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The Shard Box Store
A Beijing family's quest to preserve China's history and culture
By Laurence Coulton | NO.8-9 FEBRUARY 22, 2018

The eponymous boxes from which the Shard Box Store takes its name. Each box is made from a shard of Ming or Qing Dynasty porcelain, destroyed during the Cultural Revolution and later salvaged by the Hu family

People have been creating ceramics in the lands that now make up China for 20,000 years. The pottery discovered in caves in southeast China's Jiangxi Province is among the oldest examples found anywhere in the world, and illuminates the origins of one of China's most significant art forms. Chinese earthenware came to resemble what we might today call porcelain sometime around the Han Dynasty (202 B.C.-A.D. 220), with techniques honed throughout the dynastic period to reach a level of refinement which saw Chinese pots, vases and bowls become some of the most coveted objects in the world.

While the works of master craftsmen were usually reserved for the imperial household and a discerning Chinese market, during the Ming and Qing (1368-1911) dynasties, Chinese ceramics were mass produced on an industrial scale for export to Europe. These pieces became so ubiquitous in the collections of the European elite that the word for Chinese porcelain in the English language became synonymous with the country itself, so that even today households from London to New York save their fine "china" for the most important social occasions.

Earrings created from miniature portraits of classical Chinese women. Porcelain wares featuring such designs were once highly fashionable in both China and Europe

In the 20th century, the social status of Chinese art radically changed. What were once the finest accoutrements of an elite section of society came to represent the excess and injustice of the old regime, and during the turbulence of the 1970s many porcelain antiques were destroyed in a symbolic rejection of the old customs and habits.

During this time, the Hu family was living in one of Beijing's many hutong, the small alleyways which once formed the majority of the city's residential areas. The father of the Hu household, Hu Zonglu, was a jeweler and antique collector who had been running a shop on the Beijing Flower Market Street since the 1930s. Witness to the destruction of relics in his neighborhood, Hu Zonglu was distressed by what he saw as irrevocable damage to China's history and culture. Later, he began to collect the discarded fragments of broken antique porcelain, seeking to preserve what remained of a once celebrated Chinese art.

"During the 'cultural revolution' (1966-76), keeping antique porcelain at home was considered illegal. So many collectors broke their pieces and threw them away. After the period ended, my family began collecting the broken pieces of antique porcelain and tried to bring them to life again," Hu Zonglu's grandson Hu Chunming told Beijing Review.

Reform and opening up swept across China's cities in the 1980s, bringing with it new opportunities for people to start businesses, and the Hu family saw an opportunity to revitalize the broken antiques collecting dust in their home. Hu Zonglu taught his son Hu Songlin the art of making jewelry, and together they opened a small shop close to Ritan Park, embedding pieces of broken pottery into the lids of small silver boxes and selling them at inexpensive prices.

"Following the economic reform of the 1980s, many people in Beijing decided to try their hand at business. My father and grandfather were among those who seized this opportunity," Hu said.

In 1986, the Shard Box Store was born. Over the next few years, the family business diversified, taking the idea behind the shard box and applying it to necklaces, rings and cufflinks as well. Today, the shop's new location on Jiangtai Road in Beijing's Chaoyang District is bright and exquisitely curated, its shelves lined by beautiful porcelain creations from the original shard boxes to ornate clocks and lamps. No two fragments of porcelain are the same, each expertly selected for its size and shape, and reimagined so as to accentuate what remains of its beauty. Chinese characters tessellate across the lids of boxes, while decorative foliage and abstract snippets of ancient scenes ornament rings, pendants and tie clips, all designed by the Hu family themselves. In one particularly exquisite display of craftsmanship, the faces of different but stylistically similar Qing Dynasty women have been carefully selected to create a pair of almost matching earrings.

Hu Chunming, grandson of the Shard Box Store's founder Hu Zonglu, stands in the family shop on Jiangtai Road in Beijing on January 19, 2018

Born in 1981, five years before his father and grandfather started the family business. Hu Chunming is now involved in the day to day running of the shop. Behind the counter are hung photographs of the store's most esteemed visitors. Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter smiles alongside his wife Rosalyn, whose handwritten note of appreciation following the couple's 1991 visit is framed below. Bill Clinton stands next to his daughter and a boyish looking Hu Chunming in a photograph signed and dated during Clinton's second term as U.S. President in 1998. Besides former heads of state, the shop is popular among Chinese and foreign tourists, with their customer base split almost evenly between the two, Hu explains.

In addition to shards of old porcelain, the Shard Box Store reutilizes ancient coins as well as the beads and buttons from imperial era clothing to create unique wearable objets d'art. If it is old, then the Hu family will use it to create something new, relevant and beautiful, encapsulating the spirit of a business which values culture and history above profit, a mantra which is borne out by the affordability of the shop's prices. In Hu's own words, "the Shard Box is not only a store selling antique porcelain, it is also a collection of Chinese history."

(Photos by Laurence Coulton)

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