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Trial by Fire


Trial by Fire

David Lee


Chengtai Tian, with the help of his wife Yuelian Chen, creates the world’s most sought-after wood-fired pottery. Photo by Ady Zhuang


In the midnight hours, high in the mountains of Miaoli County in western Taiwan, a master artisan moulds his passion and creativity into clay. Sweat pours down his brow, his clothes soaked from proximity to the burning kiln he loads with wood. The master craftsman is Chengtai Tian, a humble Taiwanese setting a new standard in wood-fired pottery. 

Tian’s journey to becoming one of the world’s preeminent potters could be called an act of fate — and misfortune — as much as unrelenting passion and hard work. In his 40s, Tian was well-known for his wood and stone carving in Taiwan, yet he couldn’t make the economics of his art work, leaving him broke. But his artistic fire would never blow out, and he asked his wife about trying a new, inexpensive, medium — pottery.

“It only costs a few hundred NT dollars for a package of clay, but the pottery made from it indeed can be worth 3,000, 30,000, or even 300,000 NT dollars,” he says. His wife, Yuelian Chen, asked, “But, can you make it?” 

Tian carefully thought it over, then with a mixture of artistic bravery and belief in himself, he said, “Yes, I can.” 

English Text by David Lee