The story of China’s first true red glaze is a well-known and probably apocryphal tale: a rooster wandered into the vent-holes of a royal kiln. The smoke from its cremated body starved the fire of oxygen, creating the first recorded instance of the fabled “ox-blood” glaze. The emperor was struck by the color and demanded more. The potter did all he could to replicate it but in the end, despairing, flung himself into the fires of the kiln. Thus was ox-blood obtained.
That is where the tale, apocryphal or not, ends in most tellings. But there is a further chapter that is not often repeated. For there was another potter.
This potter rivaled the man who flung himself into the kiln, coveting the color that dripped red from the funerary pots. Now ox-blood was all the rage in the imperial court, and so this potter set out to replicate it. After careful examination of the circumstances around his rival’s death, the potter concluded that human sacrifice was needed.
In the country there was no shortage of beggars, vagabonds, orphans, human detritus that would not be missed. The potter’s first experiment buckled under his enthusiasm; too many bodies stacked like kindling put the fire out. His next attempt, a single beggar, yielded only three ox-blood specimens.
The potter’s mania grew like a rash. In his haste to fill the kilns, his craftsmanship became sloppy and haphazard. The potter began insisting he heard a voice coming from the kiln itself, the cracks and pings whispered to him over the sleepless nights he fed it with firewood. The kiln he had was not enough. He must build a more magnificent kiln, one that bit into the hillsides like a dragon. The potter dug and plastered and bricked until his fever dream was made flesh and the dragon-kiln stretched 2½ li into the surrounding countryside. He had servants fill the kiln to bursting and, as the last man delivered the last cup the stack, he bricked up the entrance and set fire.
They say the heat from the kiln boiled a nearby lake. They say the agonized wails of the servants reached the capitol. When the potter cracked open the kiln, he found half the pieces were ox-blood. Not good enough.
The potter continued his experiments until the country was stripped of passer-by. With diminishing outside influence, the potter grew deeper into his mania. No longer content to speak, the potter claimed the kiln beckoned him with shapes in the fire, indicating the next sacrifice. His eyesight dwindled as he stared deep into the white-hot belly of the kiln, pots exploding from the thermal shock each time he removed the spy-brick. Each new setback only strengthened his determination. He finally made his most audacious claim to date: he would deliver to the emperor an entire kiln-full of blood red pottery. Audacious because if he failed to deliver he would forfeit not only his but the lives of every single member of his family.
The allotted interval passed. Officers of the crown set out to the pottery works to find the compound devoid of all life. Curious and malformed lumps of clay occupied the stands that should have held elegant vessels. The officers followed a large patchwork bloodstain to the rear of the compound, where the last bit of motion remained.
The kiln had been bricked over not with stones but skulls. The potter complained that he could not yet make the delivery as the kiln would not reach temperature, sightlessly tossing log after log into the cold firebox.