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Jingdezhen, the home of porcelain

WITH a history of more than 2,000 years, Jingdezhen is a small city in the northeast corner of east China’s Jiangxi Province. But this ancient Chinese town once gave the country not only centuries of great international influence, but also its English name “China.”

For the large part of its history, Jingdezhen, formerly called Changnan, was the pottery production center in China.

According to some researchers, before the German invented porcelain in Europe in the 18th century, China was the only source of the fine white clay known as “china” in the world. The word “china” was actually a transliteration of Changnan, the ancient name of the Chinese porcelain capital from where the Europeans imported large amounts of porcelain, which was first called “white gold” because of its fine and translucent quality.

Eventually, they took to calling the whole country by this town’s name, China.

The old Chinese town began to produce porcelain as early as the 6th century AD and it witnessed rapid increase in production during the Song Dynasty (960-1279). In 1004, the Song Emperor Zhenzong decided to rename the town Jingdezhen according to his reign name and decreed that all imperial porcelain in the country would be made in Jingdezhen.

However, because of excessive production during this period, the china clay in Jingdezhen soon became depleted. But luckily, a new type of clay was discovered in its surrounding areas in the early Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368).

This new clay, called Kaolin, features high density and thermostability. It could take temperature as high as 1,300 degrees Celsius during firing and had a very low scrap rate.

Because of its high density, Kaolin clay produces hard porcelain as compared to the previous soft porcelain. Also, this forgiving material contains high alumina, which results in much purer whiteness in the Kaolin porcelain.

Ever since the invention of Kaolin ceramics, Jingdezhen porcelain has come to be known in the world for its unique characteristics of “being as white and smooth as jade, as thin as a piece of paper and able to produce a crisp sound as a chime.”

During the Song Dynasty, Jingdezhen produced mainly qingbaici, or bluish-white porcelain, which is semi-transparent and jade-like porcelain with a bluish-white tint.

Later, it began to produce the underglaze blue porcelain, using the blue pigment derived from cobalt oxide imported from Persia. This famous blue-and-white porcelain later attracted great interest not only in China, but also in many places all around the world.

Today, despite the fact that electric wheels and electric and gas kilns have been introduced into this ancient town, many craftsmen in Jingdezhen still produce hand-thrown and hand-decorated porcelain by following the old tradition.

Unlike in the West, where one ceramicist does nearly everything, in Jingdezhen, through centuries of production, the labor division is well developed.

To make one piece of porcelain it can pass through more than 70 different hands.

First, the deposits of Kaolin are mined and pulverized; the powder is then sieved and mixed with water and dried into malleable clay.

To form the refined clay into desired shapes of pottery, craftsmen use hands to knead, pinch, rub, trim and polish the clay. To make a round ceramic ware, they use a potter’s wheel to shape the clay into desired objects, known as throwing. Sometimes, they still use a stick to spin the wheel counter-clockwise.

It usually calls for several throwers to make an oversized piece of porcelain. Such large vessels are built in several parts which are then glued together.

The greenware, or unfired objects is then glazed by digging, pouring or brushing. Special brushes will be employed to do the underglaze and overglaze painting.

The firing is done in two steps: first bisque fired and then glaze fired.

The end result of this long, complicated and elaborate process is a piece of beautiful porcelain.

In addition to the traditional craftsmanship, Jingdezhen has been trying to reactivate some ancient imperial and civil kilns as part of the city’s efforts to protect its heritage.

For instance, in 2013, the Gourd Kiln, a gourd-shaped and wood-fired ceramic kiln dating to the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), was restarted. The fire-lighting ceremony of the kiln was witnessed by Emma Chen Hoefler, a UNESCO consultant and specialist in the field of protection of cultural artifacts.

She was later quoted as saying that she was impressed by the reactivation of the Gourd Kiln, which “represents a significant contribution to the preservation of traditions in Jingdezhen and brings us an opportunity to know how hardworking craftsmen create these fine porcelains manually starting from mud‚ it is something that truly enriches everyone’s spiritual life.”

There are also some other forms of ancient kilns in Jingdezhen, such as dragon kiln and egg-shaped kiln, which are now either under “productive preservation” or put on the city and state’s protection lists.

In 2014, the Jingdezhen Ancient Kiln & Folk Cultures Expo District, which covers a total space of 83 hectares, was designated by the state as a top grade scenic spot. The city is also home to the Jingdezhen Ceramic Institute, the only institute in the country providing advanced ceramics training.

Today, antique porcelain from Jingdezhen are still highly valued by collectors all around the world. In 2016, a blue-and-white dragon jar produced in an imperial kiln in Jingdezhen during the Xuande Reign (1426-35) of the Ming Dynasty was auctioned for HK$140 million (US$18 million) in Hong Kong.

Jingdezhen’s traditional technique of producing handmade porcelain has been included in China’s list of national intangible cultural heritages. It has also applied for the UNESCO world heritage list.



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