Kilns using wood as fuel have become increasingly scarce in modern China. With the adoption of easier to use and less-costly electric kilns, very little teaware is still fired in traditional wood fuel kilns. While Yixing Teapots fired in electric kilns are beautiful, there is something special about wood-fired teaware, especially wood-fired teaware that is fully exposed to the fire and ash during the process.
A Combination of Traditional and Modern Methods
Prior to the adoption of electric kilns, Yixing Teapots fired in wood kilns were often put into boxes to prevent the interaction of ash with the clay during firing. This was done to preserve the uniform color and appearance of the surface of the clay.
Our wood fired teapots are placed directly into the kiln without any covering to allow the interaction of wood fire and ash on the surface of the clay, giving each piece a unique pattern, color, and texture.
The Pine wood used as fuel turns to ash and falls onto the surface of the teapots during firing, melting and
forming a wood-fired glaze over parts of the surface. This is called “naturally occurring ash glaze.” The process results in different color patterns and a striking shine unlike that found on teapots fired in electric kilns.
Yixing Wood Kiln Firing Process
Unlike Yixing Teapots fired in electric kilns, which are typically fired for one day, our wood kiln teapots are fired in a lengthy process spanning almost a week:
1 day of firing in electric kiln
After the Yixing Teapots are shaped by the artist, they are placed in a modern electric kiln for the first phase of firing. This phase dries out the clay, removing all moisture. This initial phase requires precise conditions and temperatures to prevent any damage, cracking or structural weaknesses. Electric kilns provide more precise controls and are therefore used for the initial phase.
3 days and 4 nights firing in wood kiln
The teapots are removed from the electric kiln and then placed in a wood burning kiln. The kiln uses local pine trees for fuel. The kiln is fed pine tree logs, slowly bringing the temperature inside the kiln to 1200 degrees Celsius. The teapots are then fired for 84 hours (or 3 days and 4 nights) at this temperature. This process changes the composition and appearance of the teapots. Firing at this high temperature for this length of time removes organic compounds and other unwanted elements and produces a stronger surface. The interaction of the ash which falls on the teapots during firing produces beautiful patterns called “ash glaze”. When the teapots are removed from the kiln their patterns and colors are set, but they have a rough appearance on the surface.
1 more day of firing in electric kiln
Firing in an electric kiln for one additional day removes the roughness from the surface of the teapot, giving it a more finished appearance. The teapots are now finished and are ready to be used.
Using your Wood Kiln Yixing Teapot
All Yixing Teapots need to be prepared properly before use to remove unwanted dust acquired during firing. This is true of wood kiln Yixing Teapots as well as those fired in electric kilns. Teapots should be rinsed thoroughly in warm water and then submerged in a pot with warm water that is slowly heated to a boil. As soon as the water begins to bubble, but before the teapot begins to shake, the heat should be removed. We do not recommend boiling your pot as agitation will likely result in cracking and chipping! Once the water cools, remove the teapot, add tea and enjoy.
(This is Part 2 of our interview with Mr. Lee Shanming and the tour of his Ruyao Ceramics Studio on Jingdezhen, China. The first part can be read here.)
After finishing our interview, Mr. Lee offered to give me a tour of his studio, offering a glimpse into the production process. Here are some photos of his studio:
Because of the enormous amount of air pollution from coal and wood kilns in Jingdezhen, a law was passed prohibiting the use of kilns to electric ones. Aside from this change, much of the work in these small studios follows traditional processes.
This is what the inside of the kiln looks like. As you can see, ceramic cups are on the top and sides of the shelves. These are called the “guards”. These guards are placed here to block the fire from coming into direct contact with the ruyao. This leaves only shelves 2 to 5 which can hold ruyao for firing.
The largest of Mr. Lee’s kilns can only hold 30 cups at most. Many other studios use larger kilns to increase productivity (not to mention the huge industrial kilns used in porcelain factories). Mr. Lee explained to me that because of the delicate nature of ruyao, the temperature must be strictly controlled, and the larger the kiln, the less control there is over the temperature. Using a smaller kiln means a smaller batch per firing, but it also means a lower scrap rate of ruyao destroyed during firing.
