White Gold

The ancient Chinese city of Jingdezhen honors its past while sharing the gift of crafting porcelain artwork
travel, lifestyle, culture, history
Written By Lesley Conn
Photography By Terry Duthu

Zhang Wen Yue looks up from the porcelain vase cradled in his weathered hands. The women crowding over him are almost breathless as they admire a porcelain tea set displayed near his work bench. Zhang rises slowly from his wooden chair and gently tugs a teacup from the saffron-silk-lined case.

The cup is so small it nests easily in Zhang’s palm. He points to the gold-trimmed handle, then to a lady’s wedding band so she will appreciate the cup’s worth. He turns the cup on its side to make sure they see the intricate, winding pattern of delicate peonies. For hours on end, Zhang had meticulously applied layers of paint so that each pink petal, every slender green leaf would rise against the dark blue background. Shuffling toward a narrow, bare light bulb, Zhang lifts the cup until the bulb rests deep inside. As he does, the cup, almost thin as eggshell, radiates with a brilliant, warm light.

Without ever speaking a word, Zhang affirms the qualities of Jingdezhen porcelain—coveted for being thin as paper, bright as a mirror, white as jade and sounding as a chime when lightly struck.

A woman in the group who leaves with Zhang’s boxed tea set clutched under one arm is only the latest patron of Jingdezhen porcelain. For 2,000 years, Jingdezhen artists have created wares that are delicate but strong, colorful yet translucent and—for centuries—were the envy of the world. Zhang, a master ceramist who has plied his craft for 63 years, is merely one generation in a long line of artists who have perfected their skills in the rolling foothills of the Jiangxi Province in southeast China.

So closely entwined is Jingdezhen’s artistry with the country’s identity that even the English word China—whether referring to the country or porcelain products—is believed to derive from the ancient city. During the Tang Dynasty (618-907 A.D.), as trade between East and West began to flourish, Jingdezhen was known as Changnan — a pronunciation that in English evolved into “China.”

By the 16th century, Jingdezhen porcelain was so valued, Europeans gave it another name—white gold.

“No one in Europe had ever seen anything like it,” explains Victoria Avery, keeper of Applied Arts at The Fitzwilliam Museum at the University of Cambridge in England. “Everyone wanted it because of its unique characteristics; although light and delicate, it could be shaped in myriad forms—both functional and decorative— and was incredibly strong.”

The Fitzwilliam maintains an important collection of porcelain and pottery from China, Korea and Japan as well as Europe and Britain. In December 2012, the museum opened “China’s White Gold,” an exhibition that celebrated Jingdezhen porcelains. Modern pieces from new artists were featured, as were several ancient pieces in the Fitzwilliam’s permanent collection. Rare Tang Dynasty porcelain marked with the imperial court seal was presented, as were a few highly unusual pieces—two 16th century bowls upon which the Chinese artists painted stylized carnations, birds and horses to appeal to Middle Eastern and European customers—proof that, even centuries ago, vendors in a global marketplace adapted their goods to appeal to international customers.

The Family Business

For a modern traveler, streetlights and highway underpasses are the first outward signs of Jingdezhen’s expertise. Porcelain is so ingrained in local life that even the most mundane utilities have a touch of tradition. Streetlights are sheathed in pillars of painted porcelain; an underpass at a busy intersection and a visitors’ pagoda nearby are encased in decorative porcelain; even some trash and recycling bins are made, glazed and styled in ancient blue and white patterns.

Tourists are another sign of Jingdezhen’s status as the world capital of porcelain. In one afternoon at a local museum, German, Australian and American tourists shared their fascination of the art with Chinese tourists from other provinces.

Even the most seemingly disconnected resident, whether waitress or sales clerk, can proudly recite the attributes of Jingdezhen porcelain or discuss key dynasties that contributed to the quality of production. In Jingdezhen, almost everyone has a relative who’s worked in porcelain.

That’s how Cheng Fei, a provincial master, came into the craft. His grandparents, father and mother worked in porcelain, and he began learning from them before he was a teenager. Now, 30 years later, his shop is across from the Jingdezhen Museum of Porcelain on Lianshe Road.

Cheng clearly understands the beauty and power his artwork conveys. On one wall, two menacing warrior gods lunge from two large-scale porcelain panels, each about 6 feet/1.8 meters tall. Cheng carved, glazed and embellished the panels with gold accents. The work took two years to complete, he says. Nearby, a freestanding panel depicts Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of a unified China. He is shown before a thick, long brick wall—a forerunner to the Great Wall. Cheng shaped each brick by hand, becoming a mason in miniature, for a project that took three years.

