ABOUT ANTIQUE JINGDEZHEN PORCELAIN
Jingdezhen, "The porcelain centre of the world."
A short description of the developments, transport and production
of antique Chinese porcelain
Jingdezhen, the ‘city of all day thunder and lightning,’ is located in the northeastern part of Jiangxi province and is known as the porcelain centre of the world. Some historians believe that ceramics production may have started there in the Han dynasty (206 BC.–AD. 220) with kilns spread along the Chang River, south and southeast of the town.(1) The town was then called Xinping Town or Changnan for its location to the south (nan) of the Chang River. Pottery clay was in ample supply all around the town. More specifically, the Gaoling mountain, 40 kilometers to the northeast, is one of the few areas in China which provided pure kaolin, one of the essential ingredients for porcelain. Other nearby areas such as Nankang, Sanbaopeng, Dongliu and Liujiawan provided the other ingredient; the so-called ‘China stone.’
Another important material was fuel for the kilns. Pine wood was found in abundance around the town. The Chang River provided transport for raw material to the kilns as well as for later shipping of the finished products. In summary, the ample clay resources, fuel supply, convenient transportation and eventual imperial favors provided the necessary catalyst for potters from other places in China to join in the commercial pottery production in the town.
Other texts say that pottery was being made at Jingdezhen by A.D. 557 and that it had grown into an industry by Tang dynasty (A.D. 618-906). Old texts mention the Tao kilns, which are said to be named after the Tao family who founded the kilns and who made high-fired pottery already then known to be translucent and often referred to as ‘artificial jade’.(2) In support of this industry, Guangzhou in southern China became a thriving seaport that by the Tang dynasty was home to a large Arab community with its own mosques and trading houses.
By the reign of emperor Jingde (1004-1007) of the Song dynasty (960-1280), the court decreed that existing private kilns fire quality wares for imperial use and that the pieces should be marked with ‘Made in the Jingde period’ on the base. The town (zhen) was thereafter known as Jingdezhen and the earlier name of Changnan was gradually forgotten. This decree did not result in the creation of new kilns but merely appointed established private kilns to add imperial wares to their production. The kilns were thus producing high quality wares for the imperial court at the same time as producing common dinner sets for the domestic markets at the same time.(3)
Tributary pottery for the court, like the thin-walled ‘thin as paper’ or qingbai wares, were made at the Hutian kilns in the northern Song dynasty. By 1278 production at the Hutian kilns was overseen by a government official from the ‘Porcelain Office’ who also overlooked the imperial production at the Luomaqiao kilns and those on the Zhushan hill. Hutian had a great impact on other Jingdezhen kilns which began producing similar quality wares. At this time, it appears certain that imperial wares were not fired in a kiln specially created for that purpose. Instead, after receiving production requirements from the court, Jingdezhen would summon all the best ceramists together to design, choose and fire the best ware possible. (4) (It is likely that this communal corroboration between the different potteries and kilns lasted until at least the 15th century and beyond, when private kilns are known to have assisted official kilns with imperial orders.)
During the 13th century many other kilns were spread out over a large area southeast of the town. The author visited the excavation of an early Song dynasty kiln 40 kilometers west of the Chang River in August 2005. These remotely located kilns do however appear to have moved closer to the city center by the Yuan dynasty, possibly in connection with increased overseas trade. It is reported in the Yuan-dynasty Notes of Ceramics by Jiang Qi that “All together there were over three hundred kilns in Jingdezhen." Wares made in these kilns were white, clean and flawless. When sold in other provinces in China, people called them ‘jades’. (5)
During the Song dynasty high-fired ceramics were immensely popular and developed to perfection. Thousands of pieces were exported annually to the Middle East, India and Southeast Asia. Despite this successful trade, the Song court was forced to exploit every means in order to pay ‘peace money’ to the Mongol invaders and to maintain its own administration and military. Aware of the threats from the invaders and its own diminishing empire and lack of finances, the court decided to increase its revenue by increasing foreign trade. One of these measures was to establish Superintendents of Shipping offices and sponsoring of overseas trade. In combination with active sponsorship, this trade would greatly benefit the Chinese economy and spur the industrialization of the potteries at Jingdezhen. These late Song dynasty Superintendents offices were thus established at Guangzhou in the south, Hangzhou in Zhekiang province and Quangzhou in Fujian province.