To better control the conditions when firing the red ruyao, Mr.Lee uses an even smaller kiln (2/3 of the one we see in the picture). Due to the difficulty of firing red ruyao only around 25% of the pieces survive the kiln and are able to make it to the end of the process and onto a shelf. Ruyao has a high scrap rate in general for ceramics and red ruyao has the highest scrap rate of any of the ruyao produced in the studio. The reason for this is the added difficulty of working with the iron oxide glaze. Ruyao is already very sensitive to temperature during firing, iron oxide is another material that is extremely sensitive to temperature and firing conditions. Because of the extremely sensitive nature of the iron oxide, each batch of red ruyao that survives the kiln will vary in intensity and quality of color. Because of this, we personally inspect each piece of the surviving 25%, choosing the best of the batches for the quality of the red glaze.
Products are air drying after wheeling and before being polished and covered with the glaze for firing again. This photo gives an idea of the size of Mr. Lee’s Studio. Since all the products are handmade and are under strict quality control by Mr.Lee himself, the amount and production rate are limited.
After spraying on the glaze there may be some overspray outside of the desired area. Each pot must be inspected and cleaned carefully by hand.
Mr. Lee in the process of forming one of his pieces.
Spraying the glaze on each piece.
Each piece has to be sanded after shaping.
Each piece is inspected and polished after firing.
I was lucky to be at the studio for the “birthday” of a new piece, a new model of ruyao teapot by Mr. Lee.
This April, while the people around us were busy with the spring tea harvest, we made a visit to Mr. Lee Shanming’s (李善明) studio in Jingdezhen to see his new spring products, and to take some photos back with us for our blog. Lee Shanming is our featured Ruyao artist. All of the Ruyao Teaware in our shop is handcrafted in his studio in Jingdezhen.
Ruyao 汝窑 (also known as Ru Yao or Ru Kiln), as we mentioned in our previous post, is an art form with deep roots in China that was on the verge of being lost forever before it was revived by a number of Jingdezhen artists. Ruyao is the ultimate representation of the Song Dynasty's Aesthetic and Philosophy: Simple, reserved and pure.
After patiently studying historical artifacts, and with the help of modern technology to decipher the recipe of minerals used to create Song dynasty ruyao, these artists have been able to revive the art, patiently revising their ruyao recipes through trial and error to get the desired color, texture, thickness and inner quality of the material. There are many modern imitations that try to mimic the appearance of true ruyao, but the delicate and difficult nature of devising the recipe and firing correctly has meant that the supply of high quality ruyao remains limited to only a few studios directed by Ruyao Masters such as Lee Shanming. High quality ruyao is often sold exclusively to Chinese collectors or at auction houses. Rather than go on, we thought we thought we’d let the artist himself describe his work.
Interview with Master Lee Shanming
When I stepped into Mr. Lee’s studio (善窑）, the first thing I noticed was a calligraphy scroll with “Shan善” on it，meaning “kindness,” the fundamental spirit of Mr. Lee’s philosophy as well as his name. After visiting his showroom and before touring his workshop, we sat in his tea room for a short interview.
Me: Hello Mr.Lee, While everyone loves patterns on white porcelain (Blue-and-White, color glaze and paintings on white porcelain…), what made you decide to work in Ruyao, one of the less well-known and most difficult schools of Chinese pottery to study?
Mr. Lee: I was a sculpture artist that came from a poor village, around 16 years ago, I opened a small OEM factory in Jingdezhen to make white porcelain for some other companies. Meanwhile, a friend of mine introduced Ruyao to me. I was fascinated by the porcelain, decided to build an extra room next to my house as my own workshop and bought some simple equipment. That was over 10 years ago, it’s literally for personal interest, because everybody in the market was interested in blue and white porcelain. So, during the day, I ran the factory, at night, I played around with the formula and techniques to try to fire my own Ruyao porcelain in my little workshop. That was my interest.
I am like most people who spend money on a passion. I learned the rough proportion of each of the elements of the glaze and body, then I started to experiment with it to get the right proportion. I tried so many kinds of elements from different origins to try to improve the result. Even now, the silicon dioxide I use in the glazes are all imported from Australia, because it has shown to be the best silicon for my formula.
Me: Experiment? So you mixed different elements and fire it and compare each formula?
Mr. Lee: Yes, that’s basically it.
Me: So how many formulas you have tried?
