Journey to the Porcelain Center of the World

Journey to the Porcelain Center of the World

Professor of Studio Art Syd Carpenter has been working with clay since the mid-1970's. She began her artistic studies in fine arts as a painter, but gradually her focus turned to ceramic sculpture. Among the numerous awards she has received are a Pew Fellowship in the Arts and a National Political Congress of Black Women Chisholm Award. She has exhibited nationally and internationally and her work is included in the collections of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, among others. Write to her at scarpen1@swarthmore.edu

ith the brilliant spectacle of the Beijing Olympics now in the past and neatly contained in a series of YouTube downloads, the time had arrived to make my first visit to China. My destination was Jingdezhen, a city of porcelain, where centuries ago, potters began producing the most sought-after ceramics in the world - with production continuing uninterrupted to this day. I was among a group of ceramic artists, historians, and students on a 17-day trip to China to attend the symposium "Shared Journeys: Chinese/American Ceramic Art and Education," sponsored by the National Council on Education in the Ceramic Arts. As guests of the Jingdezhen Ceramic Institute (JCI), we would explore China's complex relationship between clay, culture, and global economics.

We began our visit in Shanghai, a city of 22 million and the financial center of China. Looking up, the skyline of glass and steel mega-towers is a catalog of futuristic silhouettes. On the ground at night, the Nanjing Road is a seriously stylish youth parade aglow in neon lights rivaling Times Square and Las Vegas combined. Our contingent of jet-lagged students spent nights sampling clubs; for everyone else, the search for tearooms, museums, and gardens filled the days.


Master painter Zhou Yun Qi discusses his work with JCI students.

A short flight from Shanghai, Jingdezhen is located in the southern province of Jangxi. The route to our hotel was lined with unending columns of porcelain-clad streetlights, a clear signal we weren't in Kansas anymore. Porcelain was everywhere: in shops, on buildings and public art - and literally underfoot. Walking past an excavation for a new apartment block, we could see thousands of porcelain pot shards, their edges pressed into a blue-and-white mosaic, disappearing into the freshly dug pit. Nearby, an earthmover's shard-studded scoop rested in the mud. On Monday mornings at the antique market, the shards, gathered and displayed by dealers, become a target for Jingdezhenese, who finger, sort, and bargain for them, looking for that rare, precious shard among the thousands spread on old newspapers and blankets at their feet.


Trimming porcelain bowls at Jingdezhen Ancient Kiln Museum.

Porcelain production began in Jingdezhen as a confluence of political and geographical elements during the Tang dynasty (618-906). The most important ingredient in porcelain is kaolin found at nearby Gaoling Mountain; feldspar, the source of porcelain's characteristic translucency, is also available in nearby deposits. The forests covering the surrounding mountains provide abundant fuel for the high-temperature kilns in which the porcelain is fired. Mongol invasions of northern China during the Song dynasty (960-1280) resulted in the migration of potters to the South, where they introduced the use of cobalt blue on white and a ceaseless demand for Jingdezhen porcelain. The high quality of the porcelain resulted in enormous quantities being commissioned for the imperial court. Perfection of form and surface was the standard. A voracious European demand for porcelain followed through contact with the Portuguese and Dutch. Eventually, political and financial pressures resulted in a prolific export business and the ultimate industrialization of Jingdezhen as a porcelain-producing center.


Porcelain-clad street lights in Jingdezhen.

We were invited to attend an elaborate celebration staged for the 50-year anniversary of the Jingdezhen Ceramics Institute. With one campus in town and another on the outskirts, JCI adheres to a government policy of producing ceramicists who will contribute to the expansion of ceramics production in China and its distribution throughout the world. Busloads of dignitaries and visitors were escorted to a stadium already crowded with excited students. I was astounded by the extravagance of the performances and fireworks displays. In front of an enormous projection screen, young girls twirled across the stage in rigidly spiraling dresses that, on cue, tilted up and were transformed into blue-and-white porcelain dishes. A hip-hop crew with impressive moves brought everyone to their feet. Faculty members performed pop songs. On and on it went. All in celebration of clay.


Climbing the Dragon Kiln hill, which dates back to the earliest development of high-fired ceramics in China.

My enthusiasm was tempered by observations of tradition and conformity in Chinese ceramic practice. Although not prohibited, there was a sense that innovation in the pot shops and factories was evolving only slowly. No mystery here. The past sells. With that said, Chinese ceramics education emphasizes specialization rather than comprehensive development. The expectation is for the student to master just one piece of the process, with other parts completed by equally masterful artists. Lu Pinchang, associate dean of the Sculpture Department at Beijing's Central Academy of Fine Arts, advises students to "Follow the teaching guideline of making the past serve the present and foreign things serve China, and accept all the outstanding foreign and Chinese cultural and technological resources from the past and present with an open attitude.... Develop the academic style of being resolute and enterprising, steady and sure, and the plain characters of being sincere, modest, and hardworking." By contrast, the American ceramicist is typically a jack-of-all-trades, master of many. It's not unusual for American clay artists to share facilities and to invest in a studio assistant, but the quality of the object is the outcome of solitary practice.


Stoking the Dragon Kiln at Sanbao Ceramics Workshop.

The legacy of uninterrupted and sustained technical "perfection" is now demonstrated in thousands of studios in Jingdezhen and other Chinese clay cities such as Guangzhou, Foshan, and Yixing. There is a steady but increasing number of artists and craftspeople from around the world studying in Chinese workshops including several opportunities in Jingdezhen. Carolyn Cheng's Pottery Workshop with locations in Beijing and Shanghai offers affordable space in a roomy facility within minutes of JCI. Sanbao Workshop, directed by American-trained Jackson Li, is an idyllic retreat where modern and ancient practices exist side by side.


A shopkeeper readying pots for sale in the Jingdezhen porcelain market.

Our visit was timed to witness the Sanbao Dragon Kiln reaching firing temperature. As we climbed the hill alongside this monster, smoke and flames pulsed furiously out of stoke holes along its crusted flanks. Stretching more than 40 feet up a mountainside and holding thousands of pots, these kilns date back to the earliest development of high-fired ceramics in China. The University of West Virginia International Ceramic Institute on the campus of JCI offers a third opportunity for students in a sprawling, well-planned space shared with JCI faculty. Each has its own specific atmosphere and rhythm. And all are within reach of the resources and spectacle of Jingdezhen, "the porcelain center of the world."