Suzhou is 1,200 kilometres south of Beijing. Yet this is where, six hundred years ago, the famous ‘gold bricks’ of the Beijing’s Forbidden City were made. These amazing bricks are in many ways symbolic of China of that time. The process for their production was (and remains) unbelievably painstaking, time-consuming and complicated - but the finished product was a technological marvel for its time (and it remains so). However, each brick was prohibitively expensive - just one cost enough to feed a three person family for six months. Such was the decadence of Imperial China. And yet that same system somehow produced exceptional feats of engineering, such as the Forbidden City itself, and China's Grand Canal, the oldest and longest man-made canal in the world. It was used to transport these bricks from here to Beijing.
We started researching this story more than eight months ago. When we first arrived at the Imperial Gold Brick Kiln in Suzhou, we were surprised. This was not what we were expecting. There was no actual gold to be seen. But we did find a treasure.
China’s Imperial 'Jinzhuan’, which literally translates as ‘gold bricks' are not actually made from gold, but from clay. There are varying opinions amongst academics of Chinese cultural heritage about how the 'gold bricks' got their name. Some say the name developed as a recognition of the incredible cost of production, and also because they make a metallic sound when hit. Others surmise that it’s a pun on ‘jingzhuan’ ('capital bricks’) because ’jing’ (as in Beijing, which literally means 'the northern (Bei) capital (Jing))’ sounds like ‘jin’ (gold). So this exaggeration was perhaps a sardonic reference to the cost of producing these bricks.
What is undeniable is that these bricks are truly astounding. To produce one takes about a year, and involves a staggering number of time consuming, meticulous processes, each requiring considerable patience. There are no short cuts. The process was first documented in the Ming Dynasty manual 'The Illustrated Book on the Selection of Bricks’, which even specifies what sort of fuel (’twigs’, ‘ pine branch’, ‘wheat husks’) to be used for each stage of firing in the kiln. We could not help but wonder - who thought of all this? How did they work out that these processes would produce such an extraordinary product? Six hundred years ago there was no electricity, no engines. Everything was done by hand. And yet it produced these incredibly durable bricks that display many of the remarkable properties of space age materials. Perhaps, therefore, the name, while not literally accurate, is not an exaggeration.
But the real treasure of the Suzhou Imperial Kiln is Ms Jin, a former school teacher who, it turns out, has been recognised by the Chinese Government as the ‘official lineage holder' of the Suzhou Imperial Kiln’s gold brick technique. Her story is, in effect, six hundred years old. And it is truly remarkable.