Weekender guide to Jingdezhen

The ancient capital of porcelain remains an artistic retreat

For around 2,000 years Jingdezhen has reigned as the pottery capital of China. Since the time of the Song Dynasty (960‑1279), exquisite porcelain wares were fired in the town’s kilns for the Middle Kingdom’s emperors. By the Renaissance, goods crafted by Jingdezhen’s artisans were even reaching Europe. In fact Jingdezhen is so important to this country’s cultural history that, one theory goes, the city helped give China its European name. Most Europeans first encountered the Middle Kingdom through the ceramics it exported; Jingdezhen’s ancient name – Changnan – became synonymous with this pottery and somewhere in the mists of time ‘Changnan’ was transformed by Western tongues into ‘China’.

Whatever the truth of its past, today Jingdezhen continues to play a key role in China’s porcelain industry. This is where Beijing’s Spin Ceramics shop produces its wares, and where Ai Weiwei employed 1,600 people for five years to make his 100 million sunflower seeds. And, in case you had any doubts that you’d come to the right place, the city planners have even decorated the lampposts and traffic lights with porcelain. This Jiangxi city of 1.5 million people is a uniquely Chinese travel destination, and March is the perfect time to visit. Spring brings average daily temperatures back up above 10°C and production – which relies on the drying power of the sun – continues apace before the early summer’s heavy rains kick in.

In the east of Jingdezhen, two dead chimneys, rendered obsolete when production shifted from coal‑to gas‑powered kilns around 1990, tower over The Sculpture Factory. Here, you’ll find the studios of artists and designers who work with craftsmen skilled in techniques including making moulds, producing greenware (unfired clay), and adding glazes and decals, the pottery equivalent of iron‑on transfers.

When we visit, a worker named Chen Jimin tells us he has been commissioned to make 500 ceramic snakes. He makes about 30 per day, completing the whole process from raw clay to painted piece by himself. Chen’s snakes are made in moulds, but Agnes Fries, a Swedish artist who visits Jingdezhen annually, says the city’s real stars are the throwers, people who ‘pull’ bowls, vases, cups and so on using pottery wheels. ‘If you’re a thrower, you’re a hotshot and probably a little bit of a diva,’ she says.

One of the things artists like Fries enjoy about The Sculpture Factory is the opportunity to rent just a little space in a large public kiln, which fires overnight. This allows those who use it to experiment with and modify their designs as they produce them, instead of having to wait until they’ve produced enough work to fill an entire kiln themselves. The public kiln in The Sculpture Factory is known as ‘the cow kiln’ because every day for the past few years pale green cows, which are used as baijiu bottles, have been fired inside.

Within The Sculpture Factory you’ll also find The Pottery Workshop, with its own small gallery and café – the best place to pick up a map of the city and tips for how to get to the Big Pot and Big Tile Factories – as well as a well‑attended Saturday market, with around 60 individual stalls run by enterprising young potters. At the market you can buy mugs from 30RMB, ceramic hip‑flasks with corks for 100RMB, small bowls from 30RMB and modern, beautifully painted vases for around 650RMB. Established in Jingdezhen since 2005, The Pottery Workshop offers group tours and classes, plus professional artists’ residencies for 2,600RMB a week, including a bedroom and studio space. It also has kilns for hire – electric, gas, soda glaze, and a wood kiln built by Japanese ceramics star Masakazu Kusakabe.

Easily the most picturesque place in Jingdezhen is Sanbao, a collection of traditional buildings bought from four families and converted into an international ceramics institute on the southern edge of the city. Jackson Li, a Jingdezhen native who shows work in Shanghai at Two Cities Gallery, created Sanbao as his own private studio in 1995. The ceramics institute, which welcomes artists in residence, was inaugurated in 2000, and now Sanbao has a bar, the best restaurant in town, and a museum that, during our visit, was showing works by artists based in Delft – the city in Holland where European ceramics arrived from China, thanks to the Dutch East India Company.

Li’s grand aim is to create contemporary ceramic pieces while preserving some of Jingdezhen’s traditional methods and culture. ‘Creating Sanbao was a dream, a romantic idea, but artists who think like that always struggle. For 15 years I didn’t get paid,’ he says. Today, his fortunes have changed; he is currently working on 10,000 unique bottles for baijiu brand Moutai and plans to make his own art installation of 10,000 bowls, representing different stages of ceramic development.

‘Some people look down on you for making your own work,’ he says. ‘But if you like cooking, do you hire someone to cook in your kitchen? Do you pay someone to f**k for you?’ For Li, the act of crafting porcelain is a work of art in itself. For the traveller, a trip to Jingdezhen is both a museum and gallery visit in one.

Essential info

Where to stay Comfortable and perfectly situated in The Sculpture Factory, though a little run‑down, the Jingdezhen Youth Hostel offers private rooms from 108RMB.
How to get there Air China flies daily from Beijing to Jingdezhen with return flights from 2,750RMB (includes taxes and surcharges).