By the time the Mongols had established the Yuan dynasty (1280-1368), trade flourished. The seaports established by the Song court became even more successful under Mongol rule. Marco Polo (1275-1292) wrote that Quanzhou harbor was the greatest port in the world and also mentioned the ceramics trade:
"The most beautiful vessels and plates of porcelain, large and small, that one can describe are made in great quantity…more beautiful than can be found in any other city. And on all sides they are much valued, for none of them are made in another place but in this city and from there they are carried to many places throughout the world. And there is plenty there and the great sale, so great that for one Vientiane goat you would actually have three bowls so beautiful that none would know how to devise then better". (6)
This situation was also witnessed by the Arab traveler Ebn-e-Batuteh (1304-1378) who reportedly saw over a hundred big ships and innumerable smaller ships in Quangzhou harbor.
Although large quantities of Chinese pottery were exported to Southeast Asia, India and the Middle East from the 9th century, it was the Yuan dynasty (1280-1368) under the rule of Kublai Khan that significantly expanded maritime trade. During the Mongol invasion of northern China it would appear that Cizhou potters from present-day Cixian of Handan municipally, Hebei province migrated to the south and assisted in the technical and decorative achievements of porcelain making in Jingdezhen. (7) The technique of painting with iron black oxides before glazing, so long practiced elsewhere in China, may have given birth to the first cobalt decorated wares of Jingdezhen, although underglaze cobalt decorated wares from the Gongxian kiln in Henan are known from Tang times. (8) This politically motivated transfer of technology resulted in the best known ceramics of all time - blue and white porcelain. It also had a fundamental effect on Jingdezhen production, China’s trade and eventually on the whole world, although its full impact would not be seen until the fourteenth century.
During the Yuan dynasty the Chinese potters introduced new forms and painted the earliest known untraditional Chinese motifs on high quality porcelain for foreign dignitaries. Porcelain that was customized to suit the needs of the Middle East included large plates with Islamic motifs. Shards from such plates, excavated from the original Yuan dynasty official kilns, are not imperial in form although the body and glaze are clearly of imperial quality. This type of early export ware was reportedly not made before 1328, and the ware was not made after 1352. The earlier date is based on excavations at the kiln sites where the painted pattern was not seen before this date. (9) The later date marks the future Hongwu emperor’s conquest of the area and the subsequent cessation of production. Professor Liu Xinyuan who excavated the kilns re-affirmed that shards from such large plates, excavated from these kilns are not Chinese but more suited for the Islamic markets. (10)
Large volumes of blue and white porcelain were exported to Southeast Asia during 1328-1352. (11) Whether the Chinese chronicler Wang Ta-yuan’s reports, made during many years of visiting Southeast Asian countries, refer to qingpai as we know it today or blue and white porcelain, the David vases of 1351 confirm that Chinese blue and white porcelain production was well developed by the middle of the 14th century.
When the Hongwu emperor, first ruler of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), prohibited the building of ocean going vessels and private overseas trade in 1371, it had a detrimental effect on export production at Jingdezhen. With the exception of increased trade in the time of the fabled Zheng He’s treasure ship voyages, very few ceramics were officially exported from China between the third quarter of the 14th and the late 15th century. (12) There was however substantial smuggling despite the ‘Ming ban.’ One text states that when “not a single board was allowed to put out to sea, some renowned families at coastal areas built naval [narrow and fast ships] vessels without permission. They sailed away to do business in many foreign countries every year.” (13)
The official kilns did however seem to have flourished during these times. In the early Ming dynasty another 20 kilns in Jingdezhen were recognized for their quality wares and commissioned to produce ‘imperial porcelain’ exclusively for the court. These kilns were set up next to an ‘imperial depot’ in 1425 which was to assemble, store and arrange transport to Beijing and the imperial palace.
While production for overseas markets was reduced, private kilns in Jingdezhen made blue and white porcelain for the huge domestic market. Work for the official kilns was increased in 1433 when the Ming court ordered 443,500 pieces of porcelain for the imperial household. To fill this order, the number of official kilns was increased to 58. In addition to the added production capacity, which probably came from up-grading previously private kilns, privately owned kilns assisted with the production of standardized wares. Official kilns continued to make the finer wares. The 1433 order, as with most other imperial orders, was overseen by eunuch commissioners appointed by the court. (14) Imperial orders in 1529 were limited to 2,570 pieces, but they gradually increased to 174,700 pieces in 1577. (15) Private kilns that assisted with imperial production are thought to have been allowed to sell off rejected imperial pieces provided none bore the emperor’s reign mark. (16)
Jingdezhen porcelain manufacturing:
The ‘flesh and bones’ of porcelain were two components mixed in different proportions depending of the type of ware desired. The first of the ingredients is kaolin, a pure white clay formed by the decomposition of aluminum silicates, in particular decomposed feldspar. Kaolin remains white when fired, but its low plasticity makes it difficult to pot. The clay is quarried in open mines and washed in a series of ponds where the finer particles are separated from heavier impurities. Only the upper supernatant fluid was allowed into a second and a third pond before the clay was dried and made into bricks. The word kaolin derives from the Gaoling (‘High Ridge’) hill 40 kilometers northeast of Jingdezhen where the clay was first found.
