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Research Paper -- Reshaping Tradition – examining ceramics by contemporary artists which draw on Chi

Reshaping Tradition – examining ceramics by contemporary artists which draw on Chinese cultural heritage


The motivation for this paper is to examine the contemporary reinterpretation of Chinese traditional ceramics in different cultural backgrounds and how “reshaping tradition” can contributes to Chinese contemporary ceramics. The author will initially analyse the relationship between traditional ceramics and contemporary ceramics. Following on, the paper will use “compare and contrast” as methodology to investigate a series of case studies from different cultural backgrounds and divide the case studies into Chinese and British contexts. In the Chinese context, the author will use the research of cultural memory to discuss the different positions towards tradition. In the British context, Chinese traditional ceramics will be examined with a global perspective. Their works are based on craftsmanship, resources, environment and the history of Jingdezhen, China’s ‘Porcelain City’ as well as analysing this traditional cultural symbol from a contemporary perspective.

Key words: Chinese Ceramics, Tradition, Contemporary, Reinterpretation, Compare


Ceramics are a symbolic element in traditional, Chinese culture. From the 16th century, the temporal and spatial journey of Chinese ceramics has represented one of the forerunners that spread knowledge, culture and technology in the context of globalization. It has experienced a rise, fall and reinvention with the change of various Chinese imperial dynasties. A lot of Chinese contemporary artists have been inspired by it and tried to inherit tradition. However, Bai Ming (2011, p.17), a professor of Tsinghua University, considers that some Chinese ceramic works are just “modern adaption” of traditional ceramics. During my experience in Jingdezhen, some artists there rely much on the aesthetics and techniques of the old dynasty.

The debate about the dialectical relationship between tradition and modernity had great influence on the critical theory in China during last century. There is also some argument about the relations between traditional ceramics and contemporary ceramics. According to Gao Zhen-Yu (1998, p.43), contemporary ceramic art emerged from artists’ reflection and criticism about traditional ceramic art in the background of industrialization and exists in the conscious classification and confrontation with traditional ceramics. It is necessary to view tradition objectively because the ceramics in the early period have the limitations of techniques and aesthetics. However, Zhu Le-Geng (2012) held different opinions that Contemporary ceramics does not mean opposition or division with tradition. On the contrary, we need to have a critical thinking and creative transformation of the value system of ceramics in traditional society from a contemporary context. Chen & Ryden (2009, p. 358) believe that “the meaning of tradition depends far more on how we interpret and implement it, how we creatively transmit its meaning”. In my opinion, it is necessary to reinterpret traditional Chinese ceramics in a contemporary context and analyze how to reflect, criticize and inherit traditional ceramic culture from the historical and geographical perspective, which is a necessary way to promote the development of Chinese contemporary ceramics.

As for the definition of tradition, according to Zhu Min (2015, p1), a doctor from Edith Cowan University, “the understanding of tradition (chuantong) in the Chinese cultural context refers to the transmission of ideological culture, beliefs, practices, institutions, customs and habits from the past into the present in terms of the continuity of time (chuan) and the expansion of space (tong).” Chinese traditional ceramics are the reflection of the changes of dynasties and the spread by region. Due to the long history and numerous varieties of traditional Chinese ceramics, this paper will focus on the ceramics in Chinese prosperous periods that have the greatest influence on the contemporary Chinese ceramic industry and are represented in the early stage of globalization, as well as the production mode and techniques that were handed down from age to age.

The title “Reshaping Tradition” is from the exhibition “Reshaping Tradition: Contemporary ceramics from East Asia” (2015), Presented by USC Pacific Asia Museum. As the exhibition brochure writes, “they build on tradition while innovating outside established manners and aesthetics in the ceramic tradition. … the contemporary works in “Reshaping Tradition” illustrate how artists are employing tradition as a springboard for countless innovations, creating works that speak to contemporary audiences, provoking meaningful discussion, and inviting fresh perspectives on clay.” Taking the exhibition as a reference, this study uses visual analysis and compare and contrast as methodologies and cites two Chinese works and two British works as case studies, compares the difference of two Chinese artists--Ai Weiwei’s and Liu Jian-Hua’s work based on cultural memory research. Following on, the study analyses two British artists’ work and compare the difference of the Chinese and British artists’ work.

