Rarely operated today, dragon kilns have been a part of China’s landscape for at least hundreds, if not thousands, of years.
Archaeologists have discovered remains of these stoneware ovens dating back into 1600 BC, and they were called dragons because they're typically long and thin, and snake upwards the side of a slope.
And when they're fired up to 1,300 degrees C (2,372 degrees F), the raging, brick-built kilns glowed red, like massive, fire-breathing dragons.
This dragon design remained the main one in use in China into the Ming Dynasty (1368 - 1644 AD).
In Hong Kong, there's just one left—the Castle Peak Dragon Kiln, built in the style of the ones that fired Shiwan pottery in Guangdong. Shiwan pottery began in the late-Ming dynasty, and was famous for its beautiful, glazed style that influenced Japan's Shiga pottery.
Hong Kong sculptor and ceramicist Louis Lo Sai-keung explained that kiln workers worked by instinct and experience. “In the old days, there was no electrical controller or even thermometer to monitor the temperature.
“The kiln workers monitored the temperature by watching the colour of the flame.”
Through peepholes set along the length of the kiln, they could tell if each section was reaching the required temperature for the pottery, and types of glaze, placed inside.
“The flame turns red if the temperature reaches 500 degrees C (932 degrees F), yellow at 800 to 900 degrees C (1,472 - 1,652 degrees F), bright yellow for 1,100 degrees C (2,012 degrees F) and yellowish white for 1,280 degrees C (2,336 degrees F),” Lo said.
“It was a difficult task. A kiln master had to tell the temperature accurately to ensure works were precisely fired—not under-fired or over-fired, otherwise all the works would be wasted.”
Each firing, to reach peak temperature and cool down again, could take two to three days, and mistakes could prove disastrous to kiln workers’ livelihoods. “This chamber housed tens of thousands of utensils,” Lau said.
“And a firing is an intense thing because it takes so much energy and material and costs. They would pray to the ‘kitchen god’ beforehand, to make sure all went well, otherwise they could lose their business.”
The Castle Peak Dragon Kiln was closed in 1982, and is being considered for preservation as a historical monument in Hong Kong.
Adapted from an original article first published in the South China Morning Post.