The ‘bones’ in porcelain is China stone (petuntse), a granitic grayish white stone which still retains much unaltered feldspar, quartz and sericite. After being pulverized by water driven pestles, the powder from the stone is also washed in successive ponds and then dried into bricks. This material, by itself, can be fired only to about 1,150˚ Centigrade and is off-white in color. The kaolin-petuntse mixture, however, is white and plastic and when used with for blue and white wares, is fired at 1,250-1,330˚ Centigrade.
Both materials were quarried in mines outside Jingdezhen by specialized mills and transported by river boats to the potteries. It is believed that very few expert suppliers of kaolin and China stone were in operation during the Ming dynasty, although a Qing dynasty treatise on porcelain of 1815 indicates that there were 28 rapids, each of them with water-driven pestles, east of Jingdezhen.
At the potteries the two different clay bricks were mixed with water and stirred to a homogeneous texture before storage in earthenware jars. The proportions of the two substances depended on the type of ware to be made. For finer wares, more kaolin was required; this allowed the shape to remain secure during firing. On the other hand, petuntse was required for translucency, so characteristic for porcelain. After deciding the mixture, which no doubt also considered the price for the two materials, the ready slurry was screened though horsehair sieves and then through silk bags to separate the finer particles from the coarser. The surface water was emptied from the jars, and the bottom paste was left to solidify. After drying, the clay was placed in pits or on stone slabs and stamped on by men or oxen and kneaded until the mixture was compact. Once it was allowed to age, the ready clay received a final wash and further kneading to rid it of air bubbles before it was ready for throwing on the wheel. Even at the wheel, it was again kneaded and sized by the potter’s assistant, working next to the potter, before it was shaped into pots.
Shapes like cups and bowls were first thrown on the wheel. After drying, back on the wheel, the leather hard pot was trimmed while careful measurements were taken to check overall diameter, height, thickness and foot-ring details. Upright forms were made in different sections that were luted together by adding clay slurry to the join surfaces. Plates were first thrown on the wheel before pressed to exact size in moulds. These moulds could sometimes have ridges, striations or other impressed designs. An 18th century traveler to Jingdezhen reported, somewhat inaccurately, that these plates were so exact that they did not vary more than a hairbreadth in size. Although this may be true in the 18th century, very few plates in the Wanli 17th century cargo had the same overall or foot-ring diameter.
After the pots were trimmed and allowed to dry, skilled artisans would decorate them. Outlines, for instance, could be drawn in darker cobalt mixture before other decorators used different shades of blue to fill in the design. (17) After the painted decoration was applied, the foot-ring was carved and circular rings were painted onto the base while the pot was still on the wheel. Other craftsmen would then apply reign marks or an inscription within the rings. Some pieces of porcelain from The Wanli Shipwreck included the circular outlines on the base but no markings within them. These must have by-passed the decorator who was supposedly meant to fill them. Yet other kraak plates by-passed the artisans supposed to paint the fill in the main decorations.
After their decoration, the pots were glazed with a thin layer of specially prepared slurry containing fern ash. This glaze mixture was delivered to the kilns in Jingdezhen as a liquid by specially lined river boats. When the pots were glazed and dried, the painted decoration disappeared under the whitish slurry, but reappeared after firing as crystal blue below transparent glaze.
Chinese tradition claims that the earliest cobalt at Jingdezhen was imported from Persia. This ore was rich in iron. Later cobalt oxide, high in manganese, mined in China was utilized, sometimes in varying mixtures with imported cobalt.
Once the pots were decorated and glazed, most private workshops sent them to kilns that specialized in firing ceramics. The pots were carried on wooden planks added in layers to a ladder-like structure. The early matiyao kilns were commonly built on the slope of hills in an area that was not necessarily suited to workshops. From the 16th century, egg-shaped kilns (zhen yao) or mantou type kilns become more popular as they and the later ‘beehive’ kilns could be constructed on flat ground.
