Porcelain Capital to the World: Jingdezhen
Cities worldwide-from Arita, Japan, to Meissen, Germany-made exquisite porcelain, but
the town of Jingdezhen is unique for its continuous production of immense quantities of
porcelain for China's imperial palace and domestic market, and for export to world
markets, where it was highly prized. The name derives from Jingde (1004-1008), the early
Song dynasty reign period during which the town was named by imperial decree. As early as
the tenth century, white and green wares were being produced there, and throughout the
Song dynasty (960-1279), the town was famous for qingbai ware, porcelain dressed
in a jadelike, transparent glaze with a pronounced bluish tint. 1
In the fourteenth century, when blue-and-white porcelain was first produced, Jingdezhen's
reputation grew, and ever after, it was world renowned.
Dreaming of Jingdezhen, Henry Wadsworth
Long-fellow (1807-1882) wrote of "King-ke-tching" in his poem
|O'er desert sands, o'er gulf and bay
O'er Ganges and o'er Himalay,
Bird-like I fly, and flying sing
To flowery kingdoms of Cathay,
And bird-like poise on balanced wing
Above the town of King-te-tching,
A burning town, or seeming so,-
Three thousand furnaces that glow
Incessantly, and fill the air
With smoke uprising, gyre on gyre,
And painted by the lurid glare,
Of jets and flashes of red fire.2
Unlike Longfellow, the eighteenth-century French missionary and Jesuit priest
Père d'Entrecolles knew Jingdezhen and its porcelain industry firsthand. In a letter
dated September 1, 1712, he describes the town as a massive furnace:
|The whirling flames and smoke, which rise in different places, make the
approach to Jingdezhen remarkable for its extent, depth, and shape. During a night
entrance, one thinks that the whole city is on fire, or that it is one large furnace with
many vent holes. 3
Today a middle-size modern city with traffic congestion and air
pollution, Jingdezhen still prides itself on the large-scale manufacture of porcelain,
from cheap dinnerware to costly works of art, primarily reproductions of esteemed imperial
wares of earlier centuries. 4 Tall, slender smokestacks
fill the skyline of the city (fig. 1), attesting to the prominence of the porcelain
industry in the twentieth century. Yet valuable evidence of the past exists in the
millions of broken bits of porcelain buried beneath Jingdezhen and scattered in huge
mounds on its outskirts (fig. 2). These shards are important primary historical material.
When combined with information in textual records, they reveal, century by century, the
history of an extraordinary industry.
Archaeologists, like those at the Jingdezhen Institute of Ceramic Archaeology, under the
leadership of Liu Xinyuan, have undertaken the systematic investigation of porcelain's
past, tremendously expanding our knowledge of the industry in recent decades. Fundamental
to a sound and detailed history of China's porcelain industry is the identification and
excavation of kiln sites and a determination of their time spans and of the types of
porcelain they produced. Archaeologists examine carefully not only porcelain shards but
also kiln furniture-the disks, rings, and spurs on which the porcelain was placed during
firing-as well as saggars, the ceramic boxes for encasing and protecting the pieces (fig.
Scientific analysis of the composition of porcelain bodies and glazes is also essential in
establishing a sound knowledge of the evolution of porcelain. It has the potential of
helping to separate originals from more recent copies, which are often difficult to detect
with the naked eye. One of the most significant recent discoveries is the fundamental
difference between early northern and southern Chinese porcelain bodies. In the north, the
basic material was a white-firing kaolin clay, while in the south, including Jingdezhen,
porcelain stone was the basic ingredient . 5 Equally
important, scientists have confirmed the soundness of the theory that prior to the Yuan
dynasty (1279-1368), the bodies of Jingdezhen qingbai wares were made of stone.
While porcelain stone was still primary, by the 1320s and thereafter, kaolin was added to
the clay bodies of Jingdezhen ware to enhance its plasticity. Over time, more and more
kaolin was added; by the early Qing dynasty, the late seventeenth and eighteenth
centuries, top quality porcelain was half porcelain stone and half kaolin.
Why was Jingdezhen the porcelain capital to the world? How is porcelain made, and how was
the production process organized at Jingdezhen? What distinguishes Jingdezhen as one of
the world's first industrial towns?
