Jingdezhen (140 kilometers northeast of, and 2½ hours by train, from Nanchang) is regarded as the "Porcelain Capital of China" and has been called the "Porcelain City" of China. The home of a centuries-old porcelain industry, it produces four famous kinds of porcelain: "blue and white," "rice pattern," "family rose" and "monochrome and polychrome glaze." Many other kinds of porcelain and porcelain sculptures are also produced here.

Jingdezhen was known in the Song period (960–1279) for its bluish-white qingbai porcelain, which rapidly came to dominate porcelain production after it began to mass-produce underglaze blue in the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368). “Vase with Underglaze Blue Design of Interlaced Peonies” is a piece at the Shanghai Museum that dates to the Yuan period. According to the museum: Decorated with blue-and-white patterns all over with rich layers, this vase is an exquisite work of underglaze blue porcelain of the Yuan dynasty. The Yunjian design of the decoration band on the shoulder is almost at the same level of the band of interlaced branches and peony sprays at the belly part, highlighting two different themes. [Source: Shanghai Museum]

Official kilns dedicated to the production of imperial wares were established at Jingdezhen in the early Ming period, and these kilns introduced a large number of fine wares. In the Qing period many more new wares were created, drawing on the long experience of both folk and imperial kilns. By that time Jingdezhen was famous for porcelain throughout the world.

Located on the eastern bank of the Yangtze River and bordering Anhui province to the north, Jingdezhen is where porcelain was invented and first fired from kaolin clay mined nearby. The modern city has a population of 1.5 million people and has preserved an extra-large, complete and complex system of porcelain production and has some nice natural scenery. Jingdezhen was one of the first 24 famous historic and cultural cities designated by the State Council. It enjoys the special honor of the top tourist city and a state ecological garden.

Among the products being manufactured today are not only plates and vessels and exact copies of classic pieces but also bathroom sinks and porcelain products used in industry. Sales in 1999 reached US$96 million but could be better. The quality is uneven and there is lot of competition from manufacturers in Japan, France, Mexico and other places.

Websites and Sources: 1) China Museums Online: chinaonlinemuseum.com ; 2) Guide to Chinese Ceramics: Song Dynasty, Minneapolis Institute of Arts; artsmia.org features many examples of different types of ceramic ware produced during the Song dynasty, including ding, qingbai, longquan, jun, guan and cizhou. 3) Making a Cizhou Vessel Princeton University Art Museum artmuseum.princeton.edu. This interactive site shows users seven steps used to create Song- and Yuan-era Cizhou vessels.

History of Porcelain in Jingdezhen

Jingdezhen (known as Ching-te Chen in ancient and imperial times) has a 1,700 year history of porcelain-making, beginning in the Eastern Han Dynasty period (A.D. 25-220) . During the Jingde years, between 1004-1007 in the Song Dynasty era (960-1279) Emperor Zhenzong (Chen Tsung) declared that Jingdezhen would be the headquarters of imperial porcelain production. Subsequently, the town named itself after the particular portion of Emperor Zhenzong's reign. Porcelain from the imperial plant here was regarded as the best and was reserved for imperial use.

Between 1350 and 1750 Jingdezhen was the production center for nearly all of the world's porcelain. Jingdezhen was located near abundant supplies of kaolin, the clay used in porcelain making, and fuel needed to fire up kilns. It also had access to China's coast, which was used for transporting finished products to places in China and around the world. So much porcelain was made that Jingdezhen now sits on a foundation of shards from discarded pottery that over is four meters deep in places. Zhuxianzhen in Henan, Hankouzhen in Hubei and Fushanzhen in Guangdong were listed as the top imperial porcelain towns

From the beginning production at the Ming porcelain factories in Jingdezhen were oriented towards the export market. The factories produced coffee cups and beer mugs centuries before these drinks became popular in China. They also produced plates with Arabic and Persian motifs and place setting emblazoned with European coats of arms. The porcelain trade was so lucrative that the porcelain making processes were closely guarded secrets and Jingdezhen was officially off limits to visitors to keep spies from uncovering these secrets. Over three million pieces were exported to Europe between 1604 and 1657 alone. This was around that the same time that the word "china" began being used in England to describe porcelains because the two were so closely associated with each other.

