As a former peasant who grew up in a traditional northern Chinese cave house, Xu Dufeng has always had close links to the soil. At the beginning of China's economic reforms in the 1980s, Xu would dig raw clay from the ground in the mountains near his home village and load it onto the back of his three-wheeled tractor. Then he would make the seven-hour drive to Xian, the nearest big city, where he would sell his precious cargo to local ceramics workshops. Friends remember him arriving, sweating from the journey, a towel wrapped around his head.
Today Xu is the owner of one of the region's biggest brick-and-tile factories, and he travels in a little more style--his Audi is chauffeur-driven. But he hasn't forgotten the humble clay that got him started. During the past year Xu has decided to plow some of his fortune into building an international ceramic-arts center with 10 museums showcasing contemporary ceramics by leading artists from different parts of the world, in what was once a bare field behind his factory in Fuping, in China's Shaanxi province. "Of course, some friends think I'm crazy," says the soft-spoken Xu, "but you have to follow your instincts. Since I began delivering clay I fell in love with ceramic works--and I admire the artists so much. So I want to make this a place where artists from around the world can create and communicate."
A remote hillside on the edge of north China's famously barren "yellow earth" loess plateau might seem an inhospitable place to start. In early August, Xu's dream took a step closer to becoming reality, with the opening of a museum dedicated to contemporary French ceramics. Ten of France's leading ceramic artists spent several weeks working in Fuping's studios, producing a series of abstract and installation pieces for the museum. Twenty more French artists will visit over the next two years to add their contributions.
"When we first heard this idea we thought it might be a joke," says Daphne Corregan, an American ceramic artist who has worked in France for 30 years and organized the French delegation. "But the people here have given us so much cooperation. And coming from a country like France, where there isn't even a national museum of ceramics, it's an unbelievable opportunity. The works produced so far are very good."
The project is not without its problems. The angular concrete building that houses the French museum was still being completed the day before it was due to open. But it now sits proudly beside the museum's general exhibition hall, a striking modernist structure representing a ceramic vase half-buried in the ground, designed by Xian architecture professor Liu Kecheng. The insistence on creative design is an indication of how serious Fuping and its owners are about realizing their vision: "We want to challenge and raise the ideas of the local people," says founder Xu Dufeng. "We destroyed so much culture in China in the past--now people must get used to new thinking."
Xu is pressing ahead with plans to launch yet another museum, of Scandinavian ceramics, in November. By 2010 he intends to have galleries featuring works by artists from the rest of Europe, North America, Australasia, East Asia and Africa, as well as China itself. There are even plans for a ceramic academy in collaboration with local and foreign art schools.
China's growing middle class is increasingly interest-ed in art, making this the perfect time for such a project, says I-Chi Hsu, an American businessman based in Beijing who acts as adviser to the center and has spent the past decade promoting contemporary Chinese ceramics. The center might eventually become self-financing, though managing the project as it grows will be a challenge, says Hsu. "We will invite the artists back to stay for longer," he says. "We'll give them the facilities, and they can leave us a proportion of their works, which we can sell to collectors in China. I believe this will be one of the world's biggest art markets in a few years." Xu is more cautious: "It may take 10 or 20 years before contemporary ceramics can really be widely accepted in China," he says, "but some things just have to be done. You might not succeed," he adds, "but you have to try." For him, it's worked before.