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What is Liuli Crystal?

We hear the word Liuli (Chinese traditional colored glaze) very often. But what is Liuli? How did it come into being?

Liuli is one firing material exclusively used by ancient Chinese royal families, which dates back to the West Zhou Dynasty and East Han Dynasty 3,000 years ago. The user of Liuli was strictly confined so it was seldom seen among the common people.

Chinese Liuli has a long history. It is said that Liuli was first accidentally discovered by an alchemist named Lu Shen when refining the Elixir of Life for the emperor. He presented those clear radiant objects in the furnace to the emperor, claiming them to be the very medicine with functions of exorcising and maintaining life indefinitely. The emperor was so impressed and from then on the production of Liuli began.

Chu Kuo Jade, the Warring States Period

In Xi’an light green color Liuli beads dating to the West Zhou Dynasty were unearthed. During Wei, Jin, South and North Dynasties, with the prevalence of Buddhism Liuli was used in the production of bowls, cases of inkstones, folding screens and a large number of adornments on Buddha statues. With more varieties coming out, Liuli started to be used as decorations on doors and windows during the Sui and Tang Dynasty and later in women’s accessories. Site of Liuli furnace from late Yuan Dynasty have been unearthed in Mountain Bo Shan, Shan Dong Province. In the Ming Dynasty Liuli workshop was also set up in Mountain Bo Shan. Liuli produced in Kun Ming and Yong Chang were very well-known at that time too, with black, white, red, bright orange or green colors and were mainly in shape of chess pieces.

During the reign of Emperor Kangxi in Qing Dynast(1662~1722), Liuli plants were established, producing cups, bowls, bottles, plates and snuff boxes with more than 10 colors of transparency, ivory, cream, snow, pink, red, blue, purple, yellow, green and gold. Till the reign of Emperor Qianlong, the figure reached more than twenty. At that time, the use of Liuli, especially its specific color indicating rigid hierarchy, was strictly confined. Yellow exclusively used for emperors therefore yellow Liuli tiles could only be used on the imperial architectures. The roofs of princes’ palaces were built with green Liuli tiles and commoners were not allowed to use Liuli tiles. Liuli Pixie, modern craftworkLiuli artwork is what we call the product made of Liuli. With bright colors, vivid shape and delicate design, it is favored by people from all over the world. The raw materials of glassware are silicates and its metallic oxides which abundantly exist in nature. After melting under high temperature they are made into sticks of different sizes and then softened on light before being handmade into final products. Unlike glaze, Liuli artwork has no mould, each one being unique as craftsmen’s improvised work. In comparison with glass, Liuli artwork has a lower melting point thus making it more colorful. Perfect glassware comes from not only good skills but also luck.

The production tools of Beijing Liuli artwork are quite simple. With the improvement of technology the heating facility evolves from charcoal to balm light, and then becomes gas blowtorch.

Beijing, as the capital city of dynasties, has gathered craftsmen throughout the country, and also is the major production area of Liuli artwork. After hundreds years of development, there are more than one thousand types of Liuli artwork raging from Liuli animals to Liuli accessories, among which more than 95% are applied for exportation and tourism, gaining plenty of foreign exchange every year from Europe, America and Asia.

Liuli Pumpkin, modern craftwork

Chinese Liuli artwork is more than just a craftwork. It also contains philosophical and religious connotation. Glassware is the embodiment of personality, spirit and mental health.

Liuli artwork is among many of the traditional Chinese handicrafts, and it has more than 600 years of history. It can also be found on the Intangible Cultural Heritage list.

The making of the traditional Liuli involves puttingsilicon, acid, salt and metal oxide together and bringing it up to a high temperature until it starts to melt into the shape of a stick, then different colors of sticks are put together to burn in the fire. Then it is carved into shape as soon as it gets soft. Thus it is also called fiery sculpture.

A good Liuli artwork has everything to do with the artist's experience and skill because of the speed required to make something in the fire. We met Xing Lanxiang, China's most distinguished Liuli handicraft master, at the Beijing handicraft workshop.

Xing Lanxiang, master of glass art: I have been in this field since 1962, it has been 48 years now, almost half a century. I enjoy doing it. Whatever you want, whatever you like, I can achieve it out of tweezers.

The sufficient experience and the necessary skills as well as creativity all represent the rich Chinese culture. The elements that Liuli captures are aurum, cuprum, iron, so it appears in extremely vivid colors. The fact that it was quickly sculpted in the fire makes it more precious.

Xing Lanxiang, master of glass art: Now I am old. I don't want this art form to die, and that's why I am asking my two sons to resign and learn how to do this from me.

Xing Lanxiang's two sons, Liu Yu and Liu Xing, are doing creative and managing work at the Beijing Baigongfang handcraft workshop, where many people go just to see their mother’s works.

Liu Yu, Xing Lanxiang's sons: It's my responsibility to pass on this ancient art form.


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