Rock Climbing and Pottery in Chao Long, China

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Joe Rattue recounts his summer spent teaching on a Chinese summer camp

Last January, I sat, bored and uninspired, looking through my email inbox, at a total loss as to how I should spend my summer. Somewhere between the productive internships and numerous volunteer opportunities, the words “Teaching Project in China” caught my eye. “Seems different- might be worth a look,” I told myself. Seven months, a long visa application process, one almost equally long journey and two days of rock climbing and pottery later, I can confidently say that I was not wrong. So, without further ado, allow me to take you through the ins, outs, ups and downs of climbing rock faces and making bowls in China. 

Teaching on a Chinese summer camp is great way to learn new skills and see a different area of the world.

It is an apt coincidence that the name “China” is also the term we use in English to describe the things we eat off and drink out of. Before I went to Chao Long in Guangxi Province and worked on a summer camp, I knew precious little about making pots, mugs and bowls out of clay, and less still about the prestigious place this practice occupied in Chinese culture. When I walked into the potter’s house that morning in Chao Long with the kids from the school, I was not aware of the mastery I was about to bear witness to. The shelves inside the house were stocked with the refined, artistic works of the man who ran the place, beautiful relics with historic events etched into and painted onto them. Then there were the kids. Those cruel, talented kids. 

I resolved not to allow the Pottery Incident of August 2019 to repeat itself.

Clay is not the most obedient substance. It tends to be very stubborn, even when you apply a fair bit of pressure to it, so it makes sense to spin the wheel faster. Then it suddenly it changes shape rapidly as it bursts uncontrollably off the wheel all over your hands, and you’re left there with the kids you’re supposed to be supervising looking at you with expressions of surprise and disdain on their faces as their little seven-year-old fingers craft the next additions to the potter’s shelves with inexplicable, effortless dexterity. Controlling the class was harder that afternoon, but we got some nice bowls. 

Little did I know we would be climbing on an actual rock face.

Rock climbing was a different story. Well-versed in the art of attaching ropes to indoor walls designed for children and scaling them above thick crash mats (I was, in fact, a child when I did this, honest), I arrived suitably cocky. Little did I know we would be climbing on an actual rock face. No matter. I resolved not to allow the Pottery Incident of August 2019 to repeat itself. This time fate was on my side, and, having sweated my way up the rock in the 37-degree heat, I was greeted on my descent by children cheering, one of them even having the kindness to congratulate me on being better at climbing than pottery. I knew someone who wouldn’t be getting any gold stars that day. 

I learnt a great many things working at that school, one of them being that I definitely need pottery lessons. Another is that teaching on a Chinese summer camp is great way to learn new skills and see a different area of the world, and that anyone who likes the sound of it should definitely go for it.

Image credit: Joe Rattue