As a porcelain potter, I traveled to Jingdezhen, the porcelain mecca, to seek out history, but what I also found was an exciting future. My visit was all I had hoped for, but the most unexpected and exciting experience was discovering a new movement of artists. The change, going on for the past few years, is (mostly) young ceramic artists from all over China moving to Jingdezhen to set up independent studios, similar to a Western studio style.
I spent five weeks in residence at The Pottery Workshop (TPW)—an artist residency and education center located within The Sculpture Factory neighborhood in Jingdezhen. The the focus of my research, beyond my own study of porcelain, was to meet and learn about the independent studio artists. I formally interviewed seven women artists and informally met with another half dozen men and women to learn about this new phase of making in Jingdezhen.
Clay, in particular porcelain, has been the focus and lifeblood of Jingdezhen for over 1000 years. The city has morphed from pottery villages making ware for China’s emperors and international trade, to housing huge communal ceramics factories during the 1950–70s under Chairman Mao. It continues to have specialized individual craftspeople working both in independently owned workshops and in modern factories producing porcelain wares for the world market. Younger artists are moving to the city, changing Jingdezhen yet again. The new independent studio artists are entrepreneurs making a living from clay.
Jingdezhen has been, and to a large degree continues to be, focused on mass production of porcelain ware for export. Long before Henry Ford conceived of the assembly line, a similar process was going on in Jingdezhen. Instead of a conveyor belt, a carryman using a two-wheeled cart moved porcelain pieces from workshop to workshop where a specific step in the making process was carried out by specialists. The Sculpture Factory and Lao Chang Old Factory are the only two remaining economic zones in which this historic method continues. Both are slated to be replaced by large modern porcelain factories on the west side of the city.
The new artists flocking to Jingdezhen are working in a tradition common in Western nations, in which they complete the entire making process themselves, creating work they design either as one-of-a kind pieces or in small series. New ideas, new ways of working, and alternative firing styles are being explored and developed, frequently influenced by the visiting artists from Europe, Japan, and the Americas. As a result, the work differs from ware being produced in the traditional workshops or in the Jingdezhen factories.
As background, Jingdezhen, despite its storied history, is a small, provincial city in China with a population of 1.5 million people. It developed from small pottery villages along the Chang River, is ringed by steep mountains in Jiangxi province, and is about 400 miles west-southwest of Shanghai. Its key industries are the manufacture of porcelain wares and helicopters. There are limited amenities, it is slow paced, and much of the ubiquitous new construction seems to deteriorate rapidly. Jingdezhen is not a tourist destination. It is dusty year round, and very hot, humid, and rainy in the summer. While this does not sound all that inviting, some of these very conditions have attracted new artists to the city.
On the weekend, The Sculpture Factory neighborhood hosts craft markets. These markets draw throngs of young people both looking and buying. Other cities also hold craft markets to which young artists bring work to sell; however, most of the artists I had the opportunity to interview focused on selling in Jingdezhen or through social media.
For the first time, workers, especially those working for corporations, do not work on the weekend and are seeking ways to enjoy their free time. For most of China’s history, there was no such thing as a weekend—the work week was seven days with breaks only for holidays and festivals. Today’s 20- and 30-year-olds are the generation who were exposed to art, museums, and the idea of living with beautiful items, which the previous generation, particularly during Mao’s reign, were discouraged from valuing. In addition to individuals, buyers from shops and galleries from larger cities specifically visit the Jingdezhen markets to order stock.
New Studios and Skills
I met Lisheng Jian when she offered me a tour through the Jingdezhen Ceramic Folk Park, a “living museum” on the site of a razed traditional pottery village that had produced work for Chinese emperors. She moved to Jingdezhen five years ago, after working for over a decade in the travel industry in Beijing. She became interested in Chinese ceramics because she believes it is a permanent record of Chinese history that cannot be rewritten. Lisheng has a studio in The Sculpture Factory and is learning ceramics from her contemporaries and the local experts. She offered insight about how artists afford to live in Jingdezhen. The cost of living in Beijing and Shanghai is very high. For example, a comparable apartment in one of those cities costs 6000–8000 yuan ($850–$1160) where in Jingdezhen the cost is about 700 yuan ($100). Each artist I interviewed noted that the significantly lower cost of living in Jingdezhen makes it viable for them to make a living as an artist there. Several felt that the slower pace and ability to focus without many distractions were also appealing.