At the kiln, the pieces of pottery were placed in saggars, specially-made circular boxes, to ensure they received uniform temperature and to protect them from air currents and debris that might fall from the kiln ceiling. The arrangement of the saggars in the kiln took into account the heat requirements for the different types of ware. Observers in the 18th century report that it took about eight days to reach the required temperature. A kiln master determined the temperature by observing the color of the saggars. When they reached silver-red, the fire was stopped. Even though three to four days was allowed for initial cooling, the saggars as well as the kiln interior were still very hot when special workmen covered in wet cloth removed them. The difficulties in determining kiln temperature and related risks are described in Pere’ d’Entrecolles letter of 1712:
“……the whole oven-full is hardly ever successful. Sometimes it is quite lost, and when they open the furnace they find the porcelain pieces and the cases (saggars) are reduced to a mass as hard as rock…. For one workman who gets rich there are hundred others who ruin themselves, they still try their fortunes further in the hope that they may save enough to become shopkeepers”. (18)
A word of caution is in place here. When referring to ‘kilns’ it is perhaps common to assume a place where the pots were made, decorated, glazed and fired. This may not be true for the export production as there were relatively few ‘kilns’ but many small potteries scattered all over the town. It is therefore possible that future archaeology will discover actual kilns, specialized in firing the ware, while other places may yield evidences of porcelain production.
These separate production segments are probably confirmed by Tang Ying, alias Jun Gong, who was decreed to supervise porcelain production in Jingdezhen during the early 18th century. His detailed description of all phases of production includes a statement about making the saggars:
"...In the whole district of Jingdezhen there are only three or four workmen reputed clever at this special handiwork." (19)
Individual owners separated the fired wares into different quality groups and priced the export ware accordingly. First class wares had the brightest color and no kiln defects such as warping; pieces with lower density color became second class. The remainder was sold on the domestic market. Ceramics intended for overseas markets were packed in straw bundles and sent to the river for onward transport. The domestic ware was not packed in straw but tied up in bundles of 30-40 pieces before being distributed.
When the volume of porcelain for export increased during the 17th century, many additional kilns appeared in and around Jingdezhen. There is estimated to have been no less than a thousand kilns at the peak of this period. Most of the kilns were distributed along the eastern side of the Chang River, only a few were located on its western bank. Most private kilns were located along the Taoyang Shisan Li (‘thirteen mile’) road that ran north to south through the old city zone. The official kilns were located at or near Zhushan hill in the old city center.
Continued developments at Jingdezhen during the early Qing dynasty resulted in the finest porcelains ever made – those from the Kangxi (1662-1722) reign. Blue and white porcelains of that time were perfectly potted, fired to perfection, and decorated in sapphire blue against a bright white ground.
Thus, from the Ming dynasty we see superior quality porcelain wares made by specially appointed workshops for the exclusive use of the court. At the same time private kilns produce porcelain for the huge domestic and an ever increasing export market. We see private kilns assisting official workshops with large orders, and official potters and decorators joining the export industry when court orders diminished. This degree of adaptability and outsourcing is unparalleled at any other production place at the time.
The quality of the Jingdezhen porcelain does however fall into two distinct basic groups. One was made strictly for the imperial court and the other for the domestic and export markets. Because imperial ware was made to strict specifications, personal artistic expression by the decorators was not only minimized but simply not allowed. As a consequence of strict quality control, imperial porcelain may tend to appear artistically lifeless but is famous for its technical qualities. Private kilns, on the other hand, made whatever form and decorative styles were in fashion and acceptable to foreign buyers. On these wares individual decorators display their own styles of painting based on personal interpretation of traditional motifs, making them lively, innovative and individual.
It is unfortunate that export wares have been described as ‘provincial’ or even ‘unrefined,’ which suggest the pots were made in a different area than Jingdezhen and that private potteries were unable to produce quality ware. The truth is that the two categories of ware satisfied specific markets. The private potters and decorators, as enterprising then as now, simply adapted a flexible market strategy for niche markets. If freely sketched motifs and thick bodied ceramics mean they are ‘unrefined’, they certainly are not ‘provincial’ in any way.
The Portuguese buyers:
In time, yet another political situation benefited Jingdezhen. In Europe the Portuguese made technical advances that led to the development of a merchant fleet. And their goal was to purchase spices directly from Southeast Asia rather than via Muslim middlemen in the Middle East and other agents in Italy. As a result of this desire for spices, they found Chinese porcelain first in India and then, after their settlement in Melaka was established in 1511, in China. The first pieces of Jingdezhen ware brought back to Portugal by ship were acquired in India and presented to King Manuel I by Vasco da Gama.
Meanwhile, some of the early Portuguese ‘trade’ in Asia consisted of looting of Arab, Chinese and Indian merchant ships. This approach was not appreciated by the Chinese court which prohibited contact with the newcomers. Nevertheless, the Portuguese managed to order porcelain from Fujian middlemen, and eventually they were forwarding drawings to Jingdezhen for specially designed pieces. The special orders included a blue and white ewer bearing the Portuguese armillary sphere, the emblem of King Manuel I (1495-1521), and various shapes decorated with other coats-of-arms. (20) While the designs were sometimes painted upside-down or misinterpreted in other ways, they show how willing the Chinese potters were to please new customers.
