Jingdezhen is recognized as the “City of Porcelain” and porcelain can be seen everywhere; even the streetlights and the sculptures in gardens in the city center are made of porcelain.
Jingdezhen is a world of porcelain, an ocean of porcelain and a paradise for porcelain makers, where all generations of the residents have an indissoluble bond with porcelain. Every household’s career has some connection with porcelain. Rambling in the “City of Porcelain”, the correspondents cannot help singing high praise for the innumerable intricate artistic porcelain objects and the daily-use porcelain. Craftsmen of Jingdezhen, clever of mind and deft of hand, turn porcelain into various musical instruments with clear, melodious sound.
With blue and white porcelain in hand, we were eager to explore its history. At the Ancient Folk Kiln exhibition, the demonstrations made by many aged artists and the intangible cultural heritage transmitters unfolded before us the living historical picture scroll of the art of ancient porcelain manufacturing.
With a wooden potter’s wheel spinning at high speed, an aged artist was throwing a clay “biscuit”. In no time, a lump of unremarkable “mud” took the shape of a bowl or a gourd, which prompted the tourists to give a try. But they destroyed the biscuit because of a little too much force, which showed the high skill required to “throw” a piece that seemed so simple. Chatting with the craftsmen, we learned that now in their 60s and 70s, they had practiced the craft since they were teenagers. Day after day, working with mud biscuits, their hands became tougher and tougher while the mud biscuits became more and more delicate and intricate. Porcelain is a product of teamwork. The working procedure of porcelain production has 72 steps, every step of which is finished by a craftsman who silently devotes all his or her life to it. A classic work of porcelain requires excellent artistic ability at every step.
Though the first-phase craftsmanship is superior, the whole working procedure will be in vain if the kiln fire is not managed efficiently. In the City of Porcelain, there is a well known saying, “A top scholar will be trained in three years, while a kiln director will be trained in ten years.” The kiln director, known as ‘chief of fire’, must be good at controlling the heat in the kiln. In the exhibition zone there is a wood-fired kiln—Zhen Kiln which is by far the most complete, the oldest, and the largest wood-fired kiln, and produced the most porcelain of any in the world. It was restored according to the traditional construction technique by senior craftsmen.
We were curious about the tall pile of pine wood near Zhen Kiln. It is called the ‘Pyramid in Jingdezhen’ by the locals. It is said that it takes several thousands kilos of firewood to fire a kiln. Porcelain is regarded as the crystallization of fire and mud. Numerous porcelain kiln chimneys emit smoke which blotted out the sky and the sun – this is shown in a porcelain painting depicting the past of firing porcelain in Jingdezhen.
When we ‘traveled through space and time’ and arrived at a modern porcelain factory, we saw that today’s Capital of Porcelain has bid farewell to the furnace fire era. Computer operators controlling temperature has replaced the kiln directors. An electric assembly line now executes the throwing of biscuits. Natural gas and electric porcelain kilns have replaced wood-fired kilns. No need to cut down and burn so many pine trees. More importantly, no more clouds of smoke.
Porcelain is still a carrier of classical Chinese culture today. Many state gifts have been produced in Jingdezhen. There is also a great amount of high-grade daily-use porcelain produced here. On the assembly lines, the biscuits at one side of the miniature natural gas kiln move toward it in line; then the bright-colored finished porcelain products emerge out of the other side of the kiln. Thus, modern porcelain is advancing forwards throughout the world, entering thousands of homes.
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Published in Confucius Institute Magazine
Magazine 14. Volume 3. May 2011.
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