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Eggshell China (Botaici)

A gem of Chinese ceramics, eggshell china is remarkable for its extraordinary thinness. Yet it is appreciated also because it is spotlessly white, translucent, and sonorous when tapped. It is made mainly into bowls, vases, cups, lamp-shades and articles for use in the study. Whatever form it assumes, one may appreciate through its paper-thin wall with its coloured painting on the other side like watching the moon through flimsy clouds, or green hills through a thin mist with the beauty enhanced by a veiled effect.

The "eggshell" has as its forerunner yinggingci (shadowy celadon), which was produced as early as in the Northern Song Dynasty (906-1127). Present-day production excels the past in both quantity and quality. Recent successes at Jingdezhen include a 75-cm-tall vase and a large bowl 25.7 cm across, sizes thought impossible to mould in eggshell china in the past.

To make such "insubstantial" utensils, an exacting craftsmanship is needed. It requires the best and most carefully selected kaolin, mixing of ingredients according to strict prescriptions and repeated tempering of the clay before the potter moulds the paste into bodies. Then, a master craftsman will wield various cutting tools to shape them finely into eggshell thinness and have them fired in the kiln at a high temperature of over 1,300 degrees celsius.

The most difficult part of this process is the fine-moulding, which finalises the form of the utensil. A veteran master, relying solely on his sense of hearing and touch, decides on the thickness of the wall, holding his breath when he applies his knife, as a slight slip would result in a ruined body.

Eggshell porcelain is not for use but for interior decoration and as a deluxe ornament. A small bowl may cost upwards of 7,000 yuan! The eggshell plates and bowls of the Yongzheng period (1723-1735) of the Qing Dynasty, now displayed in the Palace Museum of the Forbidden City, are literally priceless. No wonder all eggshell china, whether in museum or in private collection are always kept inside a glass cover.

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