中文 / EN
Robert D. Mowry

Li Hongwei: Master of Innovation


Robert D. Mowry 

Alan J. Dworsky Curator of Chinese Art Emeritus,

Harvard Art Museums

A ceramicist of the highest caliber and a sculptor of unsurpassed ability, Li Hongwei is internationally renowned for his porcelains, which are prized for their highly innovative glazes, as well as for his sculptures, which combine glazed porcelain and stainless steel. His ceramic glazes are acclaimed both for the new colors that he has pioneered and for the localized areas of crystallization that he induces within the glaze matrix to create decoration in a contrasting color. Mr. Li has achieved success not only in determining the quantity and size of the crystalline formations but in defining their shapes, which recall leaves and blossoms. Mr. Li’s unique sculptures offer a new direction in contemporary sculpture.


I first encountered Li Hongwei’s work at a New York art fair about fifteen years ago. Embellished with royal blue, ginkgo-leaf-shaped designs, the yellow-glazed vase featured in the display immediately captured my attention. Wholly apart from its beauty, the vase opened my eyes to the world of contemporary Chinese ceramics, sparking an interest that continues to this day.


By training, I am an historian of Chinese art; though now retired, by profession I was a museum curator, heading the Harvard Art Museums’ Department of Asian Art, which has strong holdings of East Asian art. Despite an initial focus on Chinese painting, I have specialized in Chinese ceramics for the past forty-five years, advising collectors, assembling museum collections, organizing exhibitions, and publishing catalogues in the field.


As an undergraduate long ago, I majored in art history, medieval humanities, and French language and literature, assuming that I would do my graduate work in French Gothic architecture and sculpture. Immediately after graduation in 1967, however, I joined the U.S. Peace Corps and was sent to the Republic of Korea, where for the next two years I taught English at Seoul National University. During those years, I spent many pleasurable hours at the National Museum of Korea, learning about Korean sculpture, painting, and ceramics. Thanks to an introduction from one of my college professors, I came to know Dr. Kim Chewon (1909–1990), then the museum’s director, who kindly introduced me to the basics of Korean art. Over time, Korean ceramics so thoroughly intrigued me—particularly the classic celadon-glazed wares of the Goryeo dynasty (918–1392)—that I ultimately decided to leave the field of European medieval art in favor of Asian art. Ceramics thus have held a powerful attraction for me for more than fifty years; indeed, my early encounters with Korean art changed the focus of my studies and even of my career.


Despite my initial interest in Korean art, I studied Chinese art in graduate school (1969–1975), specializing in Chinese painting but also taking courses in Asian ceramics, reading numerous books on the history of Chinese ceramics, and examining as many pieces in museum storerooms as I could. As part of my graduate training, I spent two years (1975–1977) at the National Palace Museum, Taipei, doing research on Chinese art and also working as a curatorial assistant and translator. The present home of the former imperial collections, the National Palace Museum ranks among the world’s greatest repositories of Chinese paintings and ceramics. During my two years there, I saw and studied first-hand many of the masterworks of Chinese ceramics, from the monochrome-glazed stonewares of the Song dynasty (960–1279) to the blue-and-white wares of the Ming dynasty (1368–1644) to the exquisitely enameled porcelains of the Qing dynasty (1644–1911). After returning to the U.S., I worked as assistant curator of Asian art at the Harvard Art Museums (1977–1980) and then as curator of the Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller 3rd Collection at The Asia Society, New York (1980–1986). Late in 1986, I returned to the Harvard Art Museums, where I served as the Alan J. Dworsky Curator of Chinese Art and Head of the Department of Asian Art until my retirement in 2013. Both the Harvard and Rockefeller collections are exceptionally strong in Chinese ceramics, affording daily opportunities for me to handle and study fine pieces throughout the many years of my career.


I have talked at some length about my own background in order to demonstrate my experience and long involvement with Chinese ceramics, including associations with several of the world’s great collections.


Before I saw Li Hongwei’s yellow vase with blue designs on display in New York some years ago, I was convinced that most contemporary Chinese ceramics were lodged in the past, so to speak, recreating Song monochromes and replicating Ming blue-and-white wares or Qing enameled porcelains but not technically advancing the potter’s art. The moment I saw Li Hongwei’s yellow-glazed vase, however, I knew that my previous belief was wrong: Li Hongwei can compete in the same arena as the finest, most innovative traditional Chinese potters.


As I learned from that yellow-glazed vase, Mr. Li’s ceramics are not focused on recreating the traditional Chinese ceramics of bygone eras; rather, they are of an entirely different order. Highly innovative and stunningly beautiful, they are technically sophisticated, advancing the potter’s art through the introduction of new techniques of decoration.


