"Wake up, Old Lady Zhou!"
Xie, the forger, yells as we step from the narrow Jingdezhen streets into a dilapidated wooden structure dating back to the last
years of the Qing Dynasty. Inside, two little girls sit at a converted altar table, giggling between bites, as I, the first foreigner in their abode, walk past their steaming bowls. Their grandfather, seemingly as old as the building, smiles a toothless welcome, and continues eating the jianshuiba- Jingdezhen's noodle specialty.
Old Lady Zhou peeks through a door, long white underwear hauntingly glowing through the candlelit hall. Over 80 years old and a former porcelain artist, Old Lady Zhou busily dresses while we wait in the doorway, Xie impatiently encourages her to hurry up.
The forger boldly leads me into the vacated bedroom. Browned photos from pre-revolutionary times curl around rusted tacks on the walls. A carved canopied mahogany bed echoes with rumpled linens. Dust is everywhere, accompanied by a damp cold that emanates every darkened space. Our eyes adjust to the lack of light, and I soon understand why we are here.
On the wall hangs a series of three brilliant fencai porcelain panels in their original hardwood frames. The panels were completed by one of Jingdezhen's leading pre-revolutionary artists, and similar pieces have sold for over US$100,000 apiece. The fourth panel leans precariously against a coal stove, strangely not in use. A cheap glass-paneled cabinet from the 1960s
teases with misty glimpses of treasures within. I ask Xie if we can open the glass doors, and he, without asking Old Lady Zhou, says go ahead. I forget that there is no such thing as privacy in China.
Inside the doors is a variety of porcelain treasures- beautiful Song Dynasty celadon, late Yuan and early Ming blue and white, and a valuable collection of mid-Qing porcelain- the most sought after pieces on the world market.
Old Lady Zhou has since joined her husband and grandchildren at the table. She pays little attention to the sounds we make in her bedroom. Perhaps $500,000 of items are sitting in her room, but her focus instead seems to be on capturing the last of the jianshuiba.
The irony is confounding. Inside this leaking, cold structure, with limited electricity and no running water, rests a collection of porcelain that would allow Old Lady Zhou, her husband, children and grandchildren to live in luxury in Jingdezhen. Instead, she buries herself in yellowed blankets to fight off the cold and walks down the often-flooded street to an outdoor, shared bathroom. Bars on the windows lend some semblance of security, but even the most inept of robbers would be able to pry off the old wooden planks and enter the complex.
Xie and I join the lunch discussion, which increases the giggles from the two girls. The jianshuiba has already cooled, but Old Lady Zhou and Xie fight over the last pieces. I ask Old Lady Zhou and her husband how they acquired the pieces and why they are still there.
"My husband and I both taught at Jingdezhen's Porcelain Institute from 1947 until 1985. My husband rose to the position of Vice Director in the early 1960s, only to be paraded through town as a enemy during the Cultural Revolution. We both sensed that something was happening in the early 1960s and slowly hid our collection of porcelain in isolated villages with friends
and family. The four panels you see in my room were hidden under this building, buried beneath two feet of dirt and covered by these floor panels. As artists we could not allow the continued destruction of so many of China's treasures."
Old Lady Zhou rinses some dirty cups with luke-warm water, adds dried leavesfrom a rusted can and hot water, and hands Xie and me tea.
"After three years in the southern part of Jiangxi working the fields as part of our reeducation, we were allowed back into the institute and quickly regained our previous positions. It was not until the early nineties, however, that we truly felt comfortable displaying the items."
The treasures are now slowly being sold via auction houses and dealers. Old Lady Zhou views the porcelain as "future savings for my children and grandchildren." She and her husband still allow occasional pieces to reach the markets. Xie, for one, argues with them briefly about a porcelain vase he offered them 2000 renminbi (US$250) for only to find out today that they had
sold it last week for 2200.
"The items are not depreciating in value," Old Lady Zhou jokes, "I get to enjoy their beauty in my last days. How else better to spend your waning time than with your grandchildren and artistic treasures."
The lack of plumbing and heat, the leaking wooden roof, the dust, the noise-all lead me to ask Old Lady Zhou about changing her environment. I tell her that we in the West would want to use the money to create a more comfortable surrounding. We need heat, we need plumbing, we need comfort.
"You see this house," she responds, glancing around the room, "My family has lived here for three generations. It was good enough for my parents and their parents before them. It has served us well too. Look at my grandchildren sitting with my husband eating here. This is what is important to me now. My comfort is found here. Cold rooms are combatted with
blankets and walks to the bathroom only keep me fit. My porcelain treasures will ensure that my grandchildren will all be able to pursue the type of education that they want. That realization keeps me more than warm enough at night"
She touches her two granddaughters and laughs, "Isn?t that right? Maybe the first step is to ask this Lao Wai (foreign friend) to teach you some English!" The girls squirm in their seats and then quickly run off to their rooms, yelling "thank you" and "bye-bye."
"Someday they will appreciate what we are doing for them," Old Lady Zhou winks and walks off to the kitchen.
Xie and I leave with a small Ming blue and white dish, something that I boughtmore for the memory of Old Lady Zhou than for its intrinsic value. Xie complains during our walk back to the outdoor market about the sale of 'his' vase. I marvel instead at the simple beauty of Old Lady Zhou's life in the narrow alleys of Jingdezhen.