JiangXi Jingdezhen: Heart and soul of China’s ceramics
Jingdezhen is synonymous with ceramics in China
American Ceramist DANIEL has visited Jingdezhen six times. Though the small city in eastern China’s Jiangxi province may be unfamiliar to most westerners, it is a mecca for Lazaroff, 74.
“Everyone who loves china (porcelain) must come here at least once,” he says.
Jingdezhen is synonymous with ceramics in China. The city boasts a long history of pottery production. More than 1,000 years ago in the Song Dynasty (960 – 1279), emperor Zhenzong named the area with the title of his reign, Jingde, as recognition for its ceramics.
The products were exported to many parts of the world. “For centuries, ceramics production techniques were handed down, like the flame in the kiln,” says Liu Huojin, 62, who was Party chief of a major ceramics factory that has now closed.
Jingdezhen is synonymous with ceramics in China. [Photo/Xinhua]
Visiting Jingdezhen, it is easy to see its ceramics tradition, from its porcelain lamp posts and its sculptures depicting different ceramic production techniques.
“At the peak of the industry in the Ming (1368 – 1644) and Qing (1644 – 1911) dynasties, there were 100,000 ceramics workers in Jingdezhen,” Liu said.
The industry was only interrupted in the Chinese People’s War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression, when, in 1942, many kilns were destroyed in the Japanese bombing.
“There were more than 500 chimneys for the factories, which the Japanese may have taken for a military base,” Liu says.
But Jingdezhen soon returned to glory after the founding of the People’s Republic of China.
“In the 1950s we were asked to make porcelain for celebration of the fifth anniversary of China’s liberation,” he says.
Before the state visit of former U.S. President Richard Nixon, a piece known as the “Nixon cup” was produced as a gift. Similar cups sold briskly.
In the 1980s, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs asked the city to produce ceramics for foreign embassies, emblazoned with the national emblem.
“At that time about 60,000 people in Jingdezhen worked in the ten big ceramic factories,” Liu says.
The total population of the city proper was then less than 200,000. Almost every family had someone working in a ceramics factory.
Their porcelain products were popular throughout China, but were so hard to buy that people needed to have connections to buy them.
Once when Liu traveled to Shanghai, a local asked to buy the cups he brought. Worldwide, the products were sold to 160 countries.
In the 1990s, however, the factories went downhill with the advent of the market economy. Workers were laid off, and factories closed one after the other.
Jingdezhen is synonymous with ceramics in China. [Photo/IC]
Duan Jianping, 45, remembers the changes well. “Many of our relatives worked in ceramics factories, and brought porcelain products to us on important occasions as gifts,” he says.
As the once-desirable jobs disappeared, Duan became a journalist. He says a lack of innovation could be a reason Jingdezhen porcelain lost its luster.
Artist Li Jianshen founded the Sanbao international ceramics village in 2000, which attracts hundreds of ceramic fans from all over the world each year. Among these was Terrance Lazaroff. “Here I can talk to artists from all over the world,” he says.
Over his six visits he has seen many changes to Jingdezhen. “When I first came here in 2003, children followed me in the streets because there were not so many foreigners,” he says. “Now it’s a big city.”
Duan turned his eyes back to ceramics again in 2015, when he gave up his job as a senior editor and founded Xianyunju ceramics.
“I added some fashionable elements to the traditional design,” he says.
In the yard of his company there is a large plane tree, which according to Chinese legend is a habitat of the mythical phoenix.
“So I made the phoenix a hallmark of our products,” he says.
He used a gold color on a traditional blue-and-white design to make Xianyunju a luxury brand. “We received so many orders that we could hardly finish,” he says.
This year they estimated that revenue could reach 10 million yuan (1.5 million U.S. dollars).
Now Jingdezhen is home to more than 30,000 people working in ceramics.
Young and foreign artists are offered preferential treatment. Huang Wei, a teacher at Jingdezhen Ceramic Institute, was glad to see the change in the area.
“Anyone who has love for traditional Chinese culture could not bear to see the city languish,” she says.
A group of craftsmen cast clay mode of a large-size porcelain in Jingdezhen, Jiangxi province, on Oct 18, 2017. [Photo/IC]
Preserve the city’s soul
Huang, 35, earned her master’s degree in archeology at Beijing University and first came to Jingdezhen in 2006 for archeological research and soon fell in love with the city.
“When I was picking up ceramic chips from the pit, I felt like I was having a dialogue with history,” she says.
Talking to local people, however, she was surprised to find they were completely ignorant of the local clay mine sites.
In 2014, she and her husband settled down in the Jinkeng village, a site of ancient ceramics kilns about eight kilometers east of the city proper.
She rented 16 hectares of land, growing rice and chrysanthemums, and renovated the area so she could work with the raw ceramics material. She also hosted a series of salons on local ceramics culture.
“It is my hope that this place can be a venue of learning and discussion of porcelain culture,” she says.
“We are preserving not only the ancient site itself, but the soul of Jingdezhen.”
Several abandoned ceramics plants became bustling again last year, with the creation of the Taoxichuan ceramics-themed community, where chimneys stand alongside workshops, cultural centers, galleries and restaurants.
But Liu Huojin’s factory has not yet been included.
“Its protection is on the government agenda,” he says. “I hope that future generations can see the remnants, and feel proud of Jingdezhen and its ceramics.”