Among the factors that made Jingdezhen the prime center of porcelain production in China
is ease of transport. Although it is inland in Jiangxi province (see map of the kiln sites
of China, p. 46), Jingdezhen's location on the Chang River offers convenient water
transport to Lake Boyang. This lake connects to a wide network of waterways, including the
Yangzi River, which linked Jingdezhen with the Grand Canal, and to rivers going south to
Guangzhou (Canton) and to other major seaports and cities. Large quantities of Jingdezhen
porcelain for the domestic and international markets were distributed via these waterways.
Second and even more vital is the abundance of raw materials, the presence of the makings
of porcelain, porcelain stone and kaolin, in the mountains surrounding Jingdezhen. Long
ago, volcanic eruptions, it is believed, left deposits of white porcelain stone across
East Asia-Japan, Korea, and scattered throughout southern China, most prominently in the
area around Lake Boyang and Jingdezhen. Here, porcelain stone, composed of quartz,
potassium mica (sericite), and feldspar (albite), exists in close association with
white-burning kaolin, clay that is rich in alumina and poor in iron.6
These geological riches, with which the Jingdezhen area is so well endowed, were
instrumental in the success of the porcelain industry, which relied primarily on local
materials to produce superb porcelain.7 Pine to fuel the kilns
was also once in plentiful supply in the nearby hills.
The cycle of abundance and depletion of raw materials significantly impacted porcelain
production throughout the centuries. From the tenth to the thirteenth century, when stone
was the sole body material at Jingdezhen, porcelain stone was the decisive influence.
After the thirteenth century, however, high-alumina kaolin clay, the so-called bone of
porcelain, also played a critical role.
From the early fourteenth to the sixteenth century, imperial wares were made with
porcelain stone and with high-quality kaolin mined at Macang, a kaolin deposit monopolized
by the government. This monopoly ensured the superiority of official wares, as the
privately owned commercial kilns were forced to use lesser clays. From the second half of
the sixteenth to the late eighteenth century, however, Mount Gaoling, the mountain from
which the name 'kaolin' derives, supplied superior kaolin for both official and commercial
kilns, reenergizing porcelain production and enabling both imperial and commercial wares
to flourish. In fact, by the seventeenth century, commercial wares were not only
comparable to but frequently surpassed porcelain made for imperial use.8
Not surprisingly, access to top-grade raw materials was critical to producing fine
Two additional factors in Jingdezhen's success were the specialization of labor and the
significant level of government support from the imperial court.9
Not only was ceramics technology highly advanced in China, so, too, was the organization
of the workforce. Jessica Rawson observes:
|China's most remarkable contribution was the creation of the first
large-scale factories in which bronzes, lacquers, textiles, and ceramics were
mass-produced, not using machines as in modern factories, but using workers among whom the
required processes were subdivided.10
Jingdezhen was exemplary in this regard. The sixteenth-century Jiangxi
sheng dazhi (Great Record of Jiangxi Province) describes in detail the organization
of labor at the official kilns. Either a eunuch or a local official was appointed by the
imperial court to provide overall control, while more than 500 masters and workers were
divided among 21 to 23 departments, the most important being kiln masters, potters,
painters, and writers of marks. In addition, there was a host of other departments
including clay mixers and saggar makers.
Expectations of output ranged from 100 per day for a man throwing small bowls and saucers
to 10 per day for a man making large vessels.11 Clearly,
porcelain was mass-produced by a specialized workforce engaged in a highly organized
process. While not a matter of individual inspiration, porcelain production provides an
impressive precedent for large-scale manufacturing.
How did the Jingdezhen potters transform rock, clay, and ash into striking white porcelain
unequaled anywhere else in the world?
In 1743, following an order of the Qianlong emperor (r. 1736-1795), Tang Ying (1682-1756),
imperial supervisor at Jingdezhen from 1728 to 1756, traveled to Beijing and there
annotated a now lost set of twenty paintings illustrating the manufacture of porcelain.12 In the following summary, Tang Ying's words are excerpted and
accompanied by contemporary photographs.
The porcelain-making process begins with what Tang Ying terms "Mining the Stone and
Preparing the Paste." He writes:
|In the manufacture of porcelain the body is formed of molded earth. This
earth is prepared from stone and must be mined and purified for the purpose. . . .The
natives take advantage of the mountain torrents to erect wheels provided with crushers
[fig. 4]. Having been finely pulverized, it is then purified by washing and levigation
[separating fine particles from coarser by suspending the crushed stone in water; [fig.