Pere d’Entrecolles, a Jesuit missionary from France, secretly entered Jingdezhen and described porcelain making in the city in letters that made their way to Europe in the early 1700s. He described a city with a million people and 3,000 kilns that were fired up day and night and filled the night sky with an orange glow. He learned the process but confused the clays. Around he same time that d’Entrecolles was describing porcelain-making in Jingdezhen, Germans working independently in their homeland discovered the secret to making porcelain Large scale porcelain production began in the West in 1710 in Meissen, Germany.

Chinese porcelain dominated the world until European manufacturers such as those in Messen, Germany and Wedgewood, England began producing products of equal quality but at a cheaper price. After that the Chinese porcelain industry collapsed as many industries have done today when underpriced by cheap Chinese imports.

Jingdezhen remains a major a producer of ceramics today. The sky is filled with gritty smoke from hundreds of kilns from the 150 or so factories that produce more than a million pieces of porcelain a day, half of it for export. The porcelain industry almost died out after the Communists organized porcelain makers into collectives and dictated what designs they should make. Most of the state-run factories are gone (in 1991 all but two of 32 state porcelain factories were closed). In their place have sprung up small factories that are more efficient and able to meet the demands of changing markets. About half the city's urban population of 120,000 are involved in making, painting or selling porcelain.

Imperial Kiln Sites of Jingdezhen

The Imperial Kiln Sites of Jingdezhen was nominated to be a UNESCO World Heritage site in.2017. According to a report submitted to UNESCO: “The major component of Imperial Kiln Sites of Jingdezhen is the Imperial Kiln Site, which fired, produced and served porcelains for the imperial family during Ming and Qing dynasties. It includes porcelain-firing workshops and kilns ruins as well as those abundant porcelain pieces of Ming and Qing dynasties deposited underground. There also exist several civil kiln sites which reflect the system of “moulding by imperial kiln and firing by civil kiln” as well as other important kiln relics showing the imperial kilns' technical origin. Imperial Kiln Sites of Jingdezhen also include sites of porcelain-making raw materials mining and processing, trade associations guild halls, water transportation docks and other cultural relics, which are related to the production and transportation of porcelains. [Source: National Commission of China for UNESCO, People’s Republic of China]

“These heritage sites, scattered around imperial kiln in Jingdezhen and its surrounding areas, demonstrate a complete course of development of the imperial kiln in workshop layout, kiln structure, processing technique, management system and other aspects, and provide concrete evidence for the highest level of porcelain-making craftsmanship in China and over the world. As a whole, they reveal the features and key contents of Jingdezhen as a world porcelain-making centre and an integrated model of China porcelain-making industry.

“Imperial Kiln Site and other major kiln sites in Jingdezhen fully demonstrate the evolution process of China porcelain culture, reflect porcelain-making technique development course from matured to its peak, and genuinely reveal the material and technical foundation of imperial kiln established in Ming Dynasty, as well as its significant influence on the later development of the porcelain industry. The remained porcelain shards existed in the cultural deposits of different historical periods represent the spiritual pursuit of Chinese people and aesthetic taste of different times and uniquely testify the evolution of the Chinese civilization.

“The exquisite craftsmanship and products of imperial kilns make great contributions to China porcelain culture as well as the development of human civilization. The large-scale porcelain export promoted intercultural communication and interaction. It clearly demonstrates China's outstanding contributions to the world trade with porcelain production in the Age of Discovery. Therefore, Imperial Kiln Sites of Jingdezhen is the exceptional testimony of the global influence of Jingdezhen porcelain-making industry.”

Importance of the Imperial Kiln Sites of Jingdezhen

According to a report submitted to UNESCO: “Imperial Kiln Sites of Jingdezhen are a symbol of international cultural exchanges in ceramic art. Porcelain shards deposits and kiln workshop relics reveal the innovation and evolution of porcelain-making techniques and products during the past 500 years when Jingdezhen city was crowned as the world porcelain-making centre during Ming and Qing dynasties. The scale of porcelain shards in Jingdezhen Imperial Kiln Site and the comparison between porcelain specimen and survived exported porcelain prove that these kilns were main production sites of exported porcelains in Ming and Qing dynasties, where porcelains as global commodities disseminating Chinese culture to the world. To some extent, it changed other nations' lifestyles and aesthetic taste and enhanced cross-cultural dialogue. Great contributions had been made by imperial kilns porcelain-making technique to the world civilization. In the meanwhile, the porcelain products of Jingdezhen were influenced by foreign cultures, and further innovated, showcasing the cultural exchange and interaction between civilizations. [Source: National Commission of China for UNESCO, People’s Republic of China]

