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Interview with Li Zhiyan July 14, 2008


Li Zhiyan (Photo by Howard S. Yang)

Did you grow up in Beijing?

I was born into a poor family in a mountain area of Sichuan Province. In 1956, I passed the university entrance examinations and enrolled in the History Department of Beijing University. I majored in archaeology. Back then in China there were many restrictions like household registration and food rations; therefore, universities tended to select students from large cities. It was very difficult for those who lived in remote areas to get into college, as we had to get higher scores on the examinations than those who lived in the cities.

You must have been at the top of your class!

Those of us who got into Beijing University really valued the opportunity.

Why did you want to study archaeology?

Because when I was young, I liked historical stories. And my memory is excellent.

Do you have a favorite story?

I admired the stories of scholars who made contributions to mankind. I was fascinated by their stories. I also looked up to cultured people, like writers and poets, and the legacy they left for us.

When I was small I had a dream. I had a group of about eight friends in my hometown. Once we went to a river outside the town. Under the moonlight, facing a huge rock that stood by the riverbank, we told each other our dreams. I said I admired Du Pu, Li Bai, and Su Dongpo [Tang Dynasty poets]. I respected their talents and I wanted to become like them--someday when I grew up--I wanted to be able to write and teach, to be someone who could tell lots of stories and leave a legacy like a cultured man.

So far, I have published about 200 academic papers, both at home and abroad, as well as 24 books that are currently on the market. All of my books are about porcelain. When I was 30 years old, I wrote my first book, A Brief History of Porcelain, which was originally published in Japan. It was followed by editions in nine languages, including Chinese, English, French, German, and Spanish. Presently, I am working with Yale University on a series of books about the Chinese civilization. Of the seven volumes, I am editing the book on porcelain.

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Beijing residents have recently been feeling nostalgia about their past, many remnants of which were destroyed over the years to make way for much-needed transportation infrastructure. Today, people are even sentimental about old trees, which are carefully labeled throughout the city. This tree, which stands at the north gate of the Forbidden City, is between 100 and 300 years old. (Photos by Eti Bonn-Muller)

You must have really enjoyed your studies. What inspired you to work so hard?

History was not a popular subject back then because we believed that Chinese history for more than 100 years [from about the mid-19th until the mid-20th century] was nothing but poverty and weakness. [We learned] the reason that we were bullied by foreign powers was a lack of industry.

Back in the 1950s, a widespread belief was that an ambitious young man should join the army to defend the country; an ambitious student should study engineering to build the country. It wasn't easy for people like me to go to college. It took me 14 days just to come to Beijing. Now, one can get to Beijing from my hometown in three hours.

There was a professor at Beijing University who encouraged me to study the history of porcelain. He said there was a wealth of [cultural] legacy in the subject, but no one studied it there. Back then, people were very simple; you did what your professor told you. So studying history was not popular; studying ceramics was even more unusual. I was the only student of this subject in the department at that time. I put my heart and soul into the field. I visited all the pottery-making places across the country.

What was it like to visit ancient kiln sites?

When I was working at the History Museum, I went over all the country, to all the sites. Every year we went out; for six months we were in the field, from March to September. And again from late October to early winter. I had very dark skin because I was so sunburned!

Do you think archaeology has changed much as a field over the years?

There are a lot of improvements. We used to just dig. Nowadays, they use more equipment to analyze the artifacts. For instance, when we were looking for a burial site, first we had to even out the ground. Then, we would water it--just like you would water a flower. The earth would change color in the water. When the mud turned five different colors, it meant there was a burial site underground! But now, with infrared technology, you can take a picture from an airplane and see it right away.

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In the past decade, there has been a large effort to raise people's awareness about the importance of preserving their past. Signs placed throughout the Forbidden City, for example, remind people to protect their shared heritage. (Photos by Eti Bonn-Muller, left, and Liu Bowen, right)
Click for sign detail.
Click for sign detail.

Why did you combine your interest in ceramics with the art of pottery-making?

Ceramics cannot be separated from sociology. At any given period, pottery has its own historical background. Pottery is a product of a unique historical period. When I study ceramics, I must understand the sociology and history of that particular period. Also, the development of ceramics is not isolated; it is related to many facets of a society. And it has close relationships with cultures around the world. Pottery throughout history, though invented by the Chinese, received positive influences from other cultures, thus the art of pottery-making was also enriched.

I noticed whenever China had a relationship with a certain country, Chinese pottery and porcelain were found there. Pottery and porcelain are also a reflection of the culture of that particular area. Since the Tang Dynasty, China has enjoyed a relationship with Arab countries, Egypt, and Turkey, so their cultures are seen in our pottery. According to my studies, Chinese pottery and porcelain were first found in America, in the Gulf of Mexico area and California, during the Ming Dynasty. I think Chinese pottery made its way to the Americas after Columbus discovered the New World. So we can say the relationship between China and the United States started a long time ago.

It sounds like Chinese pottery was significant even beyond the country's borders.

I think the subject of ceramics is extremely interesting and far-reaching. A small pot can connect my interest with the whole world. So, my knowledge has been accumulated and enriched through years of study. Many people like to invite me to tell stories about pottery. Some publishers simply said to me that I didn't have to write anything--I could just tell them the stories and they would publish them. Not only have I traveled far and wide, I've also picked out pottery stories from reading classic Chinese novels and foreign literature.


From 1979 to 1997, Li Zhiyan worked as a researcher at the National Museum, which at the time was called the History Museum. Today, a digital countdown to the 2008 Summer Olympics--in days, hours, minutes, and seconds--is prominently featured near the entrance to the building. (Photo by Eti Bonn-Muller)

What are some examples?

After I read the Dreams of the Red Chamber [a classic Chinese novel written in the Qing Dynasty], I wrote a paper on porcelain in the Red Chamber. The article received rave reviews. Also, when I was reading 1,001 Arabian Nights, I found Chinese pottery in the stories. There is a story about a fisherman who went to sea and caught not only fish, but Chinese pots. This indicates that the stories were not purely fabricated tales, but they were what truly happened back then. Inspired by this story, I wanted to write "Stories of Chinese Pottery and Porcelain in the 1,001 Arabian Nights," but I didn't finish it because I was constantly interrupted by too many other things.

As someone who loves history so much, what do you think about the modernization of Beijing over the past few decades?

Being Chinese myself, and Chinese people in general, we are happy to see Beijing becoming a modern capital. The image of China used to be poor and weak, and that is the image that's left in people's memory. So now, we are happy to see a modern Beijing. However, during the rapid development of the past few years, not enough attention was paid to the conservation of our historical and cultural heritage. As a result, many sites were destroyed, giving way to fast development.

But Chinese people love their own history and culture. Now that people here are having better material lives, and there is a sense of more stability, they are beginning to feel nostalgia for the past, which is part of the old Chinese tradition because Chinese history is so long and old. People have been feeling this way for about 10 years. Many artists began to voice their concerns over our historical culture. And people began to show interest in the conservation of old buildings, old trees, and old courtyard houses. But I still think the promotion in this area is far from enough. It takes time to raise people's awareness.

Has the government been doing more lately?

The government has set up special departments and the heads of these departments are college-educated people who were trained in history or archaeology. Educated people are also put in charge of administrative work in related areas, as the government is still in the process of law-making in the field of cultural-heritage development. College graduates who get these positions enjoy the field not only out of their own interest, but also because the government is investing more money in these fields. The laws in this country are still being established.

What do you think is the future for Beijing's historical sites?

It's better than it used to be. Gradually the government has implemented rules and regulations. There are punishments for people who destroy historic sites. Right now, the emphasis is really on developing people's awareness.