China // The Yangzi basin //


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.