Reshaping tradition in the Chinese context

As for the reinterpretation of traditional ceramics, a lot of artists based on Chinese cultural context hold different positions (radical, conservative or neutral) towards tradition. For example, Ai Weiwei’s works hold the suspicious and critical view while another Chinese artist Liu Jian-Hua, prefer the appreciation and inheritance of tradition. The difference is related to the different cultural memory, which is essential to analyse. According to the theory of cultural memory of Assmann, J. (1992, P. 1), two possibilities of the principle of cultural memory have been discussed in the book of cultural memory: cold and hot. Based on Assmann, J. (1992, P. 1)'s cultural memory research, Zhi Yu (2013, P.15), processor of Southwest Jiaotong University, divides the different positions of traditional culture into different memory modes. Among them, the radical position of cultural criticism is based on “cold memory”, and the conservative position of cultural inheritance is based on “hot memory”. Re-examining Chinese traditional culture from a critical perspective, its memory form is negative and cold. According to Assmann, J, the memory mode of cold memory is dissatisfied with the current situation of social culture.

Ai Weiwei’s radical position is related to his father’s experience of the Cultural Revolution in his childhood. The “cold memory” is that a great number of precious cultural relics were ruined during the Cultural Revolution, which due to the Ai’s position of cultural criticism. Ai Weiwei’s work Colored Vase (2011) is the typical example of the criticism and reflection of Chinese traditional ceramics.

Figure1-Ai Weiwei (2006), Colored Vase

In Colored Vase, the vases from the Han dynasty were painted by industrial paint. As Ai Weiwei said, history “is no longer visible, but still exists”: Covered by cheap paint, precious historic relics have lost their historical value and authenticity. Through this work, Ai Weiwei “challenges concepts of rarity, value, and preciousness” (C. A. Xuan, 2015). He criticized the loss of tradition and history owing to the embarrassing consumer culture and provoked the problem of the common historical vandalism in China.

A lot of visitors expressed their anxious, even painful feelings in the exhibition. Some considered this action as sacrilege of precious handicrafts and criticized Ai Weiwei creates art by destroying history and the Asian antique market would also be disturbed. Gallery director Torchia R. and Moore G. (2010, p.2) believe that, instead of a destructive action, this is a “moderate compromising” approach that covers tradition by contemporary aesthetic values: “Masking the luster and bold decoration of their original surfaces, the acrylic paint does not destroy the brushwork, which remains intact beneath a veneer of synthetic pigment. The exact contour of their patterning becomes each vessel’s own secret.” In the interview edited by Cram, G. & Zyman, D.(2007,p.36) with Ai Weiwei, Ai considered that “to have other layers of color and images above the precious one calls into questions both the identity and the authenticity of the objects. It makes both conditions non-absolute. You can cover something so that it is no longer visible but is still underneath, and what appears on the surface is not supposed to be there but is.” But Garth, C. (2011) Contend that this action is another form of “clobbering” -- adding decoration to make the object more attractive to sell at a high price. After the “destroy” on the appearance, the vases are worth many times than the original ones.

As far as I am concerned, Ai Weiwei likes to use the slightly playful approach of the destruction and reconstruction of antiquities, which can also be seen in his other work Table with Three Legs (2006), attempts to reinterpret Chinese traditional ceramics and question and challenge traditional culture and value orientation. This is a great expansion and challenge to the traditional art language. He deconstructed ceramic, a representative Chinese cultural symbol, to create expressions of suspicious, ridiculous, and negative attitude towards tradition, which makes contemporary ceramic artists have a critical thinking about traditional ceramics. But the conversion of meaning of visual symbols in Ai Weiwei's works is very plain and easy to understand, so the meaning can be interpreted as the Western media does not need to have a deep understanding of Chinese culture. And the message of "anti-tradition" and "challenge authority" that Ai Weiwei wants to convey is easily obtained.

Compared with the radical position of the artists with “cold memory”, Chinese artists with “hot memory” have a conservative and positive cultural position towards tradition. The emergence of hot memory is related to the growth of national strength and the establishment of cultural self-confidence because of 30 Years of Reform and Opening. It may be the mainstream of Chinese contemporary art because of governmental support.

