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Jingdezhen, Porcelain Capital

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The streets are cracked and dusty. The hum of churning machinery emanates from every other building. Coolies push bamboo carts stacked heavy with sacks of clay, blue and white Ming vases or Buddha effigies down crowded alleyways. If a shop is not an open-front-workshop it’s a porcelain store brimming with plates, cups and bowls. The clumsy merchandising and sheer quantity of goods bellies the fact Jingdezhen is living breathing history, a place that lays claim to being the porcelain capital of the world, a reputation it established well over a thousand years ago.  

Jingdezhen China Ceramics Museum 

It’s always sensible to start any journey with a trip to a museum, particularly in Jingdezhen’s case with a history so far reaching. Thankfully the Jingdezhen China Ceramics Museum, housed in a rather fancy looking exhibition hall on the edge of town (since 2015) is free and provides a comprehensive overview of Jingdezhen and its fabled chinaware with a collection of 30, 000 fine ceramic works. The exhibition begins with the Han Dynasty and journeys through the Tang to the Song when Jingdezhen’s famous six kilns bore exquisite white porcelain, garnering its global reputation for quality craftsmanship. From here we learn how this much sought after commodity of the ancient world was transported to far-flung shores along the Maritime Silk Road from ports like Guangzhou in Guangdong and Quanzhou in Fujian. Through the Ming and Qing Jingdezhen’s ceramic production reached new peaks developing the decorative white and blue porcelain that we in the West simply called china. The retrospective concludes with Mao-era ceramics adorned with socialist iconography and a few articles of the post-reform-era works where modern day artisans are seeking to redefine porcelain wares with new shapes, styles and colours. 

Galvanizing Your Appreciation

 

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With a grasp of the history and having viewed the old masterworks it’s probably a good idea to get a handle on how porcelain is made. There are two interactive exposition parks in Jingdezhen, the Ancient Kiln Folk Custom Museum and the National Park of the Royal Kiln Site. The former costs RMB100 to gain entrance. In the exhibition area there are some ancient porcelain workshops to visit and some kilns said to date back to the Song, Yuan, Ming and Qing eras. There’s also a percussion performance given by a unique local music group who play porcelain instruments in a waterside pavilion. The latter is a more reasonable at RMB60 to get inside, though of very specific interest as it showcases the archeological remains from the Ming and Qing dynasties royal kilns, which produced porcelain exclusively for the imperial family. There’s also the Longzhu Pavilion to ascend, a renovated Tang tower that offers soaring views of the city.

Shopping for Ceramics

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Once you have a little bit of an idea what Jingdezhen porcelain is all about you’ll inevitably want to stock-up on some fine chinaware. Whether you’re looking for some classic teacups or something unusual to place on a bookshelf, Jingdezhen almost certainly has it. But navigating the labyrinth of lanes and alleys that make up much of the interminably chaotic city can be quite a maddening experience so you’d best have a plan before you set out with your shopping bag in tow.

Fanjiajin – This old porcelain traders' street in the centre of town is a winding thoroughfare snaking through a warren of shops, store and markets hawking every kind of porcelain imaginable. If you’re looking for prized antiques or contemporary wares look elsewhere, but if you want to stalk up the kitchen with some crockery this is the place to come.

Jianguo Cichang – This recently gentrified factory area is attracting modish potters to open stylish shops, design studios and cafés in an environment far less frenetic or chaotic than elsewhere in the city. It’s still in the process of defining itself, but offers an interesting model for how Jingdezhen might redevelop in coming years.

Taoyijie – This commercial street located in a modern residential area is home to well-organised shops vending contemporary wares produced by local designers.

Diaosu Shichang – Every Saturday morning this leafy neighbourhood comes alive with local craftsmen and women selling their custom deigned porcelain. It has something of a village fate atmosphere and it's fabulous for picking-up bargains, unusual designs while making some artsy friends along the way.  

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About the author

Thomas grew up beneath heavy clouds in the South Wales suburbs. After reading too many books, he decided to see for himself what this weird world had on offer. Now an itinerant traveler, writer and photographer usually lost somewhere in East Asia, he prints his musings in a number of notable publications and has contributed to several guidebooks including Rough Guides China and Dunhuang: A City on the Silk Road. When he's not wandering, he can sometimes be found practising mandolin in Beijing.

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