“Imperial Kiln Sites of Jingdezhen reflect the unique art and culture taste of Chinese society. The porcelain-making technique reflected by the sites of workshops and kilns is a representative part of Chinese culture. Imperial kiln site and associated major kilns demonstrate the overall evolution of porcelain-making technique and management system. The porcelain shards unearthed are embodiment of Chinese people's unique characteristics and personalities, cultural ideology, and the pursuit of artistic life, especially the life and aesthetic preference of imperial family in Ming and Qing dynasties. Hence, imperial kiln and relevant kiln sites are extraordinary testimony of Chinese porcelain culture spanned over a thousand of years from late Tang Dynasty to Qing dynasties.

“Imperial Kiln Sites of Jingdezhen represent the highest standard of Chinese porcelain-making industry in its peak period. They witnessed a historical phase of Jingdezhen, fast growing into the porcelain-making centre of China and the world. The sites of relevant kilns and workshops reveal the material and technical basis of imperial kiln establishment, exquisite porcelain-making techniques and advanced management skills. The layout of imperial kiln and surrounding civil kiln sites reflects the great impact of the imperial kiln establishment on the growth of porcelain industry, and testifies the system of the official supervised porcelain-making, the system of “moulding by imperial kiln and firing by civil kiln”, and other efficient management practices recorded by ancient books and records. The processing, producing, transporting and managing facilities including mines of raw materials, docks, and guild halls demonstrate the complete structure of porcelain-making industry and the scale of production with imperial kilns as the core. These elements jointly illustrate the prominent position of Jingdezhen imperial kiln in the global porcelain-making industry.

For form and design, every kiln site preserves porcelain shards deposits from different periods which illustrate the diverse porcelain product style and type features in respective era. The major kilns and workshop sites by and large maintain the original structure form and production information. For material and substance, main sites were buried underground, thus original materials were mostly preserved; For the traditions, techniques and management system, the historical information such as technological process, firing technique and management system related to Jingdezhen Imperial Kiln Site, has been verified by the archaeological evidence and the historical documents; For location and environment, all the heritage elements remain at their original location, so they jointly illustrate the characteristics of key elements of Jingdezhen as a craft industry complex and its exceptional natural resources.

“The kiln sites as a whole include most traditional porcelain kiln types and illustrate the evolution process of imperial kiln systems during Ming and Qing dynasties. They preserved porcelain shards deposits in a continuous historical period, covering most porcelain types from Yuan to Ming and Qing dynasties, which illustrate the development of Chinese porcelain from mature period to peak period. Compared with sites in the Tentative List, Ancient Porcelain Kiln Site in China, Yue Kiln Sites and Longquan Kiln Sites, Imperial Kiln Sites of Jingdezhen has many advantages: The kiln and furniture reflect advanced technique, the vast products embody aesthetic taste of Chinese traditional culture, and it represents the most complete industry system of porcelain-making craftsmanship in China. Compared with the domestic "Most Famous Five Kilns" (i.e. Jun, Ru, Guan, Ge, Ding Kiln Sites), Imperial Kiln Sites of Jingdezhen has a longer history in ceramic firing industry, more advanced techniques, more variety of product categories, more optimized production management and play a more vital role in the global porcelain-making industry.”

Painting, Glazing Techniques and Underglaze Painting at Jingdezhen

According to the Shanghai Museum: There were two main painting and glazing techniques:underglaze painting and overglaze painting. 1) With underglaze painting decorative designs were painted on the body before glazing and high-temperature firing. The surface of these pieces are very smoth and painting under the laze doesn fade. 2) With overglaze painting decorative designs are painted on the glaze of high-temperature fired porcelains. The paintings were dons by hand after the pottery was fored at temperatures between 750 and 900 degrees C. [Source: Shanghai Museum]

There are three main types of underglaze painting: 1) underglaze blue, using cobalt for pigmenting and a transprent glaze and fired temperature of about 1300 degrees C; 2) underglaze red, using copper for pigmenting and high-temperature, reduction fireing; and 3) Wucai, polychrome porcelain decoration. Wucai first appeared during the reign of Xuande (1426-1435) and utilzed a bluze underglaze with overglaze paintings. It wa snot until reign of Kangxi (1662-1722) that blue and black verglaze was introduced.

