By Laura Imkamp
A bit about Jingdezhen Porcelain
Legend has it; Chinese porcelain owes its name to the modest city of Jingdezhen.
For roughly 1,800 years, Jingdezhen, whose old name was Changnan, has been home to some of the world's best and most valuable handmade porcelain. The story goes that as the porcelain industry grew the pronunciation among porcelain traders morphed from “Changnan” to “China.” Eventually, the whole country became synonymous with the porcelain.
It's no easy job for modern-day Jingdezhen to keep pace with its glorious past. In a country where cheap labor and industrialization outperform traditional craftsmanship, the third-tier city is struggling to preserve the practice of making china by hand, while keeping businesses afloat.
Porcelain shopping trap
Unless you break it or you're a collector, at some point you just don't buy any more.
— porcelain seller Jiang Meirong on the slowing demand for china.
Located in northern Jiangxi Province, Jingdezhen lives and breathes porcelain. Billboards advertise porcelain shops. Jars and vases spill out of every store. Lampposts are wrapped in porcelain decoration.
With a population of just over 1.5 million, the city has four major porcelain markets and an endless number of small porcelain retail stores. Competition is tough and many traders have resorted to sourcing machine-made porcelain and slapping on a Jingdezhen label.
According to Natalie Wu, a 29-year-old Jingdezhen native and tour guide, the products in porcelain markets in Jingdezhen are generally of low quality and aren't even necessarily from the city itself. "Instead of making it by hand, all of those products are machine-made -- so it's cheaper and produced faster, but the quality is not as good as authentic handmade Jingdezhen porcelain," Wu says.
Wu explains that store owners won't always admit when a piece of porcelain is from out of town, even when the customer asks. "But if the patterns are exactly the same on multiple items, then it's likely a decal and probably from somewhere else." The biggest difference lies beneath the surface.
"Other cities use lower firing temperatures so the porcelain breaks more easily," says Jiang Meirong, a 72-year-old stall owner at the International Trade Square porcelain market.
"Jingdezhen porcelain is harder, and the clay is better here."
According to china seller Jiang Meirong the whiter the porcelain, the better its quality.
More competition, fewer buyers
Running a porcelain business in Jingdezhen was much easier 10 years ago -- easier to sell, easier to export, and an easier way to make a living.
"Now there's very fierce competition," Jiang says. "There are more shops, so prices have gone down. A lot of people from other cities who paint and sell porcelain are coming here to make a higher profit."
Coupled with mediocre working conditions -- from porcelain dust or hunching over a piece all day -- the downturn is driving people to look for different jobs with higher salaries.
A bigger problem is the lack of young porcelain dealers or craftsmen. According to Jiang, more and more of the younger generation are moving away from Jingdezhen. Jiang’s whole family has always been in the industry, but now three of her four children are in other industries.
Jiang also points out that people don’t buy porcelain that often.
“Unless you break it or you're a collector, at some point you just don't buy any more."
To preserve its historic legacy, Jingdezhen government's cultural division has hired masters to continue the traditional art form. At Jingdezhen's Ancient Kiln Folk Exhibition, the masters continue to create porcelain based on ancient procedures. Every step is performed by a retired professional, with his or her plaques of achievement hanging above the work station. Most of them have worked on just one step in the manufacturing process all their life.
They're doing pottery in a more artistic way. Some people are inventing new formulas for the glaze, some are inventing new styles.
— Natalie Wu, Jingdezhen native and tour guide
"I like making the body," says Wang Yansheng, one of the specialists aged 73. "In my whole life that's all I've learned and all I ever did."
Although many young people choose to leave the porcelain capital, Jingdezhen also hosts China's only ceramics university that attracts young talent interested in the ancient craft.
At Jingdezhen Ceramics Institute, tour guide Natalie Wu also studies antique porcelain. She says the students are getting creative, adding modern elements and design ideas from other countries such as Japan. "They're doing pottery in a more artistic way -- some people are inventing new formulas for the glaze, some are inventing new styles," she says.
With the designs becoming more creative and influenced by other cultures, china in the future is going to be very different.
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