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Recap: Pieces of China (S4, E1): Melinda Liu on the Imperial Kilns, 9.9.21

Recap: Pieces of China (S4, E1): Melinda Liu on the Imperial Kilns, 9.9.21

Pieces of China is an online series using objects to tell the story of China.

Our Season 4 premiere featured Melinda Liu, Beijing Bureau Chief for Newsweek, revealing a lesser known aspect of China’s architectural and imperial history: The Daolingjian Imperial Tile kilns outside of Beijing once produced the green and yellow tiles that adorn the rooftops of the Forbidden City, the Ming Tombs and other ancient sites.

Melinda Liu (ML) is one of America’s most experienced foreign correspondents, covering China’s post-Mao modernization; the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and the fall of the Taliban; the 1991 liberation of Kuwait; and U.S. military interventions in Somalia and Haiti. Liu won the 2006 Shorenstein Journalism Award in recognition of her reporting on Asia.

Selected Quotes from Pieces of China, Season 4, Episode 1:

ML: This place has a very personal connection to me and my husband. When we started spending weekends at a little cottage an hour outside Beijing, there was a kiln and tile showroom and factory and we gravitated to it. It turned out to be a fascinating place.

They were making and selling tiles there and shipping them everywhere that imperial architecture was being renovated. Then private people started buying them to have a mini-Forbidden City in their home. It is a little microcosm of the history of China.

The tiles are iconic, whether you realize it or not. They are everywhere where traditional Chinese architecture is represented. In the far West, on the edge of the Gobi desert, you see [its usage]. It is a fort on the bottom and a palace on the top.

There are whole universes in the physical shape and the stories of the tiles themselves. Architecture lovers will tell you that there are amazing ceramics. You have an entire universe of animals- phantasmagorical beasts and real [ones]. It opens your eyes to the Chinese conception that the universe of animals is very diverse.

There used to be many tile production centers. Now, the former tile street in Beijing is a place for expensive antiques. Until a few years ago there were two places that tile production took place and one of them was Daolingjian.

Dinda Elliott (moderator): China may have a strong government at the top but on the streets, it is charmingly chaotic.

ML: Someone is always doing something that no one is aware of until it is almost happening! This kiln yard looks chaotic but there is a sort of order here. They want it to be hierarchical… What is remarkable is that each of these beasts have special responsibilities.

DE: What has happened to the village and this place in recent years?

ML: The big news was that, for environmental protection reasons, there was to be no more burning of fossil fuels in Hebei province. They used a lot of coal for their boilers, and some wood. Many families use the old-fashioned wood platforms (kangs). There was a pretty strong persuasion to move to electricity-based utility sources. Now the old factories have become a showroom.

DE: Is the village prosperous as a result?

ML: The village is prosperous for two reasons: it is only an hour from Beijing so a young person can live at home and commute, and it also became a sort of centrally planned foodie center. This village became the place to have a rural crepe-based banquet. So now they have five [banquet halls].

DE: Why are the Ming Tombs outside Beijing shut to the public?

ML: It is a little bit of China getting its regulatory act together to protect valuable artifacts. The net effect is that the process of how these tiles are made and what are they made for and what symbols are included is no longer accessible to us. I am so glad to have what we have in our village!

DE: What can we take away from the chaos and order of the tiles as it relates to China today?

ML: I think it is very telling that all those cute animals that we see as decorative, but if you go on a tour of The Forbidden City or other structures, there is a great deal of hierarchy in their placement. Each animal has a job and a name. one of my favorites is the wind and storm summoning fish. At the tail of it is a dragon, in the Forbidden City, and in the front is a human being riding a phoenix. There are different legends about that. [One story] is that it is a symbol of the human beings who served the Emperor and the animals behind this person are watching him and observing to see whether he fulfills his duties or not. Their job, if he is not, is to pounce on him and devour him. This idea that there is a whole universe of an animal kingdom helping and a part of the human universe to keep order, tells a lot about how people see the world.

Full Video of Pieces of China with Melinda Liu

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