5], and made up in the form of bricks [fig. 6].
Besides this there are several other kinds of earth called Kao-ling [fig. 7]. . . . They
are dug out and prepared in the same way as the 'white bricks' [porcelain stone], and can
only be used for mixing with this last.13
Tang Ying's next descriptive caption reads "Washing and
Purification of the Paste: In porcelain-making the first requisite is that of washing and
purifying the materials of the paste, so as to make it of fine homogeneous texture."
He then describes mixing the materials with water so that the coarser impurities sink to
the bottom, and pressing, pounding, and kneading the paste to free it of excess water and
air to make it "compact and ductile. All the different kinds of paste are prepared in
the same way, the various materials having been mixed in definite proportions according to
their different properties".14
Glaze is made by mixing porcelain stone with smaller amounts of limestone and the ash of
burned ferns. The two critical oxides in the composition of glazes are silica (silicon
dioxide), the prime glass-forming oxide, and alumina (aluminum oxide), the
"stiffener," which prevents the glaze from running off the pot during firing .15
After captions on "Burning the Ashes and Preparing the Glaze," "Manufacture
of the Cases or Saggars," and "Preparation of the Molds for the Round
Ware," Tang Ying comes to "Fashioning the Round Ware on the Wheel." Noting
that different shapes require different treatment, such as carving, engraving, and
molding, he describes the potter at the wheel:
|Beside the wheel is an attendant workman, who kneads the paste to proper
consistency and puts it on the table [fig. 8]. The potter . . . turns the wheel with a
bamboo staff [fig. 9]. While the wheel is spinning round he works the paste with both
hands; it follows the hands, lengthening or shortening, contracting or widening, in a
succession of shapes [fig. 10]. It is in this way that the round ware is fashioned so that
it varies not a hair's breadth in size.16
Once bowls and other "round wares" are formed on the wheel,
the next step is "Molding the Porcelain and Grinding the Color":
|After the large and small round pieces have been shaped on the wheel, and
have been sufficiently dried in the air, they are put into molds . . . and are pressed
gently with the hands, until the paste becomes of regular form and uniform thickness [fig.
. . . The piece is then taken out and dried in a shady place till it is ready to be shaped
with the polishing knives. The damp paste must not be exposed to the sun, as the heat
would crack it
To prepare cobalt-blue pigment, the ore was collected and roasted. Only
the best pieces were selected for use. Ground and applied as a liquid suspension, the
unfired cobalt appears "pale black" (fig. 13).18 In
"Painting the Round Ware in Blue," Tang Ying remarks:
|The different kinds of round ware painted in blue are each numbered by
the hundred and thousand, and if the painted decoration upon every piece be not exactly
alike, the set will be irregular and spoiled. For this reason the men who sketch the
outlines learn sketching, but not painting; those who paint study only painting, not
sketching; by this means their hands acquire skill in their own particular branch of work,
and their minds are not distracted. In order to secure a certain uniformity in their work,
the sketchers and painters, although kept distinct, occupy the same house.
For painting flowers and birds, fishes and water-plants, and living objects generally, the
study of Nature is the first requisite; in the imitation of Ming dynasty porcelain and of
ancient pieces, the sight of many specimens brings skill. The art of painting in blue
differs widely from that of decoration in enamel colors.19
In "Fashioning and Painting of Vases," after listing different
decorative techniques, Tang elaborates on artistic sources, noting the importance of
textiles and nature:
|In copies from antiquity artistic models must be followed; in novelty of
invention there is a deep spring to draw from. In the decoration of porcelain correct
canons of art should be followed; the design should be taken from the patterns of old
brocades and embroidery, the colors from a garden as seen in springtime from a pavilion .
. . the materials of the potter's art are derived from forests and streams, and ornamental
themes are supplied by the same natural sources . . . and the artistic skill of the
color-brush perpetuates on porcelain clever works of genius [fig. 15].20
Glazing (fig. 14) is the next step. "Dipping into Glaze and Blowing
in the Glaze" states:
|All the different kinds of round wares and vases, including the pieces
decorated in blue . . . must have the glaze applied before they are fired. The ancient
method of putting on the glaze was to apply it . . . with a goat's-hair brush filled with
the liquid glaze but it was difficult to distribute it evenly in this way.21
Dipping into a vat of liquid glaze and blowing on the glaze are
alternative methods of glazing. Once the vessel is painted and glazed, the surface is
polished, the foot finished, and the mark neatly written underneath. After it is packed in
a protective clay box or saggar, the porcelain is ready for the kiln.
