Tai-Hwa Pottery, a brand that epitomizes modern fine ceramics in Taiwan, truly combines beauty and usefulness in its painted porcelains. Leveraging its skilled craftsmanship and unique research into glaze pigments, it draws on local elements and the creativity of local artists to create works that have repeatedly been selected by the Office of the President and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for state visit gifts.
Yanagi Soetsu, the father of the Japanese mingei folk craft movement, believed that handicrafts combined spiritual beauty with the usefulness of physical objects, thus satisfying people on both the physical and spiritual levels. Tai-Hwa Pottery, a brand that epitomizes modern fine ceramics in Taiwan, truly combines beauty and usefulness in its painted porcelains. Leveraging its skilled craftsmanship and unique research into glaze pigments, it draws on local elements and the creativity of local artists to create works that have repeatedly been selected by the Office of the President and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for state visit gifts.
Localization and globalization are two sides of the same coin. Special local qualities are what brings global visibility. Through its participation in many outstanding national-level projects, Tai-Hwa Pottery has acquired a reputation as the “National Palace Museum of Yingge,” and its ceramics are known as the “imperial porcelain” of the current day. Behind its excellent reputation lie hard work and the courage to face challenges head on. The firm’s 30-some-year history bears witness to the rise and fall of the ceramics industry in Yingge, New Taipei City.
Rise and fall of an industry
When Tai-Hwa Pottery was founded in 1983, it created ceramics both for daily use and for display. It mainly worked as a contract manufacturer, making antique-style hand-thrown, unglazed and single-color glaze pottery for export markets, including Hong Kong and the United States. It was like other contract ceramics makers in Yingge at a time when Taiwan occupied a downstream location in the chain of ceramics production, lacking R&D, design and branding abilities. It was competing on price in a labor-intensive field of production. In 1986, responding to market demand, Tai-Hwa began to produce colored porcelain. In addition to producing traditional Chinese ceramics in the fencai and doucai styles, it also produced Japanese-style ceramics (such as Imari, Arita Satsuma and Kutani ware) which it sold to Japan, Britain, the US, Italy and other nations.
Not long afterwards, developing nations with lower production costs, including mainland China and countries in Southeast Asia, entered the market. “Seemingly overnight, we couldn’t get orders, and pottery factories in Yingge started going out of business one after another,” says Lu Chao-hsin, president of the company. The entire industry in Yingge was hit hard and fell into rapid decline. “It was as if we had moved suddenly from bright noon to sunset.” It prompted a realization: “We can’t keep going down that old contract manufacturing path!”
Cheng Shan-hsi’s Remembering Shen Yao-tsu. Cheng has created colorful porcelains for more than 30 years, during which time he has earned a reputation as a preeminent popularizer of literati ink-wash painting.
What approach did they take to repositioning Taiwan in the global system of production? “It wasn’t enough to preserve traditional craft techniques. Innovations were also needed to give ceramic art culture the power to sustain itself.” Lu Chao-hsin resolved to reform the business’s structure, shifting from competing on price toward a model of high-value-added production. Only by changing the business model, and “introducing innovations, could we produce products for a new era.”
New glaze pigment techniques
After several years of working together, Lu Chao-hsin and the Tai-Hwa team successfully developed the “high-temperature underglaze single-firing” technique in 1990. Chuang Hsiu-ling, chief of Tai-Hwa’s Cultural Creation Division, explains the key to success with high-temperature underglazes: metal oxides must be heated to 1300°C to vitrify before being ground into a powder to create a stable refractory underglaze. This makes the color of the porcelain more vivid and enables it to maintain a “like new” condition over the long term, as well as a shiny luster and enhanced texture that suggest a higher quality. Single firings can raise the efficiency of the manufacturing process and save energy, as well as overcome the flaws of double-fired porcelain, such as colors fading over time and the inclusion of lead, cadmium and other heavy metals that are characteristic of low-temperature firing.
A watercolor-like glaze painting technique is an important factor in drawing more people to create colored porcelains. Whether machine-thrown, slipcast or hand thrown, biscuit ware (the unglazed porcelain after the first firing) is highly absorbent and not easy to directly apply colors to with a brush. After much trial and error, it was discovered that adding a white cosmetic foundation lowers the biscuit’s absorbency, so that the experience of brush writing and painting on ceramics can closely resemble that of paper, allowing one to create in a carefree manner.