The taste for Chinese porcelain in Portugal and elsewhere in Europe slowly gained popularity during the later part of the 16th century when the Portuguese royalty gifted other European nobilities with this exclusive commodity which they alone could acquire at source. Here it is important to note that Chinese celadon, an important export in earlier times, rarely entered the trade with Europeans. Blue and white porcelain had already become more fashionable than celadon in the 15th century, and the Portuguese arrived at the beginning of the 16th century.
Portuguese praise for Chinese blue and white porcelain can be seen in a letter by Frei Bartolomeu dos Martires who, during a dinner with Pope Pius lV in 1563, compared porcelain to silver tableware:
"In Portugal we have a kind of tableware which, being made of clay, may be compared advantageously to silver both in its elegance and its cleanliness, and I would counsel all princes to use it in preference to any other service and to banish silver from their tables. In Portugal we call it porcelain. It comes from India and is made in China. The clay is so fine and transparent that the whites outshine crystal and alabaster, and the pieces which are decorated in blue dumbfound the eyes, seeming a combination of alabaster and sapphires. They are not concerned about their fragility since they are quite cheap. They may be esteemed by the greatest princes for their delight and curiosity, and this is why we have them in Portugal. (21)
Centuries after Marco Polo praised Chinese ‘porcelain’ and remarked on the large volume of export, Father Matteo Ricci, writing about China in the period of his residency there (1582-1610), noted:
"The finest specimens of porcelain are made from clay found in the province of Jiangxi, and these are shipped not only to every part of China but even to the remotest corners of Europe where they are highly prized by those who appreciate elegance at their banquets rather than pompous display. This porcelain too, will bear the heat of hot foods without cracking and, what is more to be wondered at; if it is broken and sewed with brass wire it will hold liquids without any leakage." (22)
It is difficult to ascertain the volume of Jingdezhen porcelain intended for the European market in the later part of the 16th century due to lack of records. However, in the early 17th century when the Portuguese carrack Santa Catarina was captured by the Dutch there were more than thirty last (sixty tones) or about 100.000 pieces of porcelain in her holds. (23) When later auctioned in Holland it started a Dutch craze for Chinese porcelain. Its fame spread to the rest of Europe by the second half of the century.
The Dutch buyers:
Export production at Jingdezhen witnessed yet another boost when the Dutch arrived in China in the early 17th century. With the Portuguese well established in Macao, the doorstep to China, the Dutch had repeated disputes with the Portuguese and the Chinese administration. Misbehaving, as the Portuguese did before them, the Dutch were forced to trade along the Chinese coast and from various illegal settlements with primarily Fujian merchants. The difficulties the Dutch had in establishing direct trade with the Jingdezhen potteries is reflected in a letter by Kr. Kohn, an officer of the Dutch VOC company in 1616:
"These porcelains sold to us were produced in an inland kiln which was very far away, and those porcelain need to be ordered and paid in advance." (24)
From their various illegal bases on China’s coast, on Taiwan, and at later establishment in Japan, the Dutch had to wait a full year for their deliveries. Yet, despite the distance and with unprecedented trust in the Chinese middlemen, the Dutch alone already in 1608 ordered more than 108,000 pieces of porcelain, a number that grew to 355,800 pieces in 1644, for the European market alone. (25)
Following the sale of the porcelain cargo from Santa Catarina, it has been estimated that between at 1604 and 1657, more than three million porcelain pieces were shipped to Europe by the Dutch alone. (26) Adding the even higher volume of porcelain for Southeast Asian markets, the total production at Jingdezhen was staggering.
The Dutch, as the Portuguese before them, relied on standard types of ware with standard decorations but often complained about the quality. In 1618 the Dutch officers of the VOC company in Surat complained about a Portuguese advantage:
"Your Honour forwards to us of the other kinds should be just right and good, because it will be judged for these qualities, as the Portuguese carry hither extra-ordinary fine and exquisite wares, so much so that our fine is coarse when compared with theirs." (27)
It was not only better quality the Portuguese managed to secure for themselves. Marked porcelain pieces were not only popular in Europe but also in Southeast Asia and India. Another letter from a VOC official on the Coromandel Coast, dated 1610, complains about the lack of marked pieces delivered by the Chinese:
"It should be seen to that all these afore-noted kinds of porcelain have under the bottom a blue seal, for about this they are very particular." (28)
In the late Wanli (1573-1620) period imperial orders for Jingdezhen had dwindled and normal deliveries to Beijing become risky. At the same time some of the official kilns, were razed during peasant revolts and eventually closed in 1608. (29) With continued economic troubles and lack of imperial orders worsened by the approaching Manchus, the remaining kilns closed and did not re-open until a few years into the Qing dynasty. During this ‘transitional’ period (circa 1620-1663), some private kilns managed to stay in production for an ever increasing export market. Unemployed potters and decorators from the official kilns joined the private kilns and were instrumental in improving production. ‘Transitional’ wares from the 17th century are characterized by fine naturalistic motifs that are painted in brilliant blue cobalt and covered by a clear smooth glaze.
