While Jingdezhen ceramic factories spent much of the mid 20th Century producing simple eggshell tea ware and iconically gaudy mugs painted bright teal, yellow, and pink for export sale, the local state owned ceramic factories also made a very different kind of tea ware for domestic Chinese consumption. Ceramics made during the Cultural Revolution often included political content and all things Mao. Pieces include Mao's face, quotations and poetry. Never before and never again would ceramic production be focused on producing simple, standardized pieces with political messaging for the broad public to enjoy. They have since long become collector items in China, with rarer more technically complicated pieces now fetching thousands of dollars despite their humble origin and cheap production costs.
Here are two pieces that we purchased in Jingdezhen, complete with the obligatory dust and grime that is left to convey authenticity in a market wrought with fakes. Both pieces date to the early 1970's, feature poetry from Mao Zedong, and imagery that would have been instantly recognizable to Chinese people of the period. Both of these 500 ml jumbo-sized lidded mugs were designed with a working man or woman in mind, and are as ideal for extended grandpa brewing today as they were half a century ago.
This relatively rare piece promotes Mao Era revolutionary tourism. The flaming structures on the front of the cup are accompanied by the text "Souvenir of Visiting Red Anyuan." Anyuan was had one the earliest Communist party branches in China, and was one the first places where revolutionary intellectuals were able to win over industrial workers. The poem on back on the cup is Mao's Picking Mulberries (1929):
Man ages all too easily, but not nature; The Double Ninth comes every year. And on this Double Ninth Yellow chrysanthemums on the battlefield smell exceedingly sweet.
Every year autumn winds blow hard. Autumn scenery is wholly unlike spring And yet better: See the frosty sky and freezing water stretching endlessly far.
Mao actually wrote this poem in Fujian, hundreds of miles away from Anyuan, but both this poem and Anyuan were associated with Mao's work in the early revolutionary period. Tourist events in places like Anyuan targeted students, and the image of a young edgy Mao writing poems and stirring up trouble was very much on the mind of the Red Guards who made their long journey to a relatively remote city in Western Jiangxi. It is unclear if this souvenir mug ever made it Anyuan.
This piece is relatively common, with several variations widely available on internet antique platform. On the front of the cup is a portrait of the Great Helmsman wearing a straw hat. This image was based on a touched up color photograph that had been widely distributed in China since the early 1960's. The vertical inscription below Mao's face and a blooming tree branch are first lines to Mao's Ode to the Mume Blossom (1961), which he wrote while reflecting on a Song Dynasty poem and national recovery from the 1959-1961 famine. On the back of the cup is a calligraphy rendering's of Mao's Mount Liupan (1935), a poem that was written during a bleak point in the Chinese civil war. In English it goes something like this:
The sky is high, the clouds are pale, We watch the wild geese vanish southward. We would not be men if we fail to reach the Great Wall, We who have already tread twenty thousand Li.
High on the crest of Mount Liupan, Red banners flutter in the western wind. Today we hold the long cord in our hands, When shall we bind fast the Grey Dragon?
Taken together, the images and text convey both Mao's peasant roots and also the specific political line at this time. The failure of the Great Leap Forward and the set back in the first Chinese Civil War were attributed to a right wing political line. Just as Mao and the Communist Cause survived these set backs, so would they also survive the political turmoil of the Cultural Revolution. The genius of the piece is that the symbols and sentiment of the cup are accessible and appreciable to all classes. An illiterate peasant could understand the good vibes and political attitude of a smiling rustic Mao and blooming tree branch; a sent-down college youth could reflect on the historical significance of the poetry chosen. All could appreciate the careful attention to detail in the paint work.