From August 1st to 4th we visited JIngdezhen, China’s unrivalled Mecca for teaware and all things porcelain. From street lamps to taxi seat adverts, there is not a inch of the city which will let you forget its special status. While there, we learned about the new market situation, saw the continuation of established styles, and met real people who are flourishing and suffering in this once remote mountain township.
A New Era
Boss Yoh: “You’re a week too late. The market is closed, maybe forever, maybe for just a few months until things cool off. Someone important from Beijing is coming, so the police are around all morning to make sure no one sets up stalls. We got a notice awhile ago saying this would happen. Used to be markets here every week, now...”
The ghost market was a staple of Jingdezhen porcelain trade. There, for decades now, vendors hawked fragments and complete pieces that allegedly dated anywhere from 1970 all the way back to the Song Dynasty... allegedly. Now it is closed due to a recent inspection tour. The market was specifically targeted as part of much larger national campaign to “scan and uproot the black forces.” Organized criminal activity is coming under even greater attack from government agencies. The ghost market, in many ways a relic of China’s wild 1990’s period, may itself finally be buried. Even if much of what was sold was fake, the very idea of an open air market where potentially priceless archaeological relics are sold under the cover of night may diverge too far from Urban China’s new manicured image. Perhaps this change was for the best.
Jingdezhen’s long closed government-run factories have also gotten a make over. These colossal brick structures were built up over the decades of collective era, and some even inherited businesses that predate the current government. They were the back bone of local industry and a central source of employment. All of that started to change in the 1980’s. Tourism and rising wages opened up the potential for small artisans to start garage-size operations and sell directly to consumers. The large enterprises that were exported-oriented or relied on government orders simply could not compete. They progressively failed as early as the 1980’s and the situation only worsened with China’s then rocky diplomatic situation and even rockier state enterprise reform.
One factory complex at Taoxichuan has been transformed into an industrial-themed porcelain gallery center that would make even the hippest Portlander blush. There one can find air conditioned booths operated by students from the local ceramics university, cocktail carts, and tourist-oriented “academies” that will give one a taste of ceramic production, for a price. Every style of porcelain can be procured here, tasteful or not. Ironic depictions of feudal scholars goofing around? They got ‘em. Classic Qinghua cups? They got ‘em. Blue ceramic Spongebobs? Why not. I would be lying if I said we did not enjoy the ambiance. If you ever find yourself in Jingdezhen, go there for a comfortable and curated experience.
Driver Chen: “Teaware is what the out-of-towners do here to make money. I lost my job when the factory shut down. Now I drive this taxi 20 hours a day to pay my deaf childrens’ bills. There is not a chance I could ever get into porcelain.” Unlike Chen, the driver who drove us back from the Lai Brothers’s village home, the story of the brothers themselves is far more encouraging. They are two examples of precisely the kind of outsiders who have come and made a living off tea cup production in Jingdezhen.
Fujian natives, the elder brother saved up a modest sum after a few years of high-risk high-pay coal mining in the North. Last year, he came to Jingdezhen to study under a traditional local master. At a village home he rents just outside of JIngdezhen, he learned how to build a kiln, shape cups, and paint teaware. For the first few months of his new enterprise the Master in question even lived with him full time, guiding him through several rounds of wood fired tea ware production. Now assisted by his brother, he feels well established but far from a master himself.
The Lai Brothers produce traditional shapes with more modern styles. Here you will find eggshell cups without Qinghua patterning and Gaiwans without the gaudy yellow, pink, or teal paint that defined last century’s export market. Their cups’ appearance follow the style in vogue now: slightly random patterns created by mixing and overlapping glazes. They also have shown some creativity. Rather than throw away the “sick” cups that emerge from 60 hour wood firing, they have done their best to turn what is usually trash into their most valuable products, painted cups. Employing careful skill, images of flowers, landscape images, and supernatural creatures are produced on these modest canvasses. The Older Lai Brother can turn a chip into a canyon, a black burn mark into a devil’s pupil, and rough scratches into a white lily.
Do Andriods Dream of Electric Fired Cups
Designer Liu: “Who told you there is a big wood fired market? Some people do have a preference for it, but that is not why it is expensive. The costs involved are simply too great - that is maybe what you are seeing reflected in the price. Wood as a fuel is more expensive than gas or publicly supplied electricity. There is also only about a 30% success rate for pieces fired in a wood fired kiln. Those producers need to make up for those loses with the high prices you see.”
Liu is a Jiangxi native formally educated in Changsha, where he studied design and learned about about Jingdezhen from his math teacher. He is an art student that has found away to make a living in Jingdezhen’s new wave of small scale ceramic production. His place in the mess so to speak is painting and glazing. He does not fire the cups, source clay, or even shape the cups. All of those jobs are done by one of his various neighbors. He is an independent artisan, petite bourgeoisie in the best sense of the term.
In Liu’s opinion, Jingdezhen, despite all the renovation, has become technically and artistically backwards. A handful of orthodox styles decades or even older continue to dominate the market. Innovation, such as lacquered ceramic ware or ceramic speakers, is seldom rewarded. Tourists, the mainstay of the retail market who might buy pieces such as these are still an unreliable source of income. The anti-COVID restrictions have only made this fact truer. Liu contends that rival ceramic hubs in Fujian and Hebei have now far outpaced Jingdezhen in mechanization and experimentation with new styles, dooming Jingdezhen to become nothing more than a curiosity stop for future tourists.
Another set of producers, Yue Chao and his wife, are relatively more positive on the situation in Jingdezhen. The former is a graduate of the Central Art Academy in Beijing and the latter is a Jilin native that followed her husband south into a successful career in the ceramic capital. These two are not just another pair of outsides who are just now trying to make it rich at ceramics. Unlike for any of the other characters discussed above, Jingdezhen was always their chosen destination and porcelain teaware was explicitly what they went to college to do. In their twelve years of work in Jingdezhen, they have build an independent workshop complete with a traditional wood fired kiln. They observed that the Summer months, especially July, was the hardest month to sell or make teaware, in part becuase of the prohibitively high outside temperature.
“In July you will die, in August you will see a turn around, and by September you will be set free.” With the first run of ceramics still in the kiln and nothing to sell but past, often defective teaware, Mrs. Yue spends her time playing on her phone and helping out with household chores; Yue Chao meanwhile has gone to lend a hand on a collaborative series of teaware. Grandpa and Grandma mind the kiln. They all will make it through this slow summer, and think that it is only natural that ceramicists with the most skill, rather than those born with the greatest proximity to the city, should be the “inheriters” of Jingdezhen’s legacy.