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Cultural Jingdezhen – The Ceramics Capital

Jingdezhen is a city of over one million people in Jiangxi province, on the border of Anhui, famous for producing ceramics and porcelain. For thousands of years, since at least the Han dynasty, Jingdezhen’s kilns produced vases, tableware, and sculptures for China’s imperial courts. In the Ming and Qing eras, it was one of China’s four important trading cities, supplying wares to and exporting porcelain all across Asia, the Middle East, Africa and Europe. Porcelain was so sought after it was dubbed “white gold.” The earth in the Sanbao valley around Jingdezhen is rich in kaolinite, or “China clay”, named after the nearby village of Gaoling, the main component of porcelain. To make strong, translucent porcelain, kaolin needs to be fired at extremely high temperatures. Porcelain do not actually need to be glazed to be waterproof, but decorative glazes still provide additional layers of protection as well as colour — like the famous blue and white patterns prized in the Yuan dynasty that occasionally sell for millions at auctions.

Nestled in the hills and plains at the foot of the Huaiyu mountains, the scenery around Jingdezhen is beautifully lush and quiet. Jingdezhen hasn’t grown at the fast pace of China’s coastal cities, and was only recently upgraded from a township to a city. It remains fairly hard to reach, with a local airport to connect the city domestically, and although a high speed rail line just opened in 2018 to connect the newly recognised city to neighbouring cities of Quzhou and Jiujiang, it will still take 14 and a half hours on a slow train from Shanghai, 15 from Shenzhen, or 23 from Beijing... Agriculture still accounts for most of the area’s economy, though the local government is increasingly placing an emphasis on tourism and the creative fields surrounding the ceramics industry. Today throughout the streets of Jingdezhen, porters carry bags of clay on bamboo poles, like they have done for centuries. In these studios, each task is carried out by a specialised master who has trained a lifetime to learn the craft. One ceramic object can be worked on by up to 70 people from start to finish, and teams of throwers work together over lifetimes to create enormous pots and jars. Clay is shaped, thrown, trimmed, then carried carefully by cart to the public kilns to be fired then glazed.

Photo by China Residencies

While the Jingdezhen Ceramic Museum and the Imperial Kiln Museum preserve history for visitors, working artisans and new generation of artists reinvigorate craft. They sell their work online through creative Taobao shops, and at the major ceramic markets like Taoxichuan, a defunct ceramic factory that churned out propaganda statues from 1960s onwards, until the government decided to close all the state-owned factories, laying off nearly one hundred thousand of workers in the 1990s. In 2014, officials reconverted into an arts district to draw in more local and international tourists with galleries, cafés, and shops. A bustling Saturday craft fair of over 500 booths allows artisans to sell their wares directly to visitors. Of the 20,000 students training each year at the Jingdezhen Ceramic Institute, China’s only art academy that specialises in ceramics, nearly half of them choose to stay in Jingdezhen after they graduate, often apprenticing at the artist residencies and more established artists’ studios.