Mr. Lee: (Smiles) Countless. Not only the formula, sometimes the weather, even the direction of the wind can lead to different results for the glaze. All of those elements must be taken into consideration. That was my biggest obsession. After a few years, I was able to work out a few very good recipes for the glaze and body, I started to sell them. It was like most of the small studios now, making only a few a month, selling it to whichever friends were interested. One day, with my mind set on running a studio, I realized, instead of running an art-less OEM factory, why not start my own brand? So I sold all my shares in the OEM porcelain factory to my brother, I knew the factory was profitable, so I didn’t need to worry about the life of my family. That factory is still running well now (Smiles). Yup, so I left everything behind, with the money I sold my share, I built a small studio right next to the little workshop I mentioned. Hired a few skilled workers in the porcelain-field, started to produce more products and set up my own brand.
Me: So aside from Ruyao, are there any other obsessions in porcelain making?
Mr. Lee: Red. Red glaze is the hardest to fire, I recently spent so much time firing the red, trying to stabilize the color in each batch.
Me: My personal tea cup is a red Ruyao cup from you!
Me: What is archaize porcelain? In Jingdezhen, it’s very common to hear about archaize porcelain. A lot of people confuse it with fake porcelain, can you tell us something about archaize porcelain? Why is it popular?
Mr. Lee: The story can be traced back to the 1950s. Premier Zhou Enlai announced the ancouragement to revive ancient porcelain, by setting up a new government department to study each kind of porcelain, and to try to simulate the formula and techniques to continue the production of ancient porcelain. Ruyao was one of the hardest ones to revive, because there are so few surviving examples left, and back then they added agate to the glaze. If we were still to add agate it would be tremendously expensive and not possible to produce in a large enough amount. So the artists needed to analyze the formula, to work out how to make the ruyao glaze without using agate. But for personal interest, I have made a few batches using agate as limited editions, I can show you in a bit. (Sorry guys, I forgot to take pictures..)
So using the most traditional technique and traditional formula and using the traditional raw materials, following the traditional style to produce the products, that is what is meant by archaize.
Me: Why set up a personal brand? We all know that it’s not easy to establish a brand. There are so many small studios in Jingdezhen, they produce small amounts, and sell it without setting up a brand, they also craft good products. Why you have to put so much effort on branding?
Mr. Lee: As you see, not that many people have successfully revived Ruyao, I feel like I have the responsibility to enlarge the vitality of this craft. Ruyao is a kind of culture. Rather than selling products, I am also passing down a legacy from our ancestors. Building a brand is necessary, it will allow everybody who’s interested in Ruyao or who appreciates this culture to know more about it, to use it, to bond with it.
Me: Hmmm, you mentioned Legacy. Are you planning to teach your kids and let them take over your legacy when they grow up?
Mr. Lee: I doubt if they know what their father’s doing (smiles). Like most fathers, I just want them to be happy and do whatever they are interested in in their life. As long as there are more people who enjoy Ruyao and appreciate it, that’s enough for me.
Me: All your products are fully handmade. How are you able to make a large quantity of fully handmade products?
Mr. Lee: To be honest with you, that’s the problem I am facing right now. I want everybody to be able to afford my products, and meanwhile I am very persistent on keeping them all handmade and setting a very high standard on quality. The market is growing so fast, and I am facing the problem of raising the production rate.
Me: Do you have an idea for a solution?
Mr. Lee: Sometimes I need to take a step back. What’s the reason for making them? It is passing on the Ruyao culture. This studio may not bring a huge fortune, but I am content in my life, my family is being well taken care of. If I cannot produce more, then I cannot. All I need to make sure is, that every product that is going out from my studio, is not bringing shame to my studio, is made with heart, that’s enough.
So, are you interested in taking a look at my studio area?
Me: I would love to!
Coming Soon: Part 2
We first tried Tibetan Yak Butter Tea while traveling to the town of Zhongdian 中甸, in Yunnan Province 云南, China. We immediately fell in love with both the tea and the town. At over 3000 meters above sea level, Zhongdian, known as Gyalthang or Gyaitang རྒྱལ་ཐང in Tibetan is a small traditional Tibetan town with homes made of wood, and where the random yak may wander down the cobble-stone streets that lead out to magnificent mountain vistas. No wonder the town was renamed Shangri-La 香格里拉 སེམས་ཀྱི་ཉི་ཟླ་གྲོང་ཁྱེར།. With its clean dry air, bright blue skies, soft green meadows and snow-capped mountains, it certainly seemed like paradise to us.