There are two main types overglaze painting: 1) fencai and 2) falangcai. Fencai was a kind of overglaze ainting with ena,els on an opaque “glass whote: background, producing a three-dimensional effect called famille rose on the West. The best pieces were made durng the reign of Yongzheng (1723-1735). Falangal refers to pottery mad e with a precious overglaze painton using imported enamals reserved for imperial porcelains. The paintonsg were applied on high-quality whote porcelain from Jindezhen by skileld artisans in a court workshop in Beijing.

Jingdezhen Porcelain from the Ming Periods

“Oblated Pot with Underglaze Blue Design of Camellia Sprays” imitates the shape of the metal ware in Islamic regions, known in China as ‘embracing the moon flask’. According to the Shanghai Museum: It is a masterpiece of blue-and-white porcelain of the Yongle reign period (1402-1424) with its light and thin body, smooth and white paste and bright and rich glaze. There are three layers of floral design all over the pot. The composition is well-balanced, with a good sense of space. The underglaze painting is an intense blue, with slight black areas where it has broken through the glaze to oxidize. The white glaze has a tint of blue and some undulation usually referred to as ‘orange peel’. All these are typical of early fifteenth century wares. [Source: Shanghai Museum]

“Turquoise Glazed Dish with Underglaze Blue Design of Lotus and Fish” was in the popular style of the Chenghua reign period (1464-1487). The peacock green glaze is beautiful and bright. The blue-and-white patterns show dark color due to the coating of peacock green glaze. Peacock green glazed blue-and-white porcelain originated from the Jingdezhen Kiln during the Ming dynasty. As very few were handed down, this work is extremely valuable.

“Melon-shaped Jar with Underglaze Red Design of Season Flowers” is a typical article of the Hongwu reign period with a large and stately shape and dense and complex ornamentation. The decoration still retained the overelaborated and complex porcelain decoration style of the Yuan dynasty, reflecting the far-reaching effect of the Yuan porcelain on the Hongwu wares of the Ming dynasty.

“Red Glazed Dish” is a typical official ware of the Xuande reign period (1425-1435). The white glaze on the base takes on an ivory color and the internal and external side of the dish is in red glaze, which looks plump and smooth with ruby gloss. This type of high-temperature glazed ware is fired one time under high temperature with copper as color development reagent. The demanding firing technique and low yield of the products resulted in high value of such products even at that time. And the red glaze during the Yongle and Xuande periods was even more praised all over the world for its deep and solemn coloration and ruby luster.

“Dish with Carved Design of Flowers and Fruits in Caramel Glaze on White Ground” is a standard official plate. With the date mark of ‘Da Ming Hong Zhi Nian Zhi’, meaning ‘made in the reign of Hongzhi (1487-1505), on the base in regular script and in blue-and-white double rings, this piece of work can be regarded as the standard ware of this period. The design of the pattern in the plate was also popular among the official wares of the Hongzhi period. But it was quite uncommon that the glaze of the floral pattern on the ground-coated body was removed and was filled and glazed with brown glaze, making it a rare treasure.

“Jar with Wucai Design of Fish and Algae” is a fine example of Wucai porcelain. On the basis of the Chenghua Doucai technology, the famous Wucai (blue-and-white polychrome) porcelain was developed during the Jiajing and Wanli periods (1521-1620) of the Ming dynasty. Blue-and-white polychrome, gaudy and fervent with simple and natural filling, was once overwhelming. The prevailing of the official polychrome porcelain during the Jiajing reign period was perhaps closely associated with the reverence of Taoism and the belief in exorcising evil spirits with polychrome colors by the Emperor Jiajing himself. The polychrome decorations usually take blue as ground and then five colors of red, yellow, blue, green and aubergine are added. These five colors may not all be available according to the pattern.

“Blue-and-white Double-spouted Cruet with Fruit Trees Design” is a porcelain ware for export with unique shape. With two mouths conjoined to the body but separated in the belly part, the bottle can hold two kinds of different liquids. The emergence of such a bottle might be related to a kind of oil and vinegar jar in Italy in the 16th century. This piece is a typical ordered firing work. In the late Ming and early Qing, with the thriving of the porcelain export trade, many articles were processed with supplied samples, especially kitchen utensils. This might be specially fired for the Netherlands market.

