By Kaisi Chen
“Art involves many personal emotions. You can only make a great artwork if you are truly passionate about it,” says Xu Yuezhu, a Chinese liuli master who strives for innovation instead of imitation in his artistic practice.
Liuli is Chinese colored glass or man-made crystal. Thousands of years ago, liuli was known only to court and liuli products were extremely rare and precious; “common people” had little access to it. Things have changed somewhat these days. Liuli still ranks high among other valuable materials (gold, silver, jade, ceramics, and bronze) in China, but today liuli is more accessible to a wide cross-section of people. Indeed, liuli is one of the seven treasures of Buddhism and many Chinese people believe the beautifully colored glass has healing powers and can, as well, protect one from evil. Some even believe that the glass attracts wealth.
The term has a sad but also beautiful origin. The story is told that one Fan Li, a craftsman for swords, discovered the material after mixing crystal. When Fan Li fell in love with the beautiful Xi Shi, he worked hard to turn the colored glass into a beguiling piece of jewelry that was a fitting token of his love and affection — which he eventually presented to his beloved. Xi Shi, unfortunately, was forced to marry another king in the midst of warfare and returned this gift to Fan Li upon her departure. Liuli was named after Xi Shi’s departing tears that are still believed to be visible today in every piece of liuli created.
“Liu” in this case refers to fluidity and “Li” means glass.
For several decades now Master Xu Yuezhu, of the Shandong Light Industry Association, has been carrying on the family legacy of liuli production. “I have a passion for art since I was little,” Master Xu recounts, “and I used to play around in the workshop that my father worked in.” His early exposure to the glass works and his father’s influence caused him to develop an enduring interest in liuli-making at an early age. In 1980, when Master Xu was only sixteen years old, he began his career by studying under such Chinese masters such as Kong Fanyi and Liu Chishan. From 1995 to 2005, he worked as a product developer and then an art director, mainly designing and producing small-scale liuli objects for display and decoration. He has since moved on, focusing on larger products. In 2011 he was recognized, in the form of a national title of “Master” in China, for his achievements and contribution to the liuli industry.
But how exactly is the glass made?
Liuli usually requires ten steps from designing to molding and heating to cooling, which includes smoothing the surface and refining the details on the final artwork. Master Xu explains, “There are several methods to create a liuli artwork, including lost-wax casting, blowing, and hand work. Lost-wax casting is similar to the process of creating bronze work, in which a wax mold is made ahead of the time in order to be used in the heating process to shape the raw material.” In that regard the glass we make in China is similar to glass made in other places around the world. What separates the work of Master Xu, however, is the sheer beauty and the splendor of his works. It is a breathtaking experience seeing his vases and other home goods products. In addition to which, Master Xu’s recent artworks now combine blowing and handmade techniques, which allows him to utilize the fluidity and flexibility of the material under high temperature in order to create even more enlivened pieces.
“To make a work such as a vase,” Master Xu explains, “one has to first draw his design on a piece of paper. The execution relies on a team of people, especially when the design includes multiple parts.” Master Xu demonstrates what he means by holding up a blue vase decorated with six fishes. He continues, “One person can only make one fish at a time, so together we need six or seven people to create the fish and the vase and attach them together. For the last number of years I have worked with a group of seven to eight craftsmen to bring my designs to life. The execution of a liuli design, many need to know, is actually quite physically demanding. One fish alone can take about three hours to make.”
Yet Master Xu wants to push liuli creation even further. “I want to create things that do not exist in glass artworks around the world … or use glass to revive what is no longer present.” His recent project — “Ink Wash Liuli” — does just that. His ink wash liuli is inspired by the works of Han Meilin, a renowned Chinese scholar and art master, who is known for the Olympic mascots used in the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Explains Master Xu, “Ink wash liuli incorporates an entire ink wash painting into a liuli product, which is unprecedented around the world.” In so doing, Master Xu incorporates two traditional Chinese art forms, the colorful highly pigmented ink wash along with glass-making. In one of this mixed-genre work, Master Xu depicts a stylized horse with thick brushstrokes outlining the horse’s form. The fading of black ink at the end of each brushstroke creates a sense of motion. The artist uses vibrant ink colors to denote vitality.
Rejecting the transparent quality of traditional liuli artworks, Master Xu explores new possibilities in the visual experience with color and ink, creating an abstract landscape or a pattern inside the smooth surface of liuli. When I asked him if this was difficult to do, Master Xu only smiled. “Liuli-making is never a challenge for me,” he shared. “I think of the production as an innovation. The challenge is to make artworks that surpass the works of other masters. I work hard every day to create artworks that I hope will be the best in the world. In China, too many people who make crafts where they only imitate the works of others. That is not what I am after. I want to push myself. I believe that the best artworks come from personal innovation rather than imitation.”
I couldn’t agree more.
To see more of Master Xu’s work, visit his website at http://www.liulichina.com/ (All images in the article copyrighted to Master Xu and used with his permission)