On the border with Tibet, Zhongdian and the surrounding area of Yunnan are Tibetan in culture as much as they are in environment. Locals are more likely to drink yak butter tea than the more popular green and oolong teas found in the rest of southern China. Unlike other tea found in China, which is often taken without adding any other ingredients,Tibetan Yak butter tea is made by adding yak butter, milk and salt to the tea (detailed instructions for making yak butter tea are at the end of the article).
Tibetans have a saying: Tea is blood, Tea is meat,Tea is life. Tea has been the main drink for Tibetans for over 1300 years. Traditionally, Tibetan tea is compressed into tea bricks and wrapped with leather or bamboo.
Tibetan tea is known as dark tea or heicha黑茶 (black tea) in Chinese, which is different from what English-speakers know as Black tea, but which Chinese call red tea or hongcha 红茶. Tibetan tea is a dark tea, but unlike Indian black tea or Lapsang Souchong (varieties of hongcha), it is not just oxidized, it is also fermented (like Pu’er tea, another kind of heicha), which means that micro-organisms ferment the tea, improving the flavor over time. This means that Tibetan tea can be stored a long time without expiring, as long as it is kept in a clean and dry place, and that it will in fact improve with age, just like a nice bottle of red wine.
Although consumed throughout the Himalayas and in every Tibetan community, the tea is in fact grown outside of Tibet, in a Tibetan region of the neighboring province of Sichuan, around the town Ya’an. The area has the perfect conditions, including high altitude at 1500 meters above sea level, where tea trees can produce the most flavorful leaves. The process of making the tea includes 32 steps, and takes 6 months to complete.
A Brief History of Tibetan Tea
Tibetan tea has a history of over 1300 years. It began during the Tang Dynasty (AD 618 – 907), when the Wencheng princess was married to the King of Tibet to cement the friendship between the Tang Dynasty of China and the Kingdom of Tibet. She brought the Tibetan people three treasures of the Tang Empire: silk, pen and ink, and tea. This marriage represented not only a marriage between kingdoms but also between cultures. During the Tang and Song Dynasties, tea was traded to Tibetans for horses. Ya’an, located beside Tibet and which had a thriving tea industry, became a major trade hub beginning from that period. According to historical documents, at the time, 20kg of tea could be traded for the best class horse; 15kg of tea for a medium class horse and 10kg of tea for a low class horse. Tibetan tea was the bridge connecting these two cultures and also acted as the currency of choice.
Tibetan Tea Quality
1) Red, rich, aged, and mellow, these 4 words are most often used to describe Tibetan tea. Red: the color of the tea is deep red, like a ruby. Rich: 700 distinct aromas have been discovered so far, in Tibetan tea, and the mouth feel is plentiful and smooth. Aged: Like most kinds of heicha, aging gives it an earthy and full bodied flavor, the longer it’s aged, the better, and the higher value the tea. Mellow: There is no sourness, bitterness or astringency to the tea, even after being cooked for a long time, and it has a slightly sweet aftertaste.
2) It’s healthy.
– Low in caffeine: The less processed the tea is, the higher the level of caffeine. Tibetan tea is a dark tea. It is fully fermented and goes through 32 steps, which leaves the tea with a lower caffeine level compared to other teas, but which preserves other beneficial elements, such as L-theanine. L-theanine is known to relax nervousness and to improve the quality of sleep.
– Tibetan tea is also high in tea polyphenols and theophylline, which are known to prevent cancer, lower blood pressure, and encourage weight loss.
How to Drink Tibetan Tea
1) Kung Fu Tea Style
Put 3-5g of tea in the pot (strongly recommend using an Yixing Zisha teapot), and fill the pot with boiling hot water and then pour out after a few seconds. Pour out the first steep, then steep tea with boiling hot water again for 30 seconds and enjoy the tea from the second steep.
Generally, the tea can be steeped for over 7 or 8 times before losing its flavor.
2) Cooking the Tea
This is the most common way of drinking Tibetan tea and is the traditional method for preparation. Add 10g of tea per 800ml of water in a pot or kettle and bring the water with tea in it to a low boil for 1-2 minutes. Once it comes to a boil, simmer it for another 15-20 minutes. The steeped tea should be good for 24 hours.
3) Tibetan Butter Tea:
I love it, it’s especially suitable for a winter evening in front of a fireplace surrounded by family and friends, enjoying a great drink and conversation. This is definitely a comfort drink.
