Caught between the Yangzi in the north and a mountainous border with Guangdong in the south, Jiangxi province (江西, jiāngxī) is generally considered a bit of a backwater, but to dismiss it out of hand is to ignore some significant attractions. Here you will find at least a couple of mountain ranges worth hiking, some major revolutionary history and a town that has been producing the highest quality ceramics for almost six and a half centuries.
Inhabited for some four thousand years, the province’s first major influx of settlers didn’t arrive until about two thousand years ago, with the northern half benefiting most as migrants began farming the plain around Poyang Hu, China’s largest freshwater lake. A network of rivers covering the province drains into Poyang, and when the construction of the Grand Canal created a route through Yangzhou and the lower Yangzi in the seventh century, Jiangxi’s capital, Nanchang, became a key point on the great north–south link of inland waterways. The region enjoyed a long period of quiet prosperity until coastal shipping and the opening up of treaty ports took business away in the 1840s. The twentieth century saw the province’s fortunes nosedive: the population halved as millions fled competing warlords and, during the 1920s and 30s, fighting between the Guomindang and Communist forces raged in the southern Jinggang Shan ranges. This conflict eventually led to an evicted Red Army starting on their Long March across China.
Things picked up after the Communist takeover, and a badly battered Nanchang licked its wounds and reinvented itself as a centre of heavy industry. Transport links provided by the Poyang and Yangzi tributaries have also benefited the east of the province, where Jingdezhen retains its title as China’s porcelain capital. North of the lake, Jiujiang is a key Yangzi port on the doorsteps of Anhui and Hubei, while the nearby mountain area of Lu Shan, also easily visited from Nanchang, offers a pleasant reminder of Jiangxi’s past, when it served as a summer retreat for Chinese literati and colonial servants.Read More
- Jiujiang and around
Across Poyang Hu from Nanchang and not far from the border with Anhui province, JINGDEZHEN (景德镇, jĭngdézhèn) has been producing ceramics for at least two thousand years. Lying in a river valley not only rich in clay but also the vital feldspar needed to make porcelain, the city’s defining moment came in the fourteenth century: China’s capital was at Nanjing, and Jingdezhen was considered conveniently close to produce porcelain for the Ming court. An imperial kiln was built in 1369 and its wares became so highly regarded – “as white as jade, as thin as paper, as bright as a mirror, as tuneful as a bell” – that Jingdezhen retained official favour even after the Ming court moved to Beijing fifty years later.
As demand grew, workshops experimented with new glazes and a classic range of decorative styles emerged: qinghua, blue and white; jihong, rainbow; doucai, a blue-and-white overglaze; and fencai, multicoloured famille rose. The first examples reached Europe in the seventeenth century and became so popular that the English word for China clay – kaolin – derives from its source nearby at Gaoling. Factories began to specialize in export ware shaped and decorated in European-approved forms, which reached the outside world via the booming Canton markets: the famous Nanking Cargo, comprising 150,000 pieces salvaged from the 1752 wreck of the Dutch vessel Geldermalsen and auctioned for US$15 million in 1986, was one such shipment. Foreign sales petered out after European ceramic technologies improved at the end of the eighteenth century, but Jingdezhen survived by sacrificing innovation for cheaper production-line manufacturing. Today, it’s a scruffy, heavily polluted city, mostly as a result of the scores of smoky kilns that still employ some fifty thousand people and turn out the goods.
- Jinggang Shan