The World Capital of Ceramics

Jingdezhen has played a central role in the development and evolution of the ceramic arts for nearly 2,000 years. Although the process for manufacturing porcelain was not invented there, this city emerged during the past millennium as the place where the finest Chinese ceramic was made, and it attracted the country’s most skilled craftsmen. Generation after generation, these artisans have pushed creative and technical boundaries, fabricating some of the world’s most beautiful porcelain. Historically, Jingdezhen supplied the ceramics for numerous Chinese dynasties. The bowls, plates, pitchers, and other wares, produced in infinite variety in the kilns of Jingdezhen, were eventually exported to every corner of the globe. No location has had a more profound influence on the development of the ceramic arts in China and abroad. Artists in Jingdezhen continue to pioneer new techniques, blending old traditions with a modern aesthetic. This unique dynamic between the artist and the medium, sustained over the millennia, has made this city the ceramic capital of China and one of the most important production centers in the world.

Jingdezhen earned this reputation in China by creating high-quality porcelain for the country’s imperial rulers. Historical evidence suggests that ceramic manufacturing there may date back to the late Han Dynasty (25-220). Artisans crafted utilitarian wares, as well as fine art for every succeeding dynasty. During the Tang Dynasty (618-907) Jingdezhen provided porcelain as a tribute the emperor. By the Song Dynasty (960-1279), the area had become so famous that Emperor Zhenzong (968-1022) bestowed his reign’s appellation – Jingde – on the city in 1004. Since then, all ceramics from this area have been stamped with a seal that reads, “Made in the time of Jingde”—giving rise to the name of the city itself. Also in Song times, local producers built large kilns that fired porcelain exclusively for the imperial court. The Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) established the Fuliang Ceramics Bureau to regulate aspects of royal production. Under the reigns of the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) emperors, Jingdezhen’s kilns were designated for royal use only.

The ceramic arts have flourished in Jingdezhen and its environs in large part because this region has an abundance of natural resources, especially the high-quality clay essential to create fine porcelain. The village of Kaolin, situated 45 kilometers from the city, merits special mention because of its large deposits of the world’s finest clay – often referred to as kaolin. This material has low levels of iron and other impurities, can withstand the high heat required to turn it into porcelain, and is extremely malleable, allowing artists to create a myriad of shapes. Kaolin clay has been used to form exquisite ceramics since the earliest times.

By the Tang and Song Dynasties, Jingdezhen porcelain had become one of China’s principal exports. Chinese began trading this prized commodity by boat down rivers and across oceans, as well as transporting it in caravans over land. Ships carried these ceramics to Japan and the countries of Southeast Asia. Fine wares traveled the fabled Silk Road, ending up in far-flung markets in Central and Southwest Asia, North Africa, and Europe. Chinese porcelain, shipped across the Mediterranean Sea, reached the Port of Alexandria in Egypt, and Arab merchants sold these goods to Europeans. During the Tang and Song Dynasties, Chinese ceramics, together with silk and tea, were so highly valued that they virtually replaced foreign currency in the world market as a formal means of exchange.

While Jingdezhen artisans produced household items such as plates, bowls, and jugs for largely practical purposes, they also created many objects of extraordinary artistic merit. Some of these pieces were so exquisite and well made that they inspired skilled workers in other countries and led to the growth of ceramic traditions outside of China. For example, craftsmen working during Japan’s Nara Period (710-794) borrowed decorative techniques from Chinese porcelain to develop their own version of tricolor glazed pottery. Known as nara sancai, this ware became extremely popular among the Japanese during the 8th century. Between 960 and 1170, Egyptian skilled laborers successfully imitated glost-firing techniques used by ceramic workers in Jingdezhen. In the 15th century, Chinese porcelain – and methods associated with its manufacture – found its way to Italy through European interactions with Arab merchants. Soon, Italian artists began to adopt similar techniques in their own work. Because of its wide distribution and positive impact on people around the world, Jingdezhen’s porcelain was an important example of early globalization in the decorative and fine arts.

Jingdezhen has maintained its position as the ceramics capital of China because throughout its history the region’s artisans have been continually developing new techniques and experimenting with new ways to use porcelain for artistic expression. According to documents from the Song Dynasty, the region had numerous kilns producing ceramics described “as creamy as jade.” During this period, local kilns were turning out more than a hundred styles, including the well-known “shadow blue.” Yuan Dynasty innovations included blue-and-white and underglaze red decorations. Each generation of craftsmen refined traditional techniques, creating beautiful and standardized works that were not only elegant, but that also reflected the aesthetic of the era.

