Jingdezhen porcelain has been prized for centuries across the world, inspiring envy and imitation, even giving us the English word “china” porcelain, which we use to mean any thin, fine and lustrous formal hard-paste porcelain.
Though chinese porcelain was being developed as early as the late 10th century, arguably the most famous kilns grew to be those in Jingdezhen. Today, this city in Jiangxi is full of artists and workshops, personal museums, galleries and more – all dedicated to Jingdezhen’s porcelain art.
But why is Jingdezhen so prized? The unique properties of this form, combined with the gorgeous raftsmanship and painting that are poured into the finished pieces, come together to make pieces of ceramic art that inspire fierce envy and love.
Thin, fine, and lustrous, Jingdezhen porcelain can be fashioned into pieces as thin as fine crystal, with a non-reactive, nearly glass-like finish, without cracking and breaking under sudden temperature changes. This makes it ideally suited for brewing and appreciating tea. The boiling water does it no harm, the non-reactive finish does not interfere with either the aromatics or the body of the sip, and the thin fine edge facilitates aerating each sip and slurp.
These natural properties are further enhanced by the amazing craftsmanship of workshops in Jingdezhen. Decoration ranges from beautifully simple, elegant forms to intricate painting in traditional blue and white, multiple colors, and even precious silver and gold leaf. It is no wonder that Chinese porcelain has been the envy of the world for centuries!
But what is Jingdezhen porcelain? Broadly, it can be considered in terms of both its material and craft.
The material of Jingdezhen porcelain – the secret China formula that Europe sought for so long – is one of its most prized secrets. Generally speaking, it is a hard-paste, high fired porcelain generally created from a mixture of Chinese feldspar and kaolin (gaolin). Much lighter and more difficult to work on wheel than stoneware ceramics, it has been described by some as like trying to throw cottage cheese. The quality of the materials used, in combination with the craft of its form and the perfection of its firing, come together to create the overall quality of a piece.
Forming a piece is very difficult, and is usually the work of a team of craftsman working together in a workshop. While individual artists can be found in neighborhoods like San Bao (full, also, of foreign exchange ceramicists and museums), these individual artists will themselves form smaller workshops composed of themselves – the artist and designer – and between one and ten assistants. While individual artists may finish a piece (like a plate or a gaiwan, etc), it is more common for these individuals to instead focus on more conceptual pieces, sculptures, and multi-faceted installations.
In contrast, most truly fine pieces of Jingdezhen ceramics – especially pieces meant to be used (be it part of a dinnerware set or a tea set) – are instead the work of many different skilled and specialized individuals.
For example, a specialist is required to create Jingdezhen’s material – grinding and properly mixing the ceramic clay and slip. Other specialists then form the clay on wheels, focusing not on fine details but instead seeking to produce bulkier versions of each individual form. Different craftsmen focus on different items: for example, one person may spend a morning producing just saucers for a new gaiwan deisgn, while another produces just the bowls. They may work on this design all day, or they may move onto a different element in the afternoon.
These crude forms must now dry before they can be shaped by other craftsmen in the workshop, a process that can take from several hours to over a day (depending on the size of the piece and the weather outside). A specialist supervises this drying process with fans, and helping to move elements along throughout the day.
Once the elements are bone dry, they may move onto other specialists’ wheels to be formed into their final shapes. Slowly and carefully, the specialists uses blades to slowly carve away excessess and reveal the final form. This process can take several hours on the wheel, while excess clay builds up at the artists’ feet. As the form nears perfection, the artists continuously checks and double checks the dimensions of the piece and its weight, to make sure it perfectly conforms to the current design. Pieces that are too bulky will not fire correctly, and will not be fine and thin enough to be up to the workshops’ standards. However, if a piece is worked too fine and too quickly, it may crack or split and break on the wheel. Luckily, the unfired material can be reused, but the craftsman’s work is lost, and he must begin again with a new crude form.
Not every Jingdezhen piece is fully handmade. In fact, partially hand made pieces are common. Pieces can be either press formed in a mold (creating the initial shape of the piece which must then be perfected and finished by hand), or poured into a mold (whose seams must still be trimmed and finished by hand). This machine assistance helps with the mass production of affordable pieces, which can either be painted by hand, or decorated with ink patterns generated by computer, printers, and other machines.
Did you know?
Unfired Jingdezhen pieces are much larger than their finished, fired forms. Elements shrink in the kiln. It is up to each workshops’ head designer or team of designers to take all of this into account as they create new designs. This makes pieces with multiple interlocking parts (like a gaiwan or tea pot) more difficult to create. Large items (like vases with long, thin necks and wide bases) must be finished in pieces, and then joined together with slip – the work of a different specialist.
Other specialists finish the pieces with Jingdezhen slip, and check pieces for any issues that must be corrected.
Pieces either head to the kiln at this time, or they head to painting. Hand painting can be done in-house, with the workshop’s own team of painters. Some workshops are best known for their painting work, while others are well known for their forms, and will send designs to other workshops for painting. Others yet focus on specialized glaze finished, or gold and silver leaf overpainting work. If pieces are heading to another workshop for painting, they will be fired first, at the high temperature of about 1300° C.
No matter what sort of decorative work is destined for the cup, the first painting to be fired will be most likely be blue. Blue and white (qing hua) is fired at the highest temperature (1300° C) and can also be once-fired. Other colors and finishes are fired at lower temperatures, in a process of painting, re-firing, repainting, and refiring that may take several days. Painting can be done by one individual, or a design may need the work of several different specialists working together on a single piece. Even a piece finished in a single color (like traditional Qing Hua) may need to be fired in several different steps rather than all at once, depending on the complexity of the design.
The cobalt blue painting appears dark grey and brown. Only when it is fired will the beautiful blue color appear!
Gold or silver leaf decoration are applied after painting is finished. This work, again, is completed by a different team of specialists! Some workshops may have these specialists on their team, and some painters may also be able to paint in gold and silver. Regardless of where this embellishment happens, the work still represents a separate, unique step.
At the end of the day, hand made Jingdezhen pieces are the work of many hands – the product of years of experience from teams of specialized craftsmen. Though simple pieces may require the expertise of as few as a handful of people (a designer, a clay manufacturer, 1-2 craftsmen to create the form, and a master of the kiln), more complex pieces (either in shape or in painting and decoration) may require the work of multiple teams across several different workshops – these pieces and sets can take a week or more to complete, and may be touched by up to ten to twenty craftsmen!
Each piece of hand made and hand painted Jingdezhen therefore represents a beautiful collaboration between many different artists and craftsmen. Through the work of a designer, the talents of many can be organized to produce beautiful works of art that fit into the palm of your hand.