Born during the Cultural Revolution, the ceramic artist Liu Jian-Hua was part of a generation cut off from his traditional culture. He had to rediscover and adapt it to his own purposes. His works in the early period had strong narrative characteristics based on “cold memory” to address controversial social and political Chinese issues, which is similar with Ai Weiwei. Because of economy politics, the memory turned to “hot” and at present, he dedicates to exploring the possibility of materials and expressing the spiritual aspects of traditional culture. Different with Ai Weiwei, he paid tribute to the spiritual values and aesthetic of traditional Chinese art, instead of conceptualization of art.

Figure2-Liu Jianhua (2011), Trace

The work “Trace” (2011) exhibited in UCCA, used the "ink", an element of aesthetics and cultural symbol in Chinese tradition. Liu Jianhua uses a white wall as a canvas, to simulate the ink form through ceramics in ancient porcelain-making techniques. The work is based on the Chinese traditional aesthetic concept “Wu lou heng”, established in the Tang Dynasty. It is from the form of a traditional Chinese calligraphy proposed by Yan Zhen-Qing. The shape of it is like the trace of water on the wall. This illumines the highest state of aesthetic development that finds inspiration from organic, natural evolution. And in the Chinese culture, ink represents all the colors and has a strong aesthetic connotation. The forms of the ink mark and its invisible trace evoked the feeling of flow and condensation at the same time. There are many contrasts in this work: The white background and black pendants, the glossy porcelain and matt walls, the fluidity of the ink droplets and the solidification of the porcelain, the scale of the work space and the real world. When you are in this space full of contradictions, these elements can bring strong feeling of contrast and tension.

The “Trace” explored ceramic material to reinterpret the traditional essential element, which makes artists reflect on the traditional Chinese cultural symbol in contemporary times. Dematte, M. (2012) appreciated his transform and viewed: “…he felt the need to acquaint himself with a tradition as such, in the sense of its constituting a heritage that has sifted through the ages and has been recognized and admired by generations of people for its depth, timelessness, evocativeness, and ability to move them.” His work compares Chinese classical art with Zen thought, which reflects what he calls "no meaning, no content". He wants to remove the “meaning” given by people and emphasize more on the spiritual experience that can provide for audience from artwork. Focus on the aesthetic and spiritual values of traditional Chinese art, Liu refers to his work as an example of “quiet aesthetics.” He reexamined themes of beauty and its form from tradition with reminiscent of history. The “beauty” involved in Liu’s work is not simply an aesthetic meaning and visual effect, but also a method of expressing position. His work reminds me of the pursuit “implied meaning” in Chinese traditional culture, which is simple but ambiguous. There are many Chinese artists who extract the image of Chinese traditional culture. The form is simple and convenient for artists to “provide” the works a lot of meaning, to express their appreciation and inheritance of Chinese traditional ceramic.

Compared with Ai Weiwei, who seldom anticipate in ceramic making, Liu have a special emotion of appreciation towards ceramic material, based on the long period practice and experience of making. This medium constitutes a deep link to connect him and tradition. By contrasting and comparing, I can find that, except from the difference of their creation motivation based on two memory modes, the artist anticipated in practice of making have different understanding and feeling with the one who didn’t dirty their hand, although they all went to Jingdezhen.

Reshaping Tradition in the British context

Compared with the situation that the artists based on the Chinese cultural context have a strong cultural memory and hold radical or conservative positions towards tradition, artists based on the British context regard and reinterpret Chinese traditional ceramics with a global perspective and more objective view. Marsden, R(2015), curator of the exhibition “Ahead of the Curve: New china from China”, considered that “Despite the many differences between the cultures and the looks of the ceramics works from China and the UK, they still share similar influences through decoration, earlier ceramics and ceramics from different cultures. The younger generation have the freedom to use different methods and so much to inspire them.”