From about 1634 onwards, Chinese junk captains took orders from the Dutch for porcelain in special shapes for which models of European objects were provided. (30) There were also special patterns including ‘Dutch flower-and-leaf work’. Some designs were initially incorporated into typical kraak panels, a practice that shows how the Jingdezhen decorators adopted new motifs to please their buyers.
Until late 1630s the supply of porcelain from Jingdezhen was relatively steady, but in the early 1640s there were reports of war in Jingdezhen and high mortality rates among the potters. Production did however continue, and in large quantities, but supply remained uncertain until about 1657 when the Dutch ordered much of their porcelain in Japan.
The relative ease of transportation on the Chang River and its tributaries was a key circumstance in the successful development of the porcelain industry in Jingdezhen. One Ming official, Miu Zongzhou, wrote that “Kilns are arranged along the rivers and boats and ships which carry porcelain come and go everyday”. (31) Despite Jingdezhen’s location in the remote corner of Jiangxi province, these boats and ships managed to transport huge volumes of ceramics to domestic markets as far away as Beijing as well as to different seaports for shipping overseas.
All Jingdezhen ceramics began their long journeys on the Chang River loaded on small river boats. The first transit point was at Lake Poyang where the cargo was transferred to larger boats that proceeded through the lake into the Yangtze River and downstream to Nanjing. From there some of the boats followed the Grand Canal and its associated waterways north to reach Beijing -- a hazardous journey of about 1,900 kilometers. Other boats went south on the Grand Canal to reach Hangzhou, a journey of 1,000 kilometers. Other rivers and waterways coupled with some overland transport allowed porcelain cargoes to reach such seaports as Zhangzhou, Quanzhou and Fuzhou in Fujian province, Wenzhou in the Zhejiang province and Changzhou in northern Guangdong province. The most cumbersome but most frequently used route in the 17th and 18th centuries ran from Jingdezhen to Guangzhou (Canton) in southern China. This route began in Lake Poyang and proceeded up the Gan River to Nanchang. Re-loaded onto smaller river boats, the porcelain cargo would then continue upstream to Ganzhou (122 meters above sea level). Continuing on smaller rivers, the cargo boats eventually reached the southern border of Jiangxi province. Here the porcelain had to be hand carried over the Meiling Pass, a stretch of some 30 kilometers that reached about 275 meters above sea level. After the Meiling Pass, the goods was again re-loaded onto small boats that navigated the winding narrow upper reaches of the Bei Jiang River before reaching Guangzhou after a cumbersome, time-consuming journey of about 1,400 kilometers.
River transport was without doubt long and cumbersome. Crews rowed long distances against the current and often used poles to push the heavily loaded boats though shallows and rocky streams. In addition to this work and responsibility, whether they started upstream or downstream, they had to return to their original place of loading before repeating the journey.
With hundreds of thousands of pieces of porcelain transported during most years of the 17th century and many more in the 18th century, the transport of porcelain was another large industry in itself. With large numbers of small boats navigating sometimes small and winding rivers, coming and going, the rivers were both crowded and dangerous, not least for the fragile cargo.
From coastal ports in Zhejiang, Fujian and Guangdong, Ming and Qing dynasty porcelain reached Chinese merchants and shippers who supplied the Spanish in the Philippines, the Portuguese in Guangzhou and Macao, and the Dutch in Taiwan and later Japan. (32) In the early 17th century, when the Fujian people depended in fishing and cargo transport, they were prohibited from building large double-masted ships for fear they might supply the unpopular Dutch in Japan. A special permit, which was often falsified by corrupt officials, was required for smaller ships before they could set sail to foreign countries. Following the fall of the Ming dynasty, this situation reversed. In the late 17th century Fujian ports exported more ceramics than Guangdong. Although Macao and Guangdong saw more ships departing, the Fujian ships were larger. (33) This changed again in the 18th century when almost all porcelain cargo was handled by Hong merchants in Guangzhou, who supplied European ‘factories’ established on the shores of Guangzhou.
Newly discovered private kilns
While many kiln wasters has been found from the earlier production outside Jingdezhen town, increasingly more kilns from the Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties are now being discovered in Jingdezhen. Most of these are private kilns from the Ming and Qing dynasties.
