What Is Jingdezhen Porcelain?
Porcelain, the fine white clay known as “china”, originated in the city of Jingdezhen. In fact, this remote town in the north of Jiangxi province has been a center of pottery production for 1,700 years. It is even sometimes called the Porcelain Capital, after its signature material.
Until the European invention of porcelain in 18th century Germany, China was the only source of the white clay. Jingdezhen was the most famous source, known to produce the highest quality. Pieces produced here gained repute for their bright white color and weightlessness. Often, the fired clay was so thin that is was translucent.
By the Ming Dynasty, whole leaf tea was on the rise, and gaiwans and teapots were gaining popularity. Jingdezhen was the official source of imperial porcelain. With consistent demand from the imperial family, the city flourished. The wares were also exported, reaching as far as the Middle East. During the Mao era, artists in Jingdezhen crafted badges and statues. Today, the city bustles with the production of pottery, just as it has throughout the ages.
How Is Jingdezhen Porcelain Made?
Local deposits of petunse and kaolin make up the raw materials. Water-powered hammers pulverize the mined stone into a fine powder. Once powdered, the minerals are mixed together with water. Finally, the mixture is sieved and dried into workable clay.
The refined clay must then be formed into the desired pottery. This can be particularly tricky, as porcelain is difficult to work with. Low plasticity makes it prone to cracking during the crafting process. The moisture of the clay must be carefully maintained to keep the clay workable, yet sturdy. Today, some clay in Jingdezhen contains processed cellulose, like that found in paper. The fibrous material lends strength to the clay during the forming process. These clays are called “paper porcelain”. The added strength helps artists achieve the thin walls that lend weightlessness.
In Jingdezhen, centuries of production have streamlined the crafting process. Artists in Jingdezhen are specialists, each controlling a specific stage of production. Some in the city even specialize in transporting unfinished work from one artist to the next. This is a difficult job, as the pieces are at their most fragile state before firing.
Much porcelain produced in Jingdezhen is painted with intricate designs. Nature or dragon motifs are often featured. Again, this handiwork is an art form in and of itself. The famous blue and white porcelain of the Ming dynasty has become one of the most popular styles. Today's artists replicate these wares with great precision. Using cobalt oxides, they paint designs by hand onto the white clay.
Finally, the finished piece goes into the kiln. The firing must get hot enough for the clay particles to crystallize and harden. This process turns a brittle piece of mud into a durable piece of pottery. The porcelain clay from Jingdezhen consists of fine, dense particles. When fired to temperatures above 2300°F, the clay vitrifies, and becomes glass-like. This makes true Jingdezhen porcelain surprisingly durable, despite its delicate appearance.
Signs Of Quality
Porcelain is a broad category, and quality can be subjective. The composition of minerals can be different depending on where in the world it comes from. But there are a few distinguishing features of the work from the Porcelain Capital. The most obvious are color and thickness.
It is an advantage of location that results in the pure white color Jingdezhen is known for. It has come to be one of the biggest reasons for the city’s fame. Most porcelains are off white after firing. They have either an eggshell tint or sometimes a faint pink blush. These hints of color are inherent to the base materials, now mined around the world. But all are trying to imitate the pure white of Jingdezhen clay.
What is most remarkable about pottery produced in Jingdezhen is its weightlessness. Any excess clay is removed until the finished, vitrified piece is actually translucent. Check for this by holding the piece to a light source. A soft, even glow of light through the clay will verify meticulous craftsmanship.Look for translucency and a clear ring when tapped, as well. These are signs that the piece has been fired at high temperatures and will be durable.