As Cheng settles himself behind a massive desk created from the trunk of an ancient tree, he serves his guests tea as he explains his willingness to devote years of his life to a single piece.

“I think it’s very meaningful to be a porcelain artist,” he says through a translator. “By being diligent, my work can be eternal. I am very lucky to be born in this city, because the porcelain city is known around the world. I think that 2,000 years ago, our porcelain communicated for China to the Western world. In that same way, I hope my art can communicate.”

Remnants of pottery found in the ruins of ancient kilns outside Jingdezhen show that by the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.-220 A.D.), the city’s artists had moved beyond the thicker, less refined crafting of pottery and were producing thinner porcelain pieces shaped with graceful curves.

Production peaked during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 A.D), when imperial kilns were established. All the necessary resources for them poured into the province, which then drew the most talented craftsmen, fully securing Jingdezhen as the undisputed porcelain city.

Masters of Production

Becoming a master ceramist is no easy thing in China. Only 80 national masters have been certified, one-sixth of them in Jingdezhen. An artist first must be named a province master before applying for national ranking. Judging occurs only every four years.

For the most successful artists, the system of mass production is still similar to those of ancient kilns. Zhang Songmao is the first recognized art master in the nation. His wife, Xu Yafeng, is also a national master. Some of their works have been presented as gifts for international dignitaries; others, such as a Zhang porcelain panel depicting the unification of China, have sold for 13 million yuan, or nearly US$2.1 million.

Combined, Zhang and Xu might produce 50 pieces a year crafted by their own hands. As resident artists of the Jingdong Porcelain Factory, they and their four adult children supervise designers whose work is computer-printed onto mass-produced pieces. In 2013, Jingdong produced more than 100 million pieces of porcelain.

Though much smaller in operation, DingDing Porcelain Enterprise is working to distinguish itself as a house of master artists, too. Company salesman Yan Le at first appearance seems more suited to the tech industry. He dashes around the showroom in a black leather jacket, straight-leg trousers and Converse sneakers. When a small flashlight fails him, he quickly grabs his iPhone and uses an app to shine a beam of light on the handle of a vase to highlight its unusual green hue and the gold trim hand-painted on the underside.

His excitement, though, is all about tradition and technique. For its handcrafted pieces, the company concentrates on the famille rose style, which typically features raised floral patterns against colored backgrounds. Describing the style is easy; perfecting it can take years.

Porcelain vases require significant expertise because of the difficulty of painting on a smooth, rounded surface. Famille rose further increases the degree of difficulty, Yan says through a translator.

“It’s very difficult to paint it because you have to be so patient,” he says. “This vase was 15 layers of paint and was five times in the kiln. It took over six months to make.”

Suited for Ceremony

Before porcelain, European tableware was made from clay, so the body color of anything produced tended to be earthy grays, browns or reds. Pieces would be coated with a white glaze to make them prettier, Avery says, but compared to how light and refined China porcelain was, earthenware seemed positively clunky.

“What the Chinese made was so technologically advanced and brilliant,” she states. “The pieces they produced were utterly unachievable in other earthen bodies.”

Jingdezhen porcelain held appeal partly because it seemed so exotic, having survived an arduous journey from a faraway land. But demand also grew from the popularity of three other new, tantalizing imports: tea from China, cocoa from Central America and coffee from Arabia. For the well-to-do, serving the exotic hot drinks became an important part of social ceremony, and silver or Jingdezhen porcelain set the highest standard, Avery says.

“If you were wealthy enough to serve tea from China or coffee from Arabia, you also had to have the right vessel in which to serve them. Tea required special cups, saucers, teapots, milk jugs and sugar basins,” Avery explains. “Tea drinking became an essential part of fashionable life, and it was the matriarch’s responsibility to make and serve it and conduct polite conversation whilst doing so. The craze for tea led to a huge demand for a plethora of new objects and fueled the importation of porcelain.”

As the clamor for porcelain grew, Dutch, French, Italian, German and English producers scrambled to replicate Jingdezhen’s wares. Dutch delftware—earthenware glazed in tin and painted blue and white—was one response. By the end of the 16th century, Italian artists under the patronage of Grand Duke Francesco de Medici had a similar version that was close to, but not as superior as, Jingdezhen’s glazed blue and white porcelain.

Location, Location, Location

A more modern interpretation of famille rose still draws heavily on coloring and detail, but presents the hand-painted images on a nontraditional shape.

Jingdezhen had a secret advantage, an ingredient the city protected for centuries.