By the Ming Dynasty, Jingdezhen, which had established both a process that consistently produced high-quality porcelain and the commercial connections to make its ceramics industry viable, was internationally recognized. The porcelain trade had become extremely efficient and professional relationships between sellers and vendors occurred on a much greater scale than ever before. More importantly, actual brand names from the city began to appear in the world marketplace, and special orders even came from Europe requesting wares with particular designs from specific ceramic studios.

In the Qing Dynasty, local artisans experimented with new glazes and enamels, as well as with firing temperatures, to generate a broader array of colors and textures. For example, the Zang kiln in Jingdezhen was lauded not only for its monochrome glazed wares, but also for its porcelain decorated in blue-and-white, polychrome, and underglaze red. During the reign of Emperor Kangxi (1661-1722), blue-and-white production achieved a remarkable degree of sophistication. Polychrome enamels also led to new technological advancements such as the application of powder enamels fired at relatively low temperatures to permit colors to melt into the glaze. The result was a vibrant look with a creamy smooth texture. The introduction of overglaze and gold-colored ceramics further expanded the range of Qing porcelain.

Chinese ceramic painting, a specific and ancient art form, occupies an important place in the history of Jingdezhen’s development. Its most recent iterations can be seen in the artworks selected for CHINA Town. Some scholars feel that the history of ceramic painting begins with drawings found on Neolithic pottery. Over the millennia, craftsmen frequently employed carving and sculpting to embellish their wares. Later, pottery would be defined by its molding, glazing, and painting – all of which combined to transform these objects into works of art.

Concurrent with the expansion of porcelain production during the Song Dynasty, ceramic painting flourished in Jingdezhen, especially at the renowned Cizhou kiln. In the Yuan, Ming, and Qing Dynasties, skilled painters created great masterpieces. Some works were also executed by foreign artists who visited China. In certain cases, these were influenced by oil painting techniques and featured elements from other cultures. For instance, Italian painter Giuseppe Castiglione (1688-1766), a Jesuit missionary who assumed the name Lang Shining while living in China, melded Western and Chinese aesthetics in his experiments with painted porcelain.

By the Qing Dynasty, ceramic painting had forged its own identity distinct from the porcelain industry. Unlike the craftsmen who produced unsigned pottery, some artists began to mark their works with seals featuring their own names. The impetus for this practice came about in part because numerous imperial kilns closed during Qing times, and official ceramic masters found themselves without a steady income. Out of economic necessity, these painters created porcelain that no longer bore seals from the royal kilns. The ceramic painting executed at this time went far beyond pure decoration and instead highlighted the creativity of these artists. By the early 1900s, a porcelain style known as qianjiangcai, often painted by talented masters, represented a new phase in this art field.

Gifted artists of the Qing period generated a particularly impressive body of works, which are still considered some of the finest examples of ceramic painting. Among them was an artistic and literary group known as the Zhushan Bayou. Two of their members, Wang Qi (1884-1937) and Wang Dafan (1888-1961), took ceramic painting to new heights of excellence. Those who succeeded the Zhushan Bayou and their contemporaries built upon their achievements and established the fundamentals of the modern ceramic arts. The canons they formulated ensured that centuries-old traditions would be passed on to future generations.

After a long period that drew more on conventions than innovations, ceramic painting is experiencing a renaissance, especially in the area of decorative techniques. With encouragement from the city of Jingdezhen, artists from China and around the world have ushered in changes that utilize new approaches and a modern vision to expand on traditions. Today, ceramic painters in Jingdezhen are inspired not only by ancient Chinese practices dating back a thousand years, but also by philosophies and techniques from other cultures. This fusion of old and new, of both Chinese and international cultures, has created an intellectual and artistic environment that is producing extraordinary art.

In this modern porcelain art community, artists are increasingly well educated and often have training in specialties beyond ceramic painting. They are adept at analyzing complex techniques and pioneering new methods, which are frequently based on earlier approaches. These artists are devoted to creating new metal oxide colors, exploring different textured glazes, and understanding how different pigments react to various temperatures. In addition, new tools and technologies have helped them to deviate from standard decorative motifs and to establish their own unique styles. Each of these qualities is evident in the works selected for CHINA Town: Contemporary Ceramic Painting from Jingdezhen.

This exhibition introduces American audiences to developments taking place in Jingdezhen and shows how Chinese porcelain is transcending the classical blue-and-white decorative motifs for which it had become famous. While the works presented in CHINA Town embody each artist’s reverence for ancient traditions, they also fully embrace modern innovations. They represent a new form of contemporary art grappling with the challenges and stimuli inherent to globalization. The thirteen artists featured here are at the forefront of this modern movement and, together with their colleagues, will continue to produce ceramic paintings that advance this art form and ensure that Jingdezhen maintains its position as a world center of fine porcelain.

Dr. Chen Yuquian
Jingdezhen Ceramic Institute, Vice President.
China Ceramic Cultural Research Institute, President.