Few things are more intimately associated with China in the west than porcelain. The English language even uses the same word – china – to refer to both the country and the quality ceramics that once hailed from its world-renowned kilns. For centuries, these elegant pieces of fired white clay traveled throughout Asia’s intricate network of trade routes to become some of the most highly-prized items anywhere in the world, adorning the homes of society’s elite from Boston to Baghdad.
And yet what is even more remarkable is that all this pottery – hundreds of thousands of objects – came from just one place, Jingdezhen, a name as synonymous with ceramics in China as china is with porcelain in the west.
The area around what is now Jingdezhen has been producing porcelain for at least one-and-a-half thousand years. It was previously called Changnan, a name meaning ‘south of the Chang’ in Chinese. The Chang is a central part of Jingdezhen’s story, the river which allowed raw materials such as clay and firewood to be brought down from nearby mountains and finished products to flow outward through China to the rest of the world.
Changnan’s destiny was sealed at the start of the second millennium AD, prior to which the town was but one of many ceramic-producing sites across the country. In 1004, the emperor of the day, Zhenzong, captivated by the area’s uniquely thin, white, translucent porcelain, declared that moving forward every piece would bear the mark of his rule. In imperial China the reign of every emperor was given a name. Zhenzong’s was Jingde. The suffix – zhen – simply means town in Chinese.
Henceforth, Jingdezhen’s kilns operated with the approval of the Son of Heaven, the greatest brand ambassador of the age, and by the mid-14th century the town had become the center of porcelain manufacture in China. It was around this time that a new dynasty – the Ming – came to power, and with them a new business relationship for the town’s ceramic workshops.
The Ming emperors brought the kilns directly under imperial control. Their products were no longer approved by the emperor, they were made for him, and the appetite of China’s rulers for the highest-quality ceramic wares was insatiable. Huge orders were placed at the official kilns, as porcelain vases and bowls, plates and cups began to adorn the vast imperial palaces of the north.
Jingdezhen wares also served as gifts to princes across the empire, who oversaw large palatial estates and regional courts with rooms to fill. More were shipped overseas as diplomatic presents and sent to temples and monasteries throughout the realm. The ceremonial vessels used in religious rituals at the Temple of Heaven in Beijing were created in the kilns of Jingdezhen.
In 1433, a single order from the palace requested 443,500 pieces of porcelain, all illustrated with the dragon and phoenix motifs of the imperial family. Business in the town was booming. By the middle of the same century, Jingdezhen was the only place producing ceramics for the imperial court; virtually all the porcelain in China came from here.
Porcelain goes west
It was during this boom that Chinese porcelain began to take off in Europe. Merchants, first from Portugal and later from other European seafaring empires, arrived in the maritime trade routes of East Asia during the 16th century, and soon ceramic goods from Jingdezhen became sought-after in the west.
Where monochrome styles like the bluish-green hues of qingbai ware once dominated the local market, it was blue-white porcelain, with its iconic treatment of idealized Chinese scenes, that became irrepressibly popular in Europe.
As styles changed so too did the technology and materials required for their manufacture. The growing blue-white trend relied on the arrival of a new pigment via the silk road. Known as huihuiqing, or Islamic blue due to its provenance in Central Asia, this was a compound so valuable that it had to be guarded in the porcelain workshops. Painters were allocated small quantities at a time, once in the morning and again in the afternoon, to allay the temptation to steal.
Yet despite the high price of ingredients like cobalt blue, the porcelain exported to Europe and North America was created at separate workshops using lower-quality materials and less skilled craftsmen than the official kilns. Today, in auction-houses and private collections worldwide, it is imperial porcelain that commands eye-watering prices rather than the abundant export ware sent forth to foreign shores.
Death and rebirth
The Ming dynasty fell in 1644, and so too, did production at the official kilns in Jingdezhen, upended by a civil war that enveloped the country. Under China’s new rulers, the Qing, porcelain manufacturing witnessed a brief resurgence. A new style – the vibrant famille rose – enjoyed popularity once again at home and abroad.
Yet industrialization in Europe meant that Jingdezhen would never again see the same global reach of its heyday. Western factories, equipped with the technologies of the industrial revolution, developed mass-manufacturing techniques to produce ceramics more cheaply and tailored to the tastes of their local markets. The porcelain of Jingdezhen, painstakingly handcrafted half a world away, could no longer compete on the global stage.
Today, after a two-century interlude, Jingdezhen is on the rise again. Young artisans and creatives, attracted by the work of ceramics luminaries like Caroline Cheng, are seizing opportunities to establish themselves among China’s next-generation of craftspeople in a city with a burgeoning modern art scene.
Alongside this contemporary flair, Jingdezhen retains an acute sense of its historic past, seamlessly offering both galleries and art spaces, museums and markets, among the most notable of which is the Tao Xichuan Art Center. Here, as well as in kitchens and dining rooms in the west, China’s porcelain heritage lives on, in an authentic third-tier Chinese city reinventing itself for the modern world.
Journey to Jingdezhen this autumn
Journey to Jingdezhen, the porcelain capital of the world, for an R&R escape like no other. Hike to ancient villages where locals still dry colorful crops on their terraces, meet the artists breathing new life into the art of porcelain creation, and get inspired on a trek along the granite peaks of UNESCO-listed Huangshan.