Glazes with watercolor effects
The technique of getting glaze to resemble watercolors originated from the needs of artists to create colored porcelains. In 1995 Lu Chao-hsin, searching for new techniques, established the Tai-Hwa Ceramics Learning Centre and the Craftsman Studio at Tai-Hwa’s headquarters in Yingge. He hired a group of Taiwanese artists brimming with creativity to staff these facilities and participate in the creation of colored porcelains, so as to apply artists’ skills and modes of thinking to the pursuit of innovations in themes and techniques.
Yet by simply using unglazed ceramics as a painter’s canvas, by using color to “paint a picture,” it is hard to transcend the framework of imitating historical colored ceramics. Instead, by focusing on the special qualities of porcelain, Lu believes that it is possible to go further and develop new forms of expression. Consequently, he says, apart from developing even more kinds of ceramic ware, “when it comes to artists who are interested in painting on porcelain, I have been highly supportive with techniques and materials, encouraging them to innovate with new pigments and glazes.”
Playing with new colors
The painter Hong Chung-yi, whom Tai-Hwa has supported, is adept at using transmutation glazes to produce color effects and textures. “In 1998, I was among a group of oil painters who were invited to come to Tai-Hwa in Yingge and have a go at painting ceramics. Much to my surprise, I alone was attracted to this medium and deeply captivated by it. To the present day it is an alternative focal point of my creative work.” Drawing from his strong foundation in oil painting, Hong applies layers of different glazes. After high-temperature firing, these ceramics acquire a distinctive layered coloration. He has also taken another step in using painting as a launching pad for creating biscuit ware in various shapes.
“When layered colored glazes melt together at high temperature,” says Hong, “it creates surfaces that are boldly bursting with glaze. It’s an effect that’s difficult to create with oil paintings. With the mixing of pigments and glazes, it becomes impossible to predict the ensuing transformations in the kiln, which makes the process even more bewitching.” He also mentions how small differences in applying the glazes can result in very different outcomes.
Lu Chao-hsin is forming alliances with companies in other industries in order to find new markets amidst rapid change. Tai-Hwa has introduced customization, with craftspeople at the firm combining paint and glaze and then firing the requested items. The firm created tableware and display ceramics for the Grand Hyatt Taipei inspired by Chinese painting, colored calligraphies and traditional crafts.
In 2011 it worked with Taipei 101 and eight artists to create bottles for a limited-quantity release of special kaoliang spirit. They were sold at record-breaking prices. After that successful alliance, in 2011 Tai-Hwa was invited to participate in a seminar on small and medium-sized enterprises at the 33rd meeting of APEC, where it shared reflections on its experience and development practices.
In 2014 Tai-Hwa worked with the National Museum of History to develop a jointly branded tea set inspired by Qing-Dynasty bird-and-flower embroidery, which engendered much discussion about fashionable tea sets. This year the museum held the exhibition “Parisian Nostalgia: The National Museum of History’s Sanyu Collection,” which has created quite a stir in Chinese communities around the world. Based on the original paintings, Tai-Hwa created some porcelain pieces that can be used in daily life: “Treasures for the Home.” In 2016, the firm worked with clothes designer Goji Lin to create porcelain components to be used on bags and accessories. These various crossdisciplinary alliances are helping to bring colorful porcelain into people’s lives and spreading good taste.
When Yingge’s ceramics industry hit hard times, many businesses continued to be conservatively inward-looking, fearing the theft of their techniques. But Lu took a contrarian approach: “I decided to open the factory to visitors, so that they could better understand the value of porcelain.” He believed that only if you are 100% open can you see your own flaws. With that approach, you are not only forced to improve the cleanliness of the factory, but you can also improve efficiency and quality.
The architect Han Pao-teh has said that those on the cutting edge inevitably have high expectations of themselves. It’s a description that certainly applies to the road that Lu Chao-hsin and Tai-Hwa have taken. If you are competing with foreign brands, you will naturally work hard to raise quality. And among those producing culturally creative products, only those few that produce at a high level will put the highest of expectations on themselves and their products.