The culmination of porcelain manufacture is firing, followed by the opening of the kiln.
Tang Ying first describes the kiln (figs. 16, 17):
|The kiln is long and round and resembles the shape of a tall water-jar
turned over on its side. It measures a little over ten feet in height and breadth, about
twice as much in depth. It is covered with a large, tiled building which is called the
'kiln-shed.' The chimney, which is tubular, rises to a height of over twenty feet behind,
outside the kiln-shed.
The porcelain, when finished, is packed in saggars and sent out to the furnace men. When
these men put it in the kiln they arrange the saggars in piles, one above the other, in
separate rows, so as to leave an interspace between the rows for the free passage of the
flames. The fire is distinguished as front, middle, and back; the front of the fire is
fierce, the middle moderate, the back feeble. The different kinds of porcelain are placed
in the furnace according to the hard or soft quality of the glaze with which they are
coated. After the kiln has been fully charged the fire is lighted, and the entrance is
then bricked up, leaving only a square hole, through which billets of pine wood are thrown
in without intermission. When the saggars inside have attained a silvery red color (white
heat) the firing is stopped, and after the lapse of another twenty-four hours the kiln is
The perfection of the porcelain depends on the firing, which reckoning from the time of
putting in to that of taking out, usually occupies three days. On the fourth day, early in
the morning, the furnace is opened.23
Thus, the total firing time then as today was about thirty-six hours,
and the kilns achieve maximum temperatures of well above 1300°C.
Enamel colors fluxed with lead were added on top of the transparent glaze after this first
firing because they cannot withstand the high temperatures. The piece was painted, then
underwent a second firing in a muffle kiln at temperatures of around 700°C. Lead enamels
expanded the palette of porcelain, offering a wide range of color and the ability to
achieve delicate shading.
After "Wrapping in Straw and Packing in Cases," Tang Ying concludes with a
discussion of the devoutness in worship of the "immense number of people whose life
hangs on the success or failure of the furnace fires." He relates the plight of
Jingdezhen's deity potter Tong:
|Their god, named T'ung [Tong], was once himself a potter, a native of the
place. Formerly, during the Ming dynasty, when they were making large dragon fish-bowls,
they failed in the firing year after year, although the eunuchs in charge inflicted the
most severe punishments, and the potters were in bitter trouble. Then it was that one of
them, throwing away his life for the rest, leaped into the midst of the furnace, whereupon
the dragon bowls came out perfect. His fellow-workmen, pitying him and marveling, built a
temple within the precincts of the imperial manufactory, and worshiped him there under the
title of 'Genius of Fire and Blast.' . . . He is worshiped here as the tutelary gods of
agriculture and land are in other parts of the empire.24
In Tang Ying's time, Jingdezhen was flourishing under vigorous court
patronage. Tang Ying exemplifies the extraordinary benefits of government support. A
talented administrator with a deep understanding of the process of porcelain
manufacturing, his control over the official kilns guaranteed a consistently high level of
Today, Jingdezhen merits a visit by everyone with a strong interest in porcelain and its
history. Museums, factories, and fields of shards preserve traces of its extraordinary
past. This city, unique for the proximity of large deposits of both porcelain stone and
kaolin, is renowned worldwide as the center of China's porcelain industry.
Mimi Gardner Gates
This text is excerpted from the catalog Porcelain
Stories: From China to Europe, Appendix I, pages 269-275.
1. Chen Baiquan in Scott 1993, 12-32. S. Vainker in Rawson 1992, 238-42.
See also chapter 1 and chapter 4, in which Jennifer Chen discusses white and green wares
and qingbai glazing.
2. Cited in Tichane 1983, facing page 1.
3. Translation by Robert Tichane. Full translation of Père
d'Entrecolles's letters (September 1, 1712, and January 25, 1722), as well as the author's
contemporary account of a trip to Jingdezhen, appears in Tichane 1983, 51-128.
