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Jingdezhen Ceramics - a work of many hands

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.

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.

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.