Just north of Jingdezhen lie the Gaoling Mountains, which contain a soft white clay that gives Jingdezhen porcelain its white luster and strength. Jingdezhen kept its secret until the 1700s, but samples made their way back to Europe, and kaolin, so named for the mountain from which it came, was sought around the world. Kaolin has been found elsewhere, including France, England and the Southeast region of the United States. Kaolin clay is still valued for its purity, and as time and increased demand have reduced supply, batches of the purest kaolin are reserved for Jingdezhen’s master artists.

At the Jingdezhen Ancient Kiln and Folk Customs Museum, master artists work in a series of open-air stalls, showing how kaolin is transformed. The eager shoppers who clustered around Zhang Wen Yue found him here as he demonstrated one of the final phases of the process, the delicate floral painting of the famille rose pattern. In traditional production, an artist became a master at only one aspect of the work.

Shaping raw clay is the first step. Visitors watch as an artist who sits before a low potter’s wheel grabs a bamboo stick to spin the wheel into motion. Slapping a mound of damp clay in the center, he deftly shapes a bowl with a curved lip and a sturdy base. In minutes, he will line more than a dozen bowls along a narrow board. After drying in the sun, the bowls move to the next station, where an artist turns the bowl onto a shaping mold before trimming its base. In another stall, a painter keeps a steady gaze on her work. She lifts an unglazed bowl before her, holding its base. In a few swift movements of her brush and the steady turn of the bowl, she decorates the sides and rims with a black matte underglaze. In the firing process, the black matte will turn a royal blue. Dozens of times within an hour, for hours on end, the painter will repeat the same pattern.

Developing specialists helped offset the risks inherent in porcelain production, Avery says. Porcelain is fired at very high temperatures—2,372 degrees Fahrenheit/1,300 degrees Celsius—and, depending on the decoration, may be fired up to five times. Each time in the kiln introduces the risk that the fire is too hot and will crack the porcelain.

“The whole process is fraught with difficulty,” she says. “With the one-task precision, if everybody specializes on only one part, they become highly skilled, and you can assure quality and speed of production.”

Pursuit of Perfection

Deng Xi Ping and Yu Jun understand the perils of porcelain all too well.

They have chosen the most unpredictable form, working in colored glaze. Both have won international and national honors for techniques that create elegantly subtle shades and textures in their pieces. Deng is the only artist in Jingdezhen who has a showroom, underwritten by a national arts grant, for colored glazing. As she walks among her porcelain, she explains the risk of glazing and high-temperature kilns. Zinc, copper and iron in the glaze create unusual reds, oranges, greens and blues, but also bring a high degree of uncertainty, she explains. Consistent success only comes after much research and many attempts. The high-temperature kilns make porcelain strong and waterproof, but the heat can also twist and misshape more delicate features, such as an ornamental dragon-head handle on a vase. Despite the unpredictability, Deng is expert at several techniques. A number of vases and bowls are streaked with lines so thin and individual, the process is known as colored hair glaze. Another plate features a background in a delicate, blush tone. Each pinpoint of color is .02 inches/.5 millimeters thick, and creates transitions between colors so subtle the glaze has a misty, cloud-like appearance.

She conveys no sense of frustration about failed attempts, only an affable resoluteness that failure is part of the pursuit of perfection. Her attitude extends to her research. Deng read, studied and experimented with glazes, hoping to recreate a distinct purplish-red glaze first used in the Tang Dynasty. The formula had been lost for centuries. After three years of work, she unlocked the secret to consistently producing the distinctive color.

In another studio across town, Yu has become something of a technical specialist. He is credited with developing 16 new porcelain techniques, including a method that creates the impression of tiny pastel pearls within a glaze. For more than 10 years, he has worked to develop a technique that would create a look of old, rough stone on porcelain. Like Deng, he seems unfazed by the patience this goal requires.

Yu was one of several masters who discussed how porcelain brings an artist closer to five elements of nature—earth and water in the porcelain clay, fire and wood from the kiln, and metal from the glazing. For Yu, spirituality is another consideration. In 2001, he dedicated himself to working on pieces that honor Buddha. He still knows the anguish of a cracked panel or an unpredictable glaze, but from it, he seeks a greater understanding.

“Many of the artists who are doing this high-temperature porcelain, what they are looking for is to enjoy the process,” he says through a translator. “Many pieces will break or fail, I feel pity that so many go in, but only one may emerge.”

Yu takes failed pieces and embeds them in an earthen hillside along the back of his home. Visitors who stroll along the wooden deck gaze upon gorgeous—but flawed—pieces.

“Although it’s broken, it’s still art and it still returns to the earth,” he says. “It also inspires me to keep trying.”

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