Jingdezhen Porcelain from the Qing Period

“Famille Verte Vase with Design of Liu Bei’s Marriage Story” is a fine example of painted porcelain from Jingdezhen made during the Qing Dynasty. According to the Shanghai Museum: The Kangxi reign period (1661-1722) saw the heyday of polychrome porcelain in the Qing dynasty. This polychrome porcelain vase is a magnum opus of the civilian kilns of the Kangxi period. The porcelain vase is painted with the theme decoration of the Three Kingdoms - Liu Bei’s marriage story. The rim and shoulder part in elaborate brocade ground and miscellaneous flowers within reserved panels set off the sparse and distinct layout. The painting of children at play on the bottleneck aptly echoes with the theme picture. [Source: Shanghai Museum]

“Vase with Famille Rose Design of Peaches and Bates” features Famille Rose, a new over-glaze color variety developed on the basis of Kangxi polychrome porcelain of the Qing dynasty. It first appeared in the late Kangxi period and reached its prime in the Yongzheng period (1722-1735). Famille Rose porcelain later took the place of polychrome porcelain and became the mainstream of over-glaze colors of the Qing dynasty. The Yongzheng period and Qianlong period (1735-1796) saw the most exquisite Famille Rose porcelain. Qianlong Famille Rose is remarkable for its diversified styling, beautiful and elegant colors, as well as its novelty decoration, while Yongzheng Famille Rose is even superior for its clean body and moist glaze, beautiful shape combined with soft color and elegant pattern. The peach tree and bat pattern delicately painted with Famille Rose on this olive-shaped vase implies the auspicious meaning of ‘felicity and longevity’ by bat and peach. The pattern of this theme is commonly used on big or small dishes, but is rarely seen on an olive-shaped vase. There are very few olive-shaped Famille Rose vases handed down and this is the only one seen.

“Bowl with Black Enameled Design of Bamboo” has a thin body but looks stocky and plump. The outer wall of the bowl is painted with enamel color mixed with black painting of bamboo and rocks. On the top of painting, it is inscribed with a poem in running script with a red ink seal mark in simple and elegant seal script, echoing the bamboo and rocks patterns. Not only featuring its elegant modelling, but its refined, smooth and snowy white paste, its crystal-and-jade-like glaze, as well as the shading of the grisaille painting, the bowl gives off the elegant and refined traits of the enamelled porcelain to its full.

“Cowpea-red Glazed Vase” features the Cowpea-red glaze, a famous creation of the Kangxi reign period that imitated Xuande copper red glaze. Most of the articles were in small size, used as stationery appliances. This vase, with elegant shape and sophisticated craft, is one of the standard styles of cowpea-red in the Kangxi period. This piece is exceptionally exquisite with its thin and delicate glaze which takes on elegant pink colour with dark red specks and apple-green moss scattering.

“Covered Bowl with Veiled and Gold-traced Design and a Tea-dust Glazed Stand” has beautiful colorations Pale-green glaze refers to the light greenish and blueish green glaze. Gold tracery is a decoration method to trace the porcelain pattern with powdered or liquid gold to make it magnificent, splendid and luxurious, much favored by rich families. After firing, the porcelain can be polished with agate or stone sand to increase the gloss of the surface. Featuring contrasting colors and dignified style, this bowl with cover looks elegant and graceful. The stand is glazed with tea-dust to imitate the appearance of bronzes, which was also a fashion at that time.

“Blue Glazed Vase with Golden and Silvery Design of Peaches and Fruits” is a standard official ware of the Qianlong reign period (1735-1796). Beneath the vase, there is a silver pedestal produced in the same period. The body is densely painted with the gold and silver tracery. The inner part of the vase and cover and the ring foot all are applied with turquoise glaze and the ears with alum red gold tracery. The date mark ‘Qian Long Nian Zhi’, meaning ‘made in the Qianlong reign period’, can be seen both on the bottle base and the silver pedestal.

Image Sources: Palace Museum, Taipei, McClung Museum, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Text Sources: Palace Museum, Taipei, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated November 2021

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