Figure3-Clare Twomey (2010) Made in China

The ceramic making in Jingdezhen, the porcelain city of China is also a traditional part in Chinese ceramics, which has more than two thousand years. Clare Twomey’s work “made in China” use the method of comparison to analyze the manufacturing methods and techniques in different cultural context. This demonstrates the enormous craftsmanship required in the production process. The work contains 80 porcelain vases, decorated by same Chinese traditional pattern. 79 of which are decorated with decal in a factory in Jingdezhen; one of them is decorated by hand in Royal Crown Derby with 18-carat gold. The production time of this vase is the more than the 79 vases made in China and the cost is also more than the other 79 vases put together. By the comparison in technique and manufacturing methods, it shows the difference between the international ceramic industry and the East and West labor force. Chinese manufacturing is dominated by efficient assembly production, but there are few opportunities for individual creation. The UK manufacturing industry is increasingly inclined to the luxury goods industry, which requires high skills but employs few people.

These simple facts explain why so many productions are currently being transferred to China from Europe as money and time are essential elements to consider in production. “Made in China” probably is easy to understand as a critique of mass production and a culture that privileges speed and economy over artistry and quality. However, Veitberg, J. (2010, p.23) a professor at the University of Gothenburg and curator of “Made in China”, believed in both modern manufacturing and traditional craftsmanship have their own value. She considered that the two production methods maybe cannot replace each other, but rather complement one another. Adamson, G & Caspole, R (2017, p.2). “Twomey gives us an image of what it means to confront the ‘Other’. Even if cultural encounter is uncomfortable, even if it destabilizes whole ways of life, it is that dynamic movement—not static national identity—which truly defines us.”

Besides, except the techniques and production, people in different cultural context has different feedback about the decoration on the vase. While Adamson, G (2017, p.2) see the red, “the antiquated racist phrase ‘red menace’ springs to mind”, for Chinese people it is a traditional pattern in porcelain, bright red denotes well-being in Chinese culture, instead of violence.

The regional comparison in “Made in China” is a rare and innovative way in ceramic artworks, although the artist didn’t anticipate in manufacture. The separate making but common display of the vases can be seen as a shared dialogue between two ceramic industries have geographically distance. It also challenged that contemporary ceramics can “develop as a more expansive practice able to confront conceptual and critical issues concerned with globalization and the ways that ceramic artefacts come into being within and through distributed social and commissioning networks.” (Twomey, C., 2010)

Figure4-Barbara Diduk (2015), Vase Project

“Vase Project” is also a project manufactured by Jingdezhen craftsmen, compared with “Made in China”, Barbara Diduk used the method of visual narratives to reflect on the mass production of handcraft objects in the individual perspective and historical context. The exhibition “Earth, Water, Fire” includes works by four contemporary Western pottery artists whose works are influenced by Jingdezhen porcelain. Barbara Diduk’s work “Vase Project” is the most representative work to reinterpret traditional Chinese ceramics. Vase projects is a collection of 101 blue and white porcelain vases, which is the representative symbol of Chinese traditional culture. The vases were painted by the painters selected randomly in Jingdezhen, one of the oldest porcelain production centers in the world. The first craftsman was required to draw a modern industrial landscape on a vase thrown by hand at the factory, based on his depiction of the surroundings of Jingdezhen. His drawing contains the representative kiln stacks in Jingdezhen landscape. Subsequently, other Jingdezhen artists were required to interpret the image of previous vase and the final result is the collection of 101 vases that compose the Vase Project. The vases are at first looks the same because of the similarity of the shape of vases, painting style and the subject. But the remarkable differences can be examined after closer observation. The craftsmen worked in the factory seems to have a same situation with the vase.

“This monumental piece emphasizes a transitory moment in pre- and post-industrial production practice in Jingdezhen. “(Karil J, 2011) The thousands of porcelains produced by the factory are still produced and decorated by craftsmen, not machines. The Vase Project requires viewers to reflect on the industrial development and mass production of handcraft objects. It also invoked people pays more attention to the “makers” in the global market., These craftsmen work in factories or home studios to serve global businesses but are still largely invisible. The program used the method of partial visual narratives, sociological studies and archival documents. The result is a visual record of continuous reinterpretation of Chinese traditional ceramics and the “porcelain city” itself, which also challenge the traditional form of ceramics.

