from aristocratic rule to an administrative bureaucratic system run by literati. In the art world, Song art embodied a spirit of soul-searching and minimalism in contrast to the opulence of Tang art. The emphasis was on intrinsic quality. And that's when the quest for bright colors began, and never really went away.


Still, Li Keming couldn't help but wonder if it was time for a new look in terms of packaging, to mirror the old saying: "Fine feathers make fine birds." Starting in 2019, Li and his design team spent more than two years working on it. Product presentation plays an important role in establishing a brand's image in the global market.

Looking at these new designs, the dominant color derives from the classic sky blue and white tones of Ru porcelain, and is easily recognizable. But when it came to creating the Chinese characters, it was anything but easy. Li adopted the Song block print style after analyzing and dissecting the stroke structures from around 850 years ago. It's no exaggeration to say that Chinese people today can understand what was written in the 12th century and even before. And that's also why many overseas sinologists believe that it is the language – and the pictogram in particular – that makes the Chinese mindset so different to other nations around the world. And Chinese characters lend themselves to the artistic form known as calligraphy.

A set of Ru Kiln ware /CGTN
A set of Ru Kiln ware /CGTN

A set of Ru Kiln ware /CGTN

The color system and the highly selective typefaces of Chinese characters proved a winning combination for Germany's Red Dot Design Award in 2021. But Li says the ideological transformation was a painful process. "For an inheritor, you must learn and grasp the craftsmanship of duplicating ancient ceramics. But how can you make Ru ware more attractive to ordinary people, particularly the younger generations born in the 1990s and the 2000s?"

To find the answer to this question, the young heir spent the last 11 years traveling and researching extensively. Yet he found his greatest inspiration in his hometown. "My favorite place is the Fengxue Temple in Ruzhou, which has a history of over 1,000 years."

Still very much intrigued, I follow him on one of his pilgrimages. Located just nine kilometers northeast of the city, the Fengxue Temple is known as "a museum of ancient architecture," with more than 150 structures constructed during five dynasties. Built in the Northern Wei Dynasty from 386 to 534, the temple has a history of over 1,500 years. Its unique layout includes clusters of palaces and pagodas.

The twists and turns of the mountain roads finally lead us to his old friend, Yan Wu, the Zen master of Fengxue. The master tells me that the cultural heritage of the Ru Kiln undoubtedly has an inherent connection with the history of the city.

Yan also believes that innovation should first adhere to the fundamental principle of the excellence of traditional Chinese culture. And then, it should meet the needs of people today as well as our understanding of the time. "If you are in a state of restlessness in your life and work, it's unlikely that you will be able to live a good life or create beautiful works of art. First and foremost, you should have good health and peace of mind before you can perform well in your career."

Marketing Manager Yang Yi explains how and why. She says each team member starts to pick up the history of Chinese culture as they work. She has confidence that Ru ware, simple but certainly not monotonous, has the magic to soothe the restless minds of people "trapped" in the Information Age.

In July 2023, Li brought his Ru porcelain creations to Paris. As one of the first Chinese practitioners of intangible cultural heritage to receive a master's degree in art management from the HEC, the Paris School of Advanced Business Studies, he attended the international graduation ceremony. And together with other Chinese inheritors, Li visited the Louvre for an exhibition organized by the World Federation of UNESCO Cities, Centers and Associations.

No matter how far he travels, Li is always thinking of his 6-month-old daughter, Moli, whose name means Jasmine in English. When it comes to his little girl, he can't help but smile.

Although Li is firmly in his entrepreneurial phase, family time is his priority, and seeing his young daughter grow up is as important as his own development. For this calm and introverted craftsman, the constant rediscovery of self will continue to be reflected in his work. And, as Li puts it, the key to innovation will lie in his continued exploration of the historical context and traditional roots of the ancient Ru Kiln.

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