Chinese potters were the first in the world to produce stoneware, which they did as early as 1500 BC, evincing China’s early technological prowess. With their invention of white porcelain in the eighth or ninth century, during the Tang dynasty (618–907), they established the foundation of the later ceramic tradition not just for China but for the world. With mastery of high-fired ceramic bodies firmly in place, whether stoneware or porcelain, potters faced the challenge of creating beautiful glazes and of introducing appropriate techniques of decoration to embellish their pots.


During the thousand years from the Han dynasty (206 BC–AD 220) to the Song dynasty (960–1279), Chinese potters invented, pioneered, and perfected celadon glazes—those high-fired glazes, that, due to their inclusion of a small admixture of iron oxide, mature to a pale bluish green hue. Those potters also mastered clear, colorless glazes, which they applied over porcelains and other white wares, and they experimented with brown and black glazes, achieved through the addition to the glaze slurry of a slightly higher percentage of iron oxide than used for the celadon wares.


Having mastered stoneware and porcelain production and having perfected clear, celadon, and dark glazes, Chinese potters concentrated on expanding their repertory of decorative techniques. They first embellished their ceramics with incised and carved designs; by the late Northern Song period (960–1127) they were using molds to impress decoration on the interior of bowls and other open-form vessels. They also learned to paint underglaze designs in brown and black slips as seen in Cizhou wares, just as they tried their hand at splashed glazes, inducing lavender suffusions to form in opaque, sky blue glazes by sprinkling copper filings on localized areas of glaze before firing as witnessed by Jun ware.


During the Yuan (1279–1368) and Ming (1368–1644) dynasties, potters at Jingdezhen—that city in northeastern Jiangxi province that would become the porcelain capital of China and then of the world—mastered the art of embellishing porcelain with bold designs painted in underglaze cobalt blue to produce blue-and-white ware, using brush techniques pioneered by their Song-dynasty forebears, but substituting cobalt for the iron-oxide-bearing brown and black slips used in earlier eras.


For a thousand years, the chief decorative techniques for embellishing ceramics have been limited to incising or carving motifs on the ceramic body—or painting designs on the ceramic body, usually in cobalt blue—before applying the glaze slurry and firing the pieces in the kiln. The last great innovation before Mr. Li’s recent contributions occurred some five-hundred years ago, during China’s Ming dynasty, with the development of so-called overglaze enamels, in which designs were painted in brightly colored, low-firing glazes on the surfaces of already high-fired porcelains, after which the pieces were fired again, but at a lower temperature, the second firing melting the low-firing glazes—i.e., the so-called “enamels”—bringing their colors to maturity, and fusing them to the surface of the existing, high-fired glaze.


By the late Ming period, porcelains with decoration painted in overglaze enamels had supplanted blue-and-white ware as the preferred ceramic ware. The overglaze enamels offered a broader range of colors than could be achieved with underglaze painting, which was limited to blue (from cobalt), red (from copper), and brown (from iron oxide). The expanded palette afforded by overglaze enamels appealed to the public’s growing love of color; in addition, it facilitated the creation of decorative schemes that mimicked paintings on paper and silk, which also met with increasing public acclaim. Qing-dynasty potters not only refined and further expanded the palette of enamel colors but created ever more sophisticated designs; their efforts culminated in the enameled porcelains of the eighteenth century, which surely are the most exquisite ever produced, particularly those imperial porcelains known as Guyuexuan ware. The invention and perfection of decoration in overglaze enamels was the last major technical innovation in Chinese ceramics until the advent of glazes with crystalline formations in the twentieth century. Mr. Li’s unique contribution to the advancement of ceramic technology has been the introduction of means to control the size, shape, and quantity of crystalline formations in crystalline glazes, not to mention the quality of the resulting crystalline designs. His contributions thus embrace both aesthetics and ceramic technology.


In the twentieth century, such potters as James Lovera (1920–2015) and the husband-and-wife team of Otto (1908–2007) and Gertrud (1908–1971) Natzler achieved success in expanding the range of glaze colors and textures, but didn’t otherwise experiment with new decorative techniques. By contrast, Mr. Li has not only introduced new glaze colors but has achieved success in controlling the size, shape, quantity, and quality of the crystalline formations in his crystalline glazes and has thereby significantly advanced  ceramic technology.


In terms of glazes, Mr. Li’s new colors include his trademark yellow, which he terms “Splash Gold Peacock Blue Glaze”, his lime-green glaze, named “Traced Ink Splash Glaze”, his dove-gray glaze, called “Winter Morning Mist Glaze”, and his variegated strawberry-red glaze. What is remarkable about these glazes is that they are all high-fired. Although Chinese potters had perfected bluish-green celadon glazes by the Song dynasty and had created high-fired, copper-red glazes during the Ming and Qing dynasties—such as the so-called “Sacrificial-red Glazes” of the early fifteenth century and the so-called “Ox-blood Glazes”, or “Sang de Boeuf Glazes” (known in Chinese as Lang Yao) of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries—their yellow, aubergine, and pale and emerald green glazes were low-firing overglaze enamels, applied atop the glazes of already-fired porcelains which were then fired again at a lower temperature to melt the enamels, mature their colors, and fuse them to the glaze surface.