By comparing the two British artists’ works, the themes are all related to production methods in Jingdezhen, as well as based on the craftsmanship and techniques there and didn’t anticipate in making. However, Clare Twomey (2010) didn’t visit Jingdezhen and managed her work from a distant place: “After establishing by email a good working relationship with a factory, 80 vases were ordered.” Barbara Diduk (2015) did site research in Jingdezhen and communicated with the people there: “I walked the city's street with Zhao Yu, looking for artisans and artists who would be willing to participate in the project. We spent months combing city alleys, factory neighborhoods, and the Ceramic Institute. In two and a half years, we collected 101 vases.” Compared with the situation of the mass production and efficient manufacture methods in Jingdezhen revealed by Twomey in “Made in China”, “The Vase Project” considered the essence of artistic individualism in industrialized ceramics workplaces, challenging the contradiction between mass production and the handcraft objects, which has a deeper understanding about the situation of production methods in Jingdezhen.


The significance of tradition lies in how we can interpret, implement it and convey its meaning creatively. The study compared the diverse interpretation from Chinese and British artists’ work to reshape tradition. By the contrast, Ai Weiwei’s work prefer to question and challenge traditional culture and value orientation while Liu Jian-Hua respected the aesthetic and spiritual values of tradition, which is due to their radical or conservative position with different cultural memory. Clare Twomey’s Made in China analyzed the manufacturing methods and techniques in different cultural contexts while Diduk reflected on the mass production of handcraft objects. Compared with the situation that the artists based on the Chinese cultural context have a strong cultural memory and hold radical or conservative positions towards tradition, artists based on the British context regard and reinterpret Chinese traditional ceramics with a global perspective and more objective view. Their works are all based on craftsmanship, resources, environment and the history of Jingdezhen. Two Chinese artists and British artist Barbara went to Jingdezhen. Liu Jian-Hua had lived, studied and worked in Jingdezhen for 14 years from his young age; Ai Weiwei hired thousands of craftsmen there for the work Sunflower Seeds; Diduk also visited the city to invite craftsmen to participate in the vase project. Clare Twomey chose to order the large-scale installation from Jingdezhen. How artists use tradition as a springboard for countless innovations to create works that communicate with contemporary audiences, stimulating meaningful discussions, and introduce new perspectives on clay.


Bai, M (2011). The current situation of Chinese contemporary ceramics, The journal of the Cultural Relics World, 36(1), p.17-19.

Gao, Z. Y. (1998). Chinese contemporary ceramics, p.43.

Chen, L. & Ryden, E. (2009). Tradition and modernity: A humanist view. Leiden: BRILL. P358.

Zhu, M. (2015). The reinvention of tradition—in contemporary Chinese classical dance creations, p.1

Torchia, R. & Moore, G. (2010). Arcadia University Art Gallery Illustrated/ Annotated Checklist, p.2.

Cram, G. & Zyman, D. (2007). Shooting back, Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary, Vienna, p. 36.

Garth C., (2011). Mind Mud: Ai Weiwei's Conceptual Ceramics available online at (accessed October 4, 2018).

Dematte, M. (2012). The Art of Detachment, available at (accessed October 17, 2018).

Marsden, R. (2015) New China From China, available at (accessed October 18, 2018).

Veiteberg, J. (2011). Thing Tang Trash: Upcycling in Contemporary Ceramics, Bergen National Academy of the Arts and Art Museums Bergen, p.23

Adamson, G & Caspole, R (2017). Seeing Red, British Art Studies, Issue 7

Towmey, C. (2010). Made in China, available at (accessed October 22, 2018).

Karil J (2011). Exhibition Essay, available at (accessed October 22, 2018).

Assmann, J., & Livingstone, R. (2006). Religion and cultural memory: ten studies. Stanford University Press. P. 1.

Zhi Yu. (2013). Reinterpret Tradition: The Cultural Position and Memory Mode of Chinese Contemporary Art. P. 15


Figure 1. Ai Weiwei (2006). Colored Vase. [image] Available at (accessed October 23, 2018)

Figure 2. Liu Jianhua (2011). Trace. [image] Available at (accessed October 23, 2018)

Figure 3. Clare Twomey (2010). Made In China [image] Available at (accessed October 23, 2018)

Figure 4. Barbara Diduk (2011). Vase Project. [image] Available at (accessed October 23, 2018)

#traditionalculture #reinterpretation #contemporaryceramics #ceramics #porcelain #China #casestudy #Jingdezhen #AiWeiwei #craftsman #craft #blueandwhiteporcelain

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