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Caught between the Yangzi in the north and a mountainous border with Guangdong in the south, Jiangxi is generally considered a bit of a backwater, but to dismiss it out of hand is to ignore some significant attractions – namely, some major revolutionary history and a town that has been producing the highest-quality ceramics for almost six and a half centuries.
A network of rivers covering the province drains into Poyang Hu, China’s largest freshwater lake. 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 the mountain area of Lushan is easily visited from Nanchang and offers a pleasant reminder of Jiangxi’s past, when it served as a summer retreat for Chinese literati and colonial servants.
Across Poyang Hu from Nanchang and not far from the border with Anhui province, JINGDEZHEN 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.
Today, in spite of attempts to smarten up the place with ceramic lampposts and public bins, Jingdezhen remains a scruffy, heavily polluted city, mostly as a result of the scores of smoky kilns that still employ some fifty thousand people. Nonetheless, Jingdezhen is worth a day-trip to visit the expansive Museum of Ceramic History, and maybe even pick up some pottery.
The popularity of Jingdezhen pottery brought revenues and expertise which provided a platform for innovation. 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 designed for Europe and Chinese colonies throughout Southeast Asia, 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 production technologies improved at the end of the eighteenth century, but Jingdezhen survived by sacrificing innovation for cheaper manufacturing processes, and more recently has reinvented itself as a centre of ceramic study and research.
In 1927, Chiang Kai-shek, leader of the Nationalist Guomindang (GMD) government, began an obsessive war against the Chinese Communist Party. Driven underground, the Communists set up remote rural bases, or soviets, across central China. The main Jiangxi soviet in the Jinggang Mountains was led by Mao Zedong and Zhu De, the Communist Commander-in-Chief. Ignoring Japanese incursions into Manchuria, Chiang blockaded the mountains with a steadily tightening ring of bunkers and barbed wire, systematically clearing areas of guerrillas with artillery bombardments. Hemmed in and facing eventual defeat, the First Front army, comprising some eighty thousand Red soldiers, broke through the blockade in October 1934 and retreated west to team up with the Hunan soviet – marking the beginning of the Long March.
Covering a punishing 30km a day, the Communists moved after dark whenever possible, but still faced daily skirmishes. After incurring severe losses during a battle at the Xiang River near Guilin in Guangxi, the marchers found their progress north impeded by massive GMD forces, and were obliged to continue west to Guizhou, where they took the town of Zunyi in January 1935, and an emergency meeting of the Communist Party hierarchy was called – the Zunyi Conference. Mao emerged as the undisputed leader of the Party, with a mandate to “go north to fight the Japanese” by linking up with Zhang Guotao in Sichuan. In one of the most celebrated and heroic episodes of the march, they took the Luding Bridge across the Dadu River, only to negotiate the Great Snowy Mountains, where hundreds died from exposure before the survivors met up on the far side with the Fourth Front army.
The meeting between these two branches of the Red Army was tense. Mao wanted to start resistance against the Japanese, but Zhang Guotao favoured founding a Communist state in Sichuan’s far west. Zhang eventually capitulated, and he and Mao took control of separate columns to cross the last natural barrier they faced, the Aba grasslands in northern Sichuan. Here, while Mao was bogged down by swamps, hostile nomads and dwindling food reserves, Zhang’s column suddenly retreated to Ganzi, where Zhang set up an independent government. Mao struggled through southern Gansu, finally arriving in Communist-held Yan’an, Shaanxi province, in October 1935. While the mountains here were to become a Communist stronghold, only a quarter of those who started from Jiangxi twelve months before had completed the 9500km journey.
Immediately after the Long March, Mao admitted that in terms of losses and the Red Army’s failure to hold their original positions, the Nationalists had won. Yet in a more lasting sense, the march was an incredible success, uniting the Party under Mao and defining the Communists’ aims, while cementing their popular image as a determined and patriotic movement. After Zunyi, Mao turned the march into a deliberate propaganda mission to spread the Communist faith among the peasantry and minority groups. As Mao said, “Without the Long March, how could the broad masses have learned so quickly about the existence of the great truth which the Red Army embodies?”
Lushan’s range of forested peaks rises abruptly from the level shores of Poyang Hu to a dizzying 1474m, its cool heights bringing welcome relief from the summer cauldron of the Yangzi basin. Developed in the late nineteenth century by Methodist minister-turned-property-speculator Edward Little as a hill-station-style resort for European expats, it saw the Chinese elite move in soon after foreigners lost their grip on the region. Chiang Kai-shek built a summer residence and training school for officials here in the 1930s, and, twenty years later, Lushan hosted one of the key meetings of the Maoist era. Today, proletarian holidaymakers pack out its restaurants and tramp its paths, and the mansions have been converted into hotels to accommodate them. Crowds reach plague proportions between spring and autumn, so winter – though very cold – can be the best season to visit, and a weekend’s walking is enough for a good sample of the scenery.