Apart from the crystalline formations in his glazes, Mr. Li has also achieved success in introducing variegation in the colors of his glazes with the result that the glaze color may vary from location to location, sometimes lighter, sometimes darker, and sometimes with hints of other colors, as seen in the “Winter Morning Mist Glaze”, which is basically dove-gray but with suffusions of rose and mauve, which suggest the day’s coming dawn. Mr. Li likens the suffusions in his glazes to the colored effects in Song-dynasty Jun ware.


Through experimentation and through the study of chemistry—particularly ceramic and glaze chemistry—Mr. Li has coaxed copper, a traditional glaze-coloring agents, to produce new glaze colors. Chinese potters first used copper during the Eastern Han period (AD 25–220) to produce low-fired, lead-fluxed, dark green glazes which they applied over brick-red, earthenware vessels. By the Yuan dynasty (1279–1368), potters learned that designs painted on porcelains in underglaze copper would mature to a strawberry-red if fired in a reducing atmosphere, resulting in so-called underglaze red ware, or Youlihong. By the same token, porcelain glazes colored with copper would mature to a brilliant strawberry red if fired in a reducing atmosphere, as evinced by the previously mentioned Sacrificial-red and Ox-blood Glazes. Seldom exploited by Mr. Li’s predecessors because of the difficulty in attaining the desired color, high-fired glazes colored with copper can also mature to a pale green, or sage green, if fired in an oxidizing atmosphere, as witnessed by Mr. Li’s “Traced Ink Splash Glaze”. Such copper-green glazes superficially resemble celadon glazes, though the colors are not identical, though a true celadon glaze is attained with iron oxide as the coloring agent, and though the copper-green glazes are far more difficult to achieve. Additionally, if fired in the proper kiln atmosphere, copper can also produce dove-gray glazes, as seen in Mr. Li’s “Winter Morning Mist Glaze”. Traditional Chinese potters did not intentionally produce gray glazes, but a few Yuan and early Ming porcelains decorated in underglaze copper that were intended to be underglaze-red porcelains actually matured with gray decoration due to variation in kiln atmosphere during firing.


Through his introduction of new glaze colors and his success in controlling the size, shape, quantity, and quality of crystalline formations in crystalline glazes, Mr. Li has contributed significantly to the advancement of ceramic technology, creating decoration not under the glaze, not on the glaze surface, but within the glaze itself. These are major contributions to the potter’s art and rank among the very significant breakthroughs in ceramic technology. In the arena of decorative techniques, Li Hongwei has made an indelible mark on the history of ceramics, adding his name to the short list of potters who have contributed new techniques of decoration to the ceramicist’s art.


In short, Li Hongwei ranks among the world’s most sophisticated contemporary artists, admired in China, in the West, and around the world. His ceramics are not merely technically accomplished; rather, they rise to the highest order of technical excellence. With their new colors—and particularly with their well-controlled crystalline decorative elements within the glazes—his porcelains reveal exceptional innovation, picking up and pushing forward a tradition of creativity that had lain dormant for several centuries. Best of all, his ceramics and his ceramic-and-stainless-steel sculptures are breathtakingly beautiful, an absolute joy to behold. If a ceramic masterpiece is defined as a work of fired clay that represents the supremely happy marriage of creativity, technical excellence, and aesthetic merit, then Li Hongwei’s works, whether his ceramics or his sculptures, are masterpieces, and he is a master artist to the world.




Robert D. Mowry was for many years the Alan J. Dworsky Curator of Chinese Art and Head of the Department of Asian Art at the Harvard Art Museums and also Senior Lecturer in Chinese and Korean Art in Harvard’s Department of the History of Art and Architecture. A specialist in Chinese art, he has also done considerable work with Korean art, publishing in the field and building a collection of Korean paintings and ceramics for the Harvard Art Museums. He served as the founding Curator of the Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller 3rd Collection at The Asia Society in New York from 1980 until 1986. His best-known publication, Hare’s Fur, Tortoiseshell, and Partridge Feathers: Chinese Brown- and Black-Glazed Ceramics, 400–1400, is the catalogue of a 1995 exhibition that pioneered the scholarly study of Chinese brown- and black-glazed ceramics. Since his retirement from Harvard in 2013, he has been serving as a Senior Consultant in Chinese and Korean Art at Christie’s; though working primarily with Christie’s New York offices, he also has responsibilities toward the London, Paris, and Hong Kong offices. He’s not involved in sales in marketing; rather, he does research, publishes scholarly articles, and conducts continuing-education seminars for the Christie’s professional staff.