– 5g of Tibetan tea, 400ml of water
– 2 tbs of salt (Himalayan salt if possible)
– 2/3 cup of light cream
– 2 tbs Yak butter if possible, or common butter
1) Bring the tea to a low boil in a kettle or a pot for 1-2 minutes and then simmer it for 15-20 minutes.
2) Add the salt and the cream to the tea and stir it while continuing to simmer it.
3 Add 2 tbs of butter to a French press (coffee press), add the tea on top and then press the plunger of the press down. Pour the butter tea into mugs
4) Enjoy your Yak Butter Tea!
To many tea and traditional pottery lovers, Ru Kiln or Ru Yao 汝窑 is a term that conjures images of a rich, jade like texture, pure and deep hues, and a smooth yet subtly cracked surface. Here is a simple introduction to one of China’s most celebrated ceramic arts, Ru Kiln Pottery.
Ru kiln, originates in the late Song dynasty (around 700 years ago), the location of the kiln was in Ru zhou 汝州, hense the style became known as “Ru Kiln.” There were 5 famous kilns in the Song Dynasty: Ru kiln, Guan Kiln, Ge kiln, Jun Kiln and Ding Kiln. Ru kiln was labeled, “top of the 5 kilns,” and was the official royal kiln, producing products only used by the Emperor and his family. What makes Ru kiln antiques especially valuable was the short period that the kiln operated during the Song Dynasty, only around 20 years. Today only a total of 67 pieces from that period have survived. Reflecting it’s imperial origins, Modern Ru Kiln represents a form of sophisticated luxury in the tea world.
Today, Jingdezhen Masters working with traditional recipes and methods have revived the art form. Since the technique is evolving, the modern Ru kiln pieces can be made in a way that closely mirrors the techniques of the Ru kiln from the Song Dynasty. According to archaeological discoveries, the Ru kiln of the Song Dynasty was located in a village called Qing Liang temple( 清凉寺). It was in this little temple, that the craftsmen created the magical recipe for this amazing pottery- Ru Kiln.
During the Song Dynasty, there was a saying, “One would rather have one piece of Ru kiln pottery than to have a fortune”, it shows how valuable Ru kiln was. Here are the 4 specialties of Ru Kiln pottery:
1) Opening crack ( 开片 kaipian): This means the opening cracks on the glaze. When firing the pottery, and as the body expands, cracks appear on the surface of the glaze.
2) The azure glaze: There is a line from a poem that describes this specific color-“The azure in the sky after the rain”. I think this is the perfect way to describe it, by giving a great picture: It’s refreshing, pure, rich, just like Jade.
3) Grey pottery body: We can see this in some broken pieces of Ru kiln pottery in museums, the body is thin and grey color, like the color of ashes. Generally, the side walls of Ru kiln pottery are thinner than the bottom.
4, Plain: Generally, Ru kiln pottery is plain, without any painting or decoration. However, some modern artists paint some blue-and-white designs to give the pottery a bit of personality.
Nowadays, we can easily find Ru kiln pottery on the market. As we have said, there are only 67 original Song Dynasty Ru Kiln pottery in the world, so all the pottery you can find in the market is the result of either artists or factories attempting to recreate this ancient style. It is not easy to follow the traditional recipe to successfully create a high quality Ru Kiln piece. It requires ancient knowledge, professional skills and years of experience. Our Ru kiln Master 李善明（Lee Shanming) is one of the most famous and accomplished Ru kiln artists in China. His work, featured in our Shop, is among the best examples of modern Ru Kiln on the market today.
This is definitely my favorite pieces by Master Lee. The color is Shiny red (霁红汝窑). In order to add the red to the glaze, the artist needs to add iron to it, and fire it. If the temperature is too high, the iron would turn into some black metal spots, and if the temperature is not high enough, the red is dull and rusty-colored. Because of the difficulty in properly firing red Ru Kiln, it has the highest scrap rate of any color and requires a great deal more time and error to produce a piece. To me, it’s really my luck to find this perfect piece, every batch is a little different, the color in your heart, you can either find it or you can’t
Here are some tips when caring for your Ru Kiln piece:
1 Warm your Ru kiln ware a bit before pouring hot tea or water into it, and avoid sudden and extreme changes in temperature as it will cause the surface to crack further.
2, After using Ru Kiln teaware for a while, the cracks will begin to pick up the color of the tea, this is called the opening cracks effect, it’s the specialty of all the cracked porcelain. Some people like it a lot and want to see it sooner, this can be accomplished by soaking the piece in tea.