A number of such export kilns has been investigated by Professor Cao Jianwen and Ms. Luo Yifei from the Jingdezhen Ceramic Institute. (34) These investigations include the Liujia Xianong kiln (2003) and Lianhualing kiln (2005), both situated within the old city zone, Miesilong kiln (2004), and the large Guanyinge kiln complex (2001) which is located north of the old city zone as well as the Dongfeng Cichang (2002-2003) and Xin Hua Cichang kilns just east of the old city zone. These kiln sites provide a wide variety of blue and white kraak ware, thin walled bowls, large diameter bowls ranging from very high quality to medium and low quality. The Lianhualing kiln provided a few shards with a Dutch tulip motif, and Guanyinge and the Liujia Xianong site provided medium sized plates with double deer motifs in the medallion.
Directly related to The Wanli shipwreck cargo are porcelain shards collected at the Guanyinge kiln site. These are identical to the delicate, thin-walled underglaze blue and red bowls found in the Wanli shipwreck cargo. In addition to these samples, shards from thin-walled ‘crow’ bowls were also collected.
As pointed out earlier, kiln wasters show that a certain ware was fired at the respective site, but they do not prove that it was potted at that location. As the kilns were likely to have been operated by specialists in the firing process only, each kiln site can yield a wide variety of wares from many different workshops spread over a large area of Jingdezhen. The author, who visited the above sites personally, can confirm that matching shards of the different types of ware were indeed found at the mentioned kiln sites.
In March 2005 the author was also privileged to discover other production sites being uncovered when a bulldozer was completing the excavation for the basement of a new building along the 'Thirteen Mile Road.' This site is today known as the Weituoqiao kiln site. The excavated area, four meters deep, with perfectly cut sides, revealed three independent waste piles of Song dynasty coarse secondary clay pottery, finer qingpai shards, and Ming and Qing dynasty export ware. These perfectly cut stratograpic levels were covered by a concrete basement before any recording of the material had taken place.
During the visit and cursory inspections of kiln sites in Jingdezhen, it became evident that wasters from the same site could include a wide array of porcelain. The finest export ware was often mixed with rather crudely potted bowls with an unglazed biscuit ring in the well. These bowls have often been called ‘Guangdong wares’ or more broadly attributed to ‘southern China.’ The array of forms, quality and decorative styles seen at the sites supports the idea of communal kilns that fired many different types of ware, presumably from different potteries. The fact that an exhibition of kiln wasters at the Palace Museum in Beijing in November 2005 displayed shards similar to those seen at Jingdezhen -- which were however attributed to various kiln sites in Fujian – demonstrates the difficulties in determining the origin on some of these types of wares.
There is little doubt that further investigation of these private kilns, and others, would be fruitful and much appreciated. With the continuing demolition of late Qing dynasty buildings, which were constructed on top of old kilns, many more discoveries are due in the near future. However, it is sad, to hear that China’s new economic boom does not provide for the resources for a long-term archaeological program despite the fact that much information about Jingdezhen’s most important industry would be better understood. Simply to be able to document the varying decorative styles on export wares at different times in history is an important art-historical objective.
If we thought that making 'fake' pottery was a new phenomena, it is interesting to see that Perez’ d’ Entrecolle already in his famous letter of 1712 confirmed that the Jingdezhen potters had perfected the “art of imitating old porcelain being passed for being three or four centuries old or at least of the preceding dynasty of Ming”.
As enterprising now as then, Jingdezhen potters are still mining kaolin in the same quarries and pulverizing China stone in the same traditional manner. The potting process, including the application of painted decoration, glazing, and firing in wood-fueled kilns is often identical to old techniques. Porcelain made in this way today is sometimes also being passed as being centuries old.
Copyright (c) Sten Sjostrand 2008
(1) It is recorded in the History of Fuliang County that “Xinping began to fire pottery in the Han dynasty” and from Notes on South Kilns in the Qing dynasty that “Jingdezhen Town in Xinping is located to the south of the Chang River and pottery wares were made there from the Han times.” See Liu Xinxin, The Prosperity and Characteristics of Qingbai Porcelain in the Song Dynasty, in Chai Kiln & Hutian Kiln, 2004, p. 45. (Publisher etc. in Chinese only. ISBN 7-80674-591-2.)
(2) Liu Xinxin, ibid., p. 45.
(3) Liu Xinxin, ibid., p. 21.
(4) Liu Xinxin, ibid., p. 21.
(5) Liu Xinxin, ibid., p. 45.
(6) A.C. Moule and Paul Pelliot, Marco Polo: The Description of the World. London,1938, p. 352.