4. After visiting Jingdezhen, Robert Tichane (ibid., 4) estimated that
somewhere in the neighborhood of 300 million porcelains are produced there each year.
5. Pierson 1996, 11; Pollard and Wood 1986, 112.
6. Harrison-Hall 1997, 196.
7. N. Wood in Kuwayama 1992, 151.
8. Liu and Bai 1982.
9. Rawson 1992, 30-31.
11. M. Medley in Scott 1993, 75-78. The Jiangxi sheng dazhi
(preface dated 1597), which Margaret Medley explicates in "Organisation and
Production at Jingdezhen in the Sixteenth Century," provides extensive information on
the official kilns and how they were organized. See also Tsing 1978 and Zhongguo
guisuanyan xuehui 1982, 360-69.
12. Tang Ying's annotations for "The Twenty Illustrations of the
Manufacture of Porcelain," translated and with comments by S. W. Bushell, are
reprinted together with historical prints and contemporary photographs of porcelain-making
in Tichane 1983, 131-70.
13. Ibid., 134.
14. Ibid., 136.
15. Wood 1988, 12.
16. Tichane 1983, 144.
17. Ibid., 150.
18. Père d'Entrecolles writes of painting in underglaze blue: "When
one applies it, its color is just a pale black; when it is dry and cov-
ered with glaze, it is completely obscured, and the porcelain appears entirely white; the
colors are then buried under the glaze; the fire clarifies them in all their beauty, the
same as natural warmth changes a cocoon into the most beautiful of colored
butterflies" (quoted in ibid., 87).
19. Ibid., 152. Père d'Entrecolles also notes: "The work of
painting in any given laboratory is divided among a large number of workers" (quoted
in ibid., 78).
20. Ibid., 154.
21. Ibid., 156.
22. Ibid., 160.
23. Ibid., 162.
24. Ibid., 170.
FIG. 1. The kiln stacks of Jingdezhen.
FIG. 2. Field of shards, Jingdezhen.
FIG. 3. Saggars are prefired refractory clay containers that encase ware in the kiln to
protect it from kiln debris, direct flame, and fluctuations in temperature and atmosphere.
FIG. 4. Once porcelain stone is mined, water-powered trip hammers pulverize the rock into
fine powder. Today, machines are rapidly replacing the traditional trip hammers.
FIG. 5. Porcelain stone is purified in settling tanks. The coarser material gathers on the
bottom, and the fine particles are skimmed off the top and used to make porcelain.
FIG. 6. The fine particles of porcelain stone are formed into white bricks (baitunzi).
FIG. 7. Kaolin, a yellowish clay, fires white. It is the other primary component of
porcelain. From the 13th to 14th century on, it has been added to porcelain stone.
FIG. 8. After stone and kaolin have been combined and the mixture pressed and pounded to
eliminate air and excess water, the paste is kneaded to ensure homogeneity and workability
before being given to the potter.
FIG. 9. The potter spins the wheel with a stick.
FIG. 10. Skillfully, the potter raises the clay on the wheel, forming bowls uniform in
size. In imperial China, a potter working at the imperial kilns was required to produce
100 bowls a day.
FIG. 11. Once the bowls are formed, a mold is applied and pressed gently with the hands,
ensuring that all bowls are identical in size and thickness.
FIG. 12. After being formed and molded, the bowls, still damp, are set out in the air to
dry before being decorated.
FIG. 13. When painted on the unfired porcelain, the cobalt pigment is pale black. When
fired, it matures into brilliant blue.
FIG. 14. Before porcelain is fired in the kiln, glaze is evenly applied to each vessel.
FIG. 15. The sketching of the design and painting of each element of the composition and
border was often the work of many hands.
FIG. 16. Used exclusively at Jingdezhen since the late sixteenth century, this type of
kiln is referred to as egg-shaped (zhen-yao) because its form resembles an egg
(or water jar) lying on its side. Its shape and drafting make it possible to fire
different types of wares at different temperatures in a single firing.
FIG. 17. Schematic of the Jingdezhen egg-shaped kiln.The loaded saggars are neatly stacked
inside the kiln in preparation for firing. Careful thought is given to the placement of
each piece and the firing temperature it requires. The temperature varies: it is hottest
in front, medium in the middle, and cooler at the far end near the chimney. A layer of
coarse gravel insulates the floor of the kiln.