Other studio artists who are using the local expertise to learn and develop their skills include Kaie Fu. Kaie grew up on an agricultural island in the very south of China. After attending university and working in Shenzhen, she moved to Jingdezhen to study blue-and-white painting with a local master. She then learned to carve porcelain by buying and studying the Sung Dynasty shards sold in the antiquities market—many young artists say they are encouraged to copy historical pieces to develop their skills. Kaie broke from this tradition by visiting the numerous international artists who gave presentations and workshops sponsored by TPW. Kaie now creates pieces to reference the forms of vegetables and flowers that are part of everyday life in China. Caroline Cheng, the owner/developer of TPW, has been very influential in shaping this studio-artist movement by exposing Jingdezhen artists to numerous international visiting artists who participate in residencies at TPW. The Creative Market, a weekly craft market sponsored by TPW, provides an important opportunity for young artists to promote and sell their work.
Another artist I met, Lili Shu, a 30-something, studied decorative arts in Suzhou University and has lived in Jingdezhen for 8 years. Her home and studio are in a modern apartment building just outside The Sculpture Factory neighborhood, where she can conveniently use the kilns and expertise nearby. She handbuilds functional work from Yixing purple clay. The majority of young artists I met are making and selling functional ceramics. Lili had worked as an intern with Bai Lei, a noted Chinese ceramic artist. Throughout her internship, she participated in The Creative Market in Jingdezhen and decided to move closer following the end of the internship. She supports herself solely through sales she makes at the weekly market. She explained that each month Cheng curates the work of the 60 artists involved in the market, giving each feedback on both the aesthetics and marketability of their work. Lili feels that this constructive feedback is very important to her artistic development and business acumen.
Two of the artists who I interviewed lived just outside the city limits. Junty Zhang lives with her husband and four-year-old son in San Bao, a village immediately adjacent to Jingdezhen. She creates one-of-a-kind figurative pieces and has a production line of magnets and plates that she sells. Her husband, Tiger, helps with the production line, which is their main source of income. Their work is sold largely through Weibo, which is likened to Twitter, but has many more functions. Previously she had worked in Hangzhou as a fashion designer, but needed two jobs to make ends meet and had no time to create her own work. Moving to Jingdezhen, she has been able to learn ceramic techniques from peers and adapt the aesthetic she developed as a fashion designer to apply to clay. She says she values the strong sense of community among the ceramic artists who help her with the technical aspects of working in clay.
JianQin Zu, called JQ, is the youngest artist I interviewed. In her early 20s, she is a 2019 graduate in sculpture from Jingdezhen University. She works at an art center for the elderly in Nanjing, her home town, and commutes 2½ hours by train each Friday evening to spend the weekend making her ceramic work in a friend’s studio. Her goal is to prove to her parents that she can make a living through her artwork and then move to Jingdezhen permanently. She makes stylized figures with neutral facial expressions that she feels the viewers enliven with their own emotions. She sells her work through Weibo. She reiterated what almost every artist had expressed, she values the strong sense of community in Jingdezhen.
A few artists chose not to be interviewed or have their work photographed, expressing concern that their unique designs would be stolen and copied by commercial firms. JQ mentioned that her strategy to avoid this industrial espionage is to frequently change her work.
The oldest artist I interviewed was ShiShiu Chun, who introduces herself as Alice. She was raised in Hong Kong and lived and worked as a maternity nurse in the US for many years. She took up clay in her 50s, after the death of her husband. After doing a residency in San Bao, she decided to move to Jingdezhen to live and work there for nine months of the year. She has a studio in The Sculpture Factory and modifies her wheel-thrown pieces to take on human forms by throwing and distorting them. She salt fires, and feels that she, the fire, and the clay all have an equal voice in the work that is created. Like the others, her ready access to materials, resources and expertise, as well as the sense of community are the reasons she is in Jingdezhen.
Jingdezhen is changing very rapidly. The shard piles I was told I would see everywhere are gone. The lampposts have 20-foot blue-and-white ceramic cylinders decorating them and walkways are often made of blue-and-white tiles and shards. The old ceramic-centered neighborhoods are being razed and new factories are being built. At the same time, the city of porcelain is attracting Chinese ceramic artists from all over the country who are bringing new methods, ideas, and energy to Jingdezhen. Today Jingdezhen is a place of both old and new, past and future, simultaneously.
Ting Yuen, called DD, is the residency director at TPW, interview translator, and collaborating author for this article. A ceramic artist as well, she creates conceptual pieces around the issue of identity. Identity is both a political and personal issue of consequence in China.
the author Marion Angelica is a studio artist and teacher at Northern Clay Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota. She specializes in handbuilt porcelain. To learn more, visit marionangelica.com.