(7) Liu Xinxin, op. cit., p. 45. Also see S. T. Yeo and Jean Martin, Chinese Blue and White Ceramics –a brief Introduction. Singapore. Art Orientalis, 1978. p. 16.
(8) Nigel Wood, Chinese Glazes. London: A&C Black Limited, 1999, p. 97.
(9) Professor Liu Xinyuan, personal discussions, August 2005.
(10) Liu Xinyuan, Imperial Export Porcelain from late Yuan to Early Ming, Oriental Art Magazine, Volume XLV/I (1999) pp. 98-100. Personal discussions, August 2005.
(11) S. T. Yeo and Jean Martin, op. cit., p. 20.
(12) See Roxanna M. Brown, The Ming Gap and Shipwreck Ceramics in Southeast Asia, PhD dissertation, University of California at Los Angeles, 2004.
(13) Wu Zhenglian, The Verification of Merchant Ships types in the Sino-Japanese Trade from the end of the Ming Dynasty to the Beginning of the Qing dynasty, Proceedings of the International Sailing Ships History Conference. Shanghai, 1991, p.143.
(14) Kee Ming-Yuet. Straits Chinese Porcelain. Kuala Lumpur: Kee Ming-Yuet Sdn. Bhd. and Cross Time Matrix Sdn Bhd, 2004, p.189.
(15) Colin Sheaf and Richard Kilburn, The Hatcher Porcelain Cargoes, The Complete record. Oxford: Phaidon Christie’s Limited, 1988, p. 21.
(16) Sheaf and Kilburn, ibid., p. 22.
(17) It is interesting to see how Pere’ d’ Entrecolles in his letters of 1712, rate these decorators: “ In Europe they would only pass for apprentices of a few month’s standing….They know nothing of the beautiful
rules of this art; though it must be acknowledged that they paint flowers, animals, and landscapes which are much admired, on porcelain as well as on fans and lanterns of the finest gauze” See; William Burton, Porcelain, It’s Art and Manufacture, B.T. Batsford, London, 1906.
(18) B.T. Batsford, ibid., p.43.
(19) Tang Yings alias Jun Gong, a native from Han Jun Qi was serving as Deputy Officer of the Internal Affairs Office in the Hall of mental Cultivation of the Royal Palace. In the 6th year of Yongzhen reign (1729) he was decreed to supervise the Imperial porcelain production at Jingdezhen. In 1735, he submitted his famous: Twenty Illustrations of Porcelain Manufacturing to the emperor together with detailed description of porcelain production. Although the report is widely reprinted, the most authentic version can be found in the official annals of the province of Jiangxi; Book XCIII, Folio 19-23. Private translation is made by Dr. Tan Pek Hong. Kuala Lumpur, 2006.
(20) Maria Antonia Pinto de Matos, The Portuguese Trade, Oriental Art Magazine, XLV/1 (1999) p. 22.
(21) Maria Antonia Pinto de Matos, ibid., p. 22.
(23) Peter Borschberg, The seizure of the Sta. Catarina revisited: The Portuguese Empire in Asia, VOC politics and the origins of the Dutch-Johor alliance (1602-c.1616). Journal of Southeast Asian Studies; 2/1/2002. p. 5.
(24) T. Volker, Porcelain and the Dutch East India Company. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1954.
(25) Sheaf and Kilburn, op. cit., p. 21.
(26) T. Volker, op. cit., p. 42
(27) T. Volker, op. cit., p. 69.
(28) T. Volker, op. cit., p. 67.
(29) Professor Liu Xinyuan, personal discussions, August 2005.
(30) C. Vialle’, The records of the VOC concerning the trade in Chinese and Japanese porcelain between 1634 and 1661, Aziatische Kunst, XXXll/3, Amsterdam (1992) pp.7-34.
(31) Cao Jianwen, Jingdezhen Ceramic Institute, The Relation between Ceramics Production in Jingdezhen during Late Ming Dynasty Ceramics found on ‘Wanli Shipwreck’ in Nanhai. A report on The Wanli Shipwreck at the ‘Treasures of the Nanhai” Exhibition. Kuala Lumpur Sept. 2005.
(32) Geoff Wade, translator, Southeast Asia in the Ming Shi-lu: an open access resource, Singapore: Asia Research Institute and the Singapore E-Press, National University of Singapore, http://epress.nus.edu.sg/msl/entry/586, accessed October 14, 2005.Geoff Wade, translator, Southeast Asia in the Ming Shi-lu: an open access resource, Singapore: Asia Research Institute and the Singapore E-Press, National University of Singapore, http://epress.nus.edu.sg/msl/entry/586, accessed October 14, 2005.
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