Mr Dufeng, the owner of the factory, has come back from his holiday. He is our cordial sponsor – we're supping at his table – and tomorrow he plans to take us to the archaeological site. This project – the historic kiln, the ancient shards, the forthcoming museum – is where his heart lies. The contemporary museum project, of which we are part, has the air of a former favourite toy. Mr Dufeng hopes that his discovery may be the missing link in Chinese ceramic history: the long lost, thousand-year-old Dingzhou kiln. The problem is, he wrote in a recent article, that 'because of the existing system, our archaeologists working on ceramics have not been able to exchange freely and therefore could not be verified by practice and the conclusions obtained have been totally inconsistent with the history, even to the point of being regarded as a laughing matter.'1 But if the kiln is what he hopes it is, it could 'lead to rewriting the ceramic history of China'.
Mr Dufeng is very rich, very successful, and of a generation that would have known China in the 1960s. I have big unspoken questions about this, but also smaller ones. Does he own the Patriotism Education Centre? Did he build the lovely park that surrounds it? And the people whose houses were knocked down to make way for the park – were they properly compensated? But I won't ask him. Our translators – bright, sweet girls – are already a little frightened of the boss. They, and their families, live locally. What if someone came to harm, even in a small way, as a result of the (ultimately selfish) desire for a good story?
All Fuping – not only our sponsor – is strategically awaiting the next president of China. Fuping, described as a village, has a population of 800,000 and the atmosphere of a one-street town in the Irish midlands; it is growing at a rate that makes the Irish property boom seem sluggish. A new railway is being carved through the farmland on the outskirts of the town, the earthworks forming a raised road that the locals use as a promenade (Chinese people seem able to enjoy themselves almost anywhere). Escaped from the compound, and out on an explore, we followed this walkway until it ended in a perilously constructed bridge and, from here, climbed a road of crumbling yellow brick to a much older part of town.
I'm wary of romanticising poverty, but the quiet network of streets with their small adobe-brick houses felt as though we had slipped back in time. There was magic in every corner - old wooden gates reinforced with iron banding, tiled roofs flung up at the edges like a skirt in the wind, millstones set among the bricks in the road. We caught glimpses through doorways into shady courtyards where piles of yellow corn-cobs were laid out to dry. We heard singing and wandered towards the music until we found a little cluster of musicians and singers practising throaty, scratchy, operatic songs. Stools were offered, and friendly greetings.
On the way home we were beckoned down an alleyway and invited into a little courtyard under a pomegranate tree. Old stone carvings: weathered lions, feathered dogs. Our host, learning of our interest in ceramics, brought us in to see his collection of shards and a few intact pieces: a Qing Dynasty vase in pride of place beside the Mao portrait. Aside from this, not much in the way of possessions. Tethered goats, aching to be milked and small, well-tended dogs barking from a safe distance.
If you brought a little Chinese dog home with you, Alex asked, do you think that it would settle in?
It would have been so easy to miss this. Our hosts discourage us from exploring and none of the previous residents mentioned that there was, within walking distance, a wonderland of deserted pagodas, cave dwellings carved out of the mud cliffs, and a whole street devoted to the construction of coffins. There is no earthy reason that any Western traveller would come to Fuping, lodged, as it is, up the exhaust pipe of Chinese industry. If you came here by accident you would leave, straight away. There is nothing here. But there is also everything. And in a few years it will be gone – this magical doomed landscape on its plateau of mud.
So I'm thinking about shards and ancient kilns and progress, and the value of the old in relation to the new. No answers here, but Fuping is a jewel.
1Dao Clayform, No.1, 2010, p87