Holding in my hands the few tea bowls Wu Wei Cheng recently made, I realised each of them possesses different depths. Some are so shallow that tea would easily get spilt while whisking; while some are too deep for the whisk to touch the bottom of the bowl. I can imagine it is almost impossible to form bubbles using it. ‘Many treat tea bowl as decoration. They can pick whichever they find fit; I don’t care about the utility value.’ Wu Wei Cheng told me with a bright smile. Wu is a famous Taiwanese potter, who in the interview mentioned more than a few times ‘I don’t care’ and ‘it doesn’t bother me’.
Unlike other potters, Wu makes his tea utensils with an extra force of strength. The word ‘gentle’ that is commonly used to describe pottery making, therefore, does not seem to apply to Wu’s works. He made a series of porcelain cups that are all different in size; one thing in common is the obviously prominent carve on them. The cups all appear stout after being incubated by Wu’s strict dealing. Their spiky outlooks may appear intimidating at the first glance, but when holding in hands, one would instantly discover the immense gentleness under the hardline surface. Every single sharp edge is polished into a silk-like smoothness. Regardless of the small sizes, the cups release a powerful energy that can well be perceived as sculptures on a table. Wu later told me that he is into architecture and interior design; he also likes Ju Ming a lot, and therefore wishes to recreate the creative impact of his sculptures with his tea utensils. This made me realised that Wu has indeed a sculptor’s mind when making his tea utensils.
Wu has been learning art since childhood. His passion for drawing was taken over by his enthusiasm for pottery ever since his first encounter with it in his third year in senior high school. Upon graduating from high school, he became completely indulged in working with clay after fixing the potter’s wheel he received. Wu’s father was very impressed by his passion, and gave him a gas fired kiln two years later, which completed his simple private studio. Being a self-taught potter, Wu said exploring and experimenting all by himself gave him a great liberty to create without a boundary, on the other hand, he had to spend more time learning — but ‘more time’ as told by Wu actually means 10 years time to grow from a beginner to an experienced practitioner with a distinctive style.
The majority of Taiwanese potters focuses on making tea utensils for the passion for tea among Taiwanese. Tea drinking is a daily habit as well as a recreational enjoyment. People are even more willing to spend on tea utensils along with the growing trend of Chinese tea ceremony. Canonical standards are not unique to Japanese tea utensils; Chinese tea ceremony likewise has its own rules. For instance, taller cups are for smelling, and shorter cups are for drinking. Interestingly, Wu served me some tea with a tall cup when I visited his studio. He said, ‘I couldn’t care less about standards and rules.’ I actually hold similar stance of neglecting the shape of cups too. As long as they can contain tea, what can keep them from being classified as cups?
Despite his insistence on the freedom of design, he has a comparatively stubborn preference on using porcelain instead of clay for making Chinese tea cups. To him, porcelain cup is a better medium for expressing the essence of tea. The higher density of porcelain as a material gives the tea cups a smoother appearance. Our taste buds are stimulated by the visual impact, and as a result, finds the tea smoother. Clay is a very rough material that seemingly suits merely Japanese tea. At the same time, the glossiness of porcelain doesn’t go well with Japanese tea as it contradicts the philosophy of wabi-sabi that heavily influenced Japanese tea ceremony.
Since Chinese tea ceremony became a recent trend in Japan, Wu has been approached by quite many Japanese who wish to import his tea utensils. Most of them gave up the idea after learning the price, however, he appeared totally unperturbed. When invited by the Japanese master of living crafts Masanobu Ando for a solo exhibition in Japan, although he was not in lack of interest, he did not act very enthusiastically. To Wu, his current jobs are already enough to support his life. He lives in line with his philosophy of placidity — takes the jobs that destiny brings to him; follows his heart when creating arts.