Porcelain insulators are something one usually expects to find only as part of an electrical installation such as a substation or overhead line. However, to the people of the Chinese city of Liling and its outlying communities, electrical porcelain has become very much a part of everyday life – not only providing them jobs and income but also fulfilling a broad variety of distinctly ‘non-electrical’ needs. In 2011, INMR travelled to the countryside outside Liling to capture some of these diverse and often imaginative new applications for porcelain insulators.
The production of porcelain insulators has historically been scattered widely throughout the world. Generally, the development of this industry in any one region has depended on two key ingredients – an abundant supply of clay and the entrepreneurs prepared to invest in transforming this material into a variety of electrical insulation products. And nowhere on earth are these two factors in more abundant supply than in the small city of Liling. Located just south of Hunan’s capital, Changsha. Liling has been bestowed with an abundant supply of high quality clay that has made it an ideal place for manufacturing porcelain. In fact, porcelain production there dates back some 1700 years to the era of the Eastern Han Dynasty.
By all accounts, there are at least 100 different porcelain insulator manufacturers officially registered with the local government and probably an equal number who operate ‘below the radar’. Together, these hundreds of plants supply porcelain for virtually every possible low, medium and high voltage application.
With such a large population of suppliers, one might expect that landfills in the area would be overflowing with the tens of thousands of pieces rejected each year because they do not meet basic quality requirements. But, fortunately, a far more environmentally friendly solution has emerged over time. Factory rejects are often left by the sides of roads and then quickly recycled by local residents into building applications of every imaginable sort, from structural supports for terraces, roads and balustrades to pillars that hold up sheds.
They have become so fundamental to local culture that one even finds them intertwined with the city’s religious life and observances. For example, a temple high in the mountains overlooking Liling has traditionally had a day where local farmers come to a ceremonial well to pray for abundant rain for their crops. The well, known as ‘dragon well’ because of the dragon’s head in the small shrine, is adorned by a display of – what else? – insulators. (Perhaps local entrepreneurs come here as well to pray for an abundance of orders.) Even in death, one finds that insulators again play a prominent role, this time adorning monuments to the departed.
INMR salutes the good citizens of Liling who not only help ensure the transmission and distribution of electrical power worldwide but also remind us that everything produced by the ‘hand of man’ can also be used creatively by the ‘brain of man’.