After a few intense days of tea hunting we were all keen to be heading to Jingdezhen. It was my first time here and I was feeling excited! Ceramics have long been a passion of mine - our tea bowls made by UK ceramicist Rachel Dormor are core to the Comins experience. I was keen to learn more about the place and people living and working in the 'Porcelain capital of China'. A stop here had not been on the original itinerary however one of our great customers who joined us on the trip had suggested it & we agreed it would be a great addition. Evidence that travelling with a group of people with diverse interests only enhances the travel experience!
First a little background on this town & its history :
Jingdezhen is a town located in Jiangxi province, South-East China
[map ref www.china discovery.com]
Pottery has been produced here for 1,700 years, giving it the affectionate name “Porcelain Capital” and is the largest centre for Chinese porcelain still to this day. From the Ming period onwards, official kilns in Jingdezhen were controlled by the emperor, making imperial porcelain in large quantities for the court and the emperor to give as gifts. Its location - in a remote and hilly region - initially seems nonsensicle - that is until you realise that Jingdezhen is close to the best quality deposits of petuntse (porcelain stone) in all of China, as well as being surrounding by pine forests to feed the kilns. Better still, it also has a river system flowing both north and south, providing easy trade of its fragile wares.
In 1433, during the Ming dynasty, a single order from the palace was placed for 443,500 pieces of porcelain, all with dragon and phoenix designs. These enormous quantities were distributed by the palace to the subsidiary courts of the many Ming princes sent to govern provinces, as well as being presented as gifts to other notables, and sent abroad as diplomatic offerings. Hundreds and thousands of workers were employed, each divided into groups of specialities to increase efficiency and consistency.
Up until the 20th century, Chinese craftsmen were still considered to be producing the finest ceramics in the world. After the Xinhai Revolution of 1911, porcelain was no longer manufactured for the imperial household, and the depot was taken over by the Jiangxi Porcelain Company in 1916 who retained one hundred of the workers. By 1930s, the buildings that had housed the imperial supervisors were taken over as army barracks & the Chinese potters hit hard times as the country focussed on industrial expansion and demand for their skills fell away. However times have been changing as can be seen through a number of articles even in the UK press in recent year. This one in the FT talks of “working to restore China’s position as the great power in ceramics,” "trying to get back the roots of the tradition" "blending contemporary ideas with traditional elements". I particularly like this extract from that article which paints a picture of this re-birth :
Arriving into town we headed for dinner. Spices are frequently added to the food here and many dishes are dressed with red peppers - caution and plenty of tea/beer was required. We then headed out to the night market where we experienced the exact 'energy' referenced in this article. Within a contemporary building hundreds of small stalls were set up with people selling their works. This further spilled out onto the streets where we browsed, chatted with and identified designers and studios we liked -purchasing sample items and sharing contact details. There were many young people selling their wares in the market who told us that many young designers come here to study pottery and learn the techniques honed over generations. It was inspiring to see this creative and ancient industry being adopted as a credible and exciting career path for so many young people.
Returning back to our hotel we felt energised and excited for the day ahead where we would visit the ceramic workshops to watch the intricate painting before heading out to a wood fired kiln. First stop the next day was a short drive to a premium ceramics studio to see the finished product. The studio was housed on the third floor of an inconspicuous building - it hid a modern studio with some of the most beautiful pieces I have seen. The prices of course were to match - but rightly so. It needs to be remembered that this is an incredibly specialised trade - one piece is not simply designed, produced and finished by one person - it can actually pass through upwards of 50 pairs of hands. And we are not talking mass production here - we are talking exquisitely handmade individual pieces crafted with care and purchased by people who respect and appreciate this craftsmanship.
Leaving the studio with a new appreciation for the skilled people working in this area we headed to a ceramic workshop. Like many of the best places you visit around the world - on the surface Jingdezhen is pretty unremarkable - however with the right guide you find yourself in the most extraordinary places. Down a backstreet we pulled up in an overgrown alleyway...
Entering through the blue corregated doors we entered a whole new world....
We looked closely at the vase in the picture above. One of the potters explained to us how they biscuit glaze at 1300 degrees - fire - add outline glaze full in lines - fire again at 800 to raise the surface before painting and firing again. All colours were originally put on by blowing - can you imagine! Nowadays they use a spray which still seems impossible to me but is apparently easier!
In a back room we heard a radio & passing through we saw a gentleman sitting and painting a teapot. Cigarette in one hand he made something so difficult look so effortless - more evidence of the skills and roots of craftsmanship that underpin this town. He kindly let us watch and film his work. The writing you can see on the wall in these photos are essentially the business cards of all of the artists working in this corner of the studio - so if you turn up and they are not there you can easily track them down.
Towards the back of the studio we saw ceramics cooling in smaller kilns and some more beautifully made cups in various states of finish with striking decoration.
From this studio our next stop would be 'Xiang ga Li' to see one of the wood fired kilns North East of Jingdezheng. The kiln we were travelling to see was the largest remaining wood fired kiln in Jingdezhen - we needed to travel around an hour from the town to reach it.
As we arrived in the pouring rain [luckily we were not at the tea gardens today!] we were informed that the kiln had been on this site for 3 generations - probably longer. The small village surrounding the kiln had grown up around it. On entering through the door above we saw the entrance to the kiln. The men were allowed to enter but women were not - we were told this was due to stories of a previous incident some generations ago with a woman in the kiln which now means there is bad luck associated with us entering. We were allowed to walk around it and see the structure of the roof.
Inside the building ceramics go inside frames or casing before being stacked. They then pack the kiln with wood and set it slight. The outer casing distributes heat and protects the ceramics from direct heat and ash etc.
At kilns such as these they use a specific type of pine wood that produces the optimum level of temperature. Walking outside we saw one of the most uniform and beautiful piles of wood from the local area. The hole at the bottom is not a door but is to allow air to circulate beneath the wood and keep it dry.
So what is the benefit of wood firing : Well of course this is the traditional method for firing ceramics and was widely used until people sought a more stable method and turned to electric and gas - the people working here described how a piece fired in a wood kiln produces a texture that feels more like skin rather than cold, dead & neutral. There is a warmth to it. In line with the regeneration and reinterest in traditional crafts and craftsmanship people are now going back to this method as it produces interesting results which are not the same every time. Whereas uniformity was once admired it seems individuality is returning. How does the kiln work : Well the team here shared with us how they collect orders from different places in cubic metres and then fire them all at once. Once started the kiln can keep going for about 3 days under the watchful eye of the team here.
Heading away from the kiln and into another building little did we know what a treat we were in for. Sitting at a table was one of the famous artists of the region who had come to the kiln to paint and decorate some commissioned items. Again he was most kind to let us watch and film before we shared lunch together. Apparently it is common for artists to travel around to kilns and workshops such as this - we were extremely lucky to see this on our visit.
Coming back from the kiln we stopped again in town to look at one of the retail streets packed with higher end ceramic shops before one last stop at the market. We made loads of brilliant contacts and the pictures below are a small glimpse into some of the pieces selected for Comins! Come in store and have a look or sign up to our newsletter for more information on when new items will arrive.