Jingdezhen was, for many centuries, the world capital of porcelain. The local clay and glaze were what’s known as “cousin materials”, with an affinity that would fuse them at an atomic level. Jingdezhen porcelain didn’t just comprise baked clay with a shiny glaze. The two would vitrify under extreme heat, creating translucent, beautiful colours and clear, ringing tones. Europeans would spend decades trying to work out the secret of porcelain, unaware that at least part of the secret was Jingdezhen itself. It was the source of much of the imperial tableware for several dynasties.
Jingdezhen also suffered from immense fluctuations in fortune. The Mongol conquests gave it access to both Middle Eastern markets and Afghan cobalt, creating a new industry in blue and white tableware – the Chinese of the 14th century thought it was vulgar, but it found a ready export market. There were riots among the labourers in the early 1600s over poor conditions and pay. In 1675, a generation after the Manchu conquest, the town fell to Wu Sangui’s forces during the Revolt of the Three Feudatories. Jingdezhen was almost totally destroyed, and for many years afterwards, canny managers at the kilns fired pots and plates without a Manchu emperor’s reign date on them, in order to avoid any more iconoclasm in the event of another revolt. It suffered again with the influx of foreign competition, forced to modernise and downgrade its principles when facing an influx of imports from Industrial-Revolution Europe.
In 1911, the final entry in the porcelain ledger of the Forbidden City details a command by the Last Emperor to send a certain kind of tableware to Beijing. The potters’ reply is a blank refusal, confessing that they have forgotten the skills required. They could knock him up some plates with dragons on them, if he liked, but the glory days were gone.
Somewhat counter-intuitively, Jingdezhen’s fortunes revived after the Revolution. Somebody had to make tea sets for the Communist Party grandees, and Jingdezhen seemed like the perfect place for workers’ crockery and porcelain statues of Chairman Mao.
“They were lucky during the Cultural Revolution,” says Eric Kao, the American who has been the director here for six years. “Not because it didn’t do terrible damage to their livelihood, but because it only lasted ten years. When it was all over, some of the artisans were still alive. They could come back. They could teach a new generation.”
Eric surprises me by revealing the thing that almost killed Jingdezhen for good – capitalism.
“When Deng Xiaoping’s reforms came in in the late 1970s, there was a real boom. They weren’t making ceramics for the Emperors any more, or for the Party. They were making it for private clients, for commissions, for hotels and restaurants. There was a huge surge in interest and business, but then the potters started competing. I’ll charge a hundred, so you charge 90. So I charge 80, so you charge 70. By the time we’re down to 50, I can’t actually afford to live off the proceeds unless I downgrade the quality of my work. The output turned sloppy. It turned unreliable. The Chinese want a bargain, and if they get a bargain, they’ll put up with the fall in quality. By the 1990s, Jingdezhen was a wasteland. We couldn’t give the pots away. The rent here was minimal because nobody wanted to be here. That’s where The Workshop came in.”
Eric was hired because he had two degrees in ceramics, and spoke both Chinese and English. His work is on display in the showroom, but he’s really here about the message – and the message has been written by Caroline Cheng, another overseas Chinese who first started the cooperative in Shanghai in 1985. The Pottery Workshop has only been in Jingdezhen for the last ten years. The more Eric tells me, the crazier he sounds, but in a good way. We walk through a market of little stalls selling bespoke pottery products. There are sublime, teardrop-shaped tea-pots; little bowls decorated with cute animals; vases with real leaves under their glazing.
“We hold this market every Saturday, from nine till twelve. That’s it. We won’t run it for longer or for more often, because we want to maintain the quality of the goods on sale. This is a juried marketplace. There is a waiting line to get in to one of the 80 stalls, and Caroline checks their material every month. If they don’t meet the right standard, or the quality of innovation slips, they’re out.”
The market shoppers are obvious potters from abroad – women in Doc Martens with flashes of garish hair; intense, smouldering boys with ponytails and smocks; wiry, white-haired old ladies in sensible sweaters. There are a bunch of loud students from West Virginia, and nervy-looking girls who seem to have have found a sensual fulfilment in kneading mud. Meanwhile, the Chinese are a breed apart – girls in trilbies and thigh-boots; boys in waistcoats, conspicuous yuppies and hipsters. They move among the Chinese-owned stalls that sell not only ceramics, but also handbags and bracelets, trays and purses, cutlery and coats.
“Oh, you mean the other media,” laughs Eric, using media in an entirely proper but rather unexpected way. “We introduced that strand last year. Ceramic is just a material. It’s just a way of making an object and fulfilling a purpose. But part of what we do here is exposing students to each other’s work, and the work of local craftsmen. Our Residency programme doesn’t just put foreigners here to use our facilities, it gives them an interpreter and lets them wander the city. We want everything to cross-pollinate. So we thought: let’s bring in the guys who sell copper spoons; let’s bring in the wood-carvers. Let’s see if they don’t spark some sort of new solution to a problem for the potters. Mixing the media.”
I ask the price of a bowl on one of the stands. The answer is so mind-blowingly low that there is the sound of a palpable scramble as the rest of the crew run to get their wallets. The students are practically giving these pieces away.
“We encourage them to get their work out there,” says Eric. “They spend the week making these items, and make a subsistence income, but those items are then spread as far as possible.”
I note that all the students have QR-codes on their stalls, allowing passing trade to instantly get their online contact details.
“We’re very big on social media, too,” says Eric. “We make them have properly up-to-date resumés, proper online contacts. These are apprentice pieces that get them recognised, and we make sure that they have portfolios to hand for commissions and repeat business.”
“We’re under pressure to expand, but we want to maintain the quality of the goods. There have been weeks where Caroline doesn’t let the market to happen at all if the students’ work isn’t up to scratch. But we’re asked if we can make it all-day Saturday, all weekend, all week. We won’t do it. The quality of the work won’t take the strain.”
I try to get as much of his business model on tape because it is so madly and beautifully counter-intuitive. It’s like he is actively trying to lose money, but also to create an entire generation of master potters.
Eric shows me the public kilns, communally-owned ovens where the locals have always been over to rent space for their own firing, even back in the imperial days.
“You don’t need your own kiln,” he explains. “You don’t need to wait until you have 200 bowls to fire. You can just buy a square foot on one of our firings, and we’ll cook them out every day.”
I touch the side of the kiln, which looks almost exactly like half a transport container with metal tubes leading into it. It is not hot at all, even though inside the temperature is 600C and climbing to the required 1300C.
“Oh, we’ve lined the inside with ceramic fibre,” Eric says. “It’s the same stuff they use on the space shuttle. We crash-cool this kiln: we fire it until it’s done, and then we just turn off the gas and open the doors. That would crack the glaze on a lot of ceramics, but not Jingdezhen. It’s different in the big industrial factories. There, they have tunnel kilns that are 70 metres long. The pots go through on a conveyor belt, and the centre is firing 24 hours a day. They heat up gradually, get to the hottest point, and then cool down by the time they get out the other end. That’s where they make all the Starbucks mugs.”
As we leave the compound, I see another kiln, made of simple brick, set on a patch of grass near the exit. I wonder if it’s some sort of traditional construction from previous dynasty.
“Oh no,” says Eric. “that’s for pizza.”