Jingdezhen Porcelain and the name China
Every Chinese child learns that the country has been making porcelain ceramics as far back as the Tang Dynasty (AD 618 – 907), and that the small town of Jingdezhen ( 景德镇Jingde town) has been the center of this craft. While Chinese porcelain is also famous worldwide, few outside of China may know the importance of this town or have even heard its name.
Jingdezhen has over 1000 years of porcelain manufacturing history. The abundance of all the required materials for ceramic production may help to explain this long history. The materials (clay and stone), fuel (pinewood) and the wrapping (bamboo) can all be found in Jingdezhen. During the Tang Dynasty, white porcelain from northern China (Xing kiln) and celadon (a blue-green glazed ceramic) from southern China (Yue Kiln) were very popular. A series of wars towards the end of the dynasty disrupted northern production and led to many white porcelain makers fleeing to the south to avoid the conflict. The town, later named Jingdezhen, welcomed these refugees. Mixing the styles of white porcelain and celadon, Jingdezhen artists created a bluish-white porcelain. During the early Song Dynasty (AD960 – 1279), celadon was a very popular ceramic: clean, simple and elegant, the bluish white porcelain was similar to the Ru Kilnlater developed under the Song Dynasty.
So, why is porcelain called China anyway?
Prior to AD 1004, Jingdezhen was known as Changnan town(昌南镇), the name meaning “south of Chang river.” The word “China” actually came from the pronunciation of Jingdezhen’s old name “Changnan.” During that year, the Emperor signed an agreement with a northern neighboring country called Liao, and agreed to pay them with money and/or goods each year to maintain peace between the two countries. Celadon was very popular in Liao, so the demand for this kind of green ceramics increased rapidly. The Emperor started to pay more attention to this little town, and encouraged it to develop its porcelain and ceramics manufacturing industry, at the same time renaming it Jingde 景德, after the name of the year of the Emperor’s reign.
Jingdezhen and the Porcelain Road
One cannot discuss the history of Jingdezhen without mentioning Kaolin. After the rapid increase of production under the Song Dynasty (AD960 – 1279), the china clay was greatly depleted around the Jingdezhen area, leading to a search for new material. During early Mongol rule over China, known as the Yuan Dynasty (AD1271 – 1368), a new kind of clay was found in Jingdezhen – Kaolin clay. Kaolin has a high density and is also thermostable, allowing the temperature to be raised to 1300℃ during firing without destroying the porcelain. This material is also high in alumina, so the whiteness in white porcelain is much purer than previous China clay. With the invention of kaolin ceramics the world had passed from the era of soft porcelain to hard porcelain.
This period also saw a boom in cross border trade through the silk road. It was around this time that Arab merchants brought a blue pigment that contained cobalt (cobalt blue) to Jingdezhen, requesting the potters to manufacture porcelain for them decorated with this blue pigment. This is where China’s most famous ceramic export originates from, the famous Blue-and-White porcelain that later attracted so much European interest. Cobalt blue and white were popular colors used in patterns in the Arab world, and once produced for export, this new blue and white porcelain was a huge success in the Muslim World. That’s why, of the 100 Yuan Dynasty pieces of Blue-and White porcelain, there are 60 pieces in Turkey.
During the Song and Yuan Dynasty, painting over the surface of porcelain was considered tacky and fell out of favor. As the street culture appeared in late Yuan Dynasty and early Ming Dynasty (mid 12th century), painting on porcelain began to reappear and gained in popularity.
Blue and White China
Cobalt blue pigment is used to paint the pattern on the kaolin base clay body, and then a layer of transparent glaze is put over the porcelain, and then the piece is fired once in the kiln. Once applied, the blue pigment will never fade, and because kaolin is such a strong and forgiving material to work with, there is a very low scrap rate during firing. The result is the perfect candidate for early mass-production and exporting.
This Blue-and-White porcelain quickly became very popular in Asia and Europe during the 16th century, as there was no ceramic like it outside of China. During the Ming Dynasty, a Muslim Chinese sailor working for the Emperor, named Zhenghe, sailed to southeast Asia and Africa (AD1405 – 1433). While travelling, he carried a large amount of blue and white porcelain to give as gifts to the kingdoms he encountered. From then on, Jingdezhen Blue-and-White porcelain came to symbolize China for the rest of the world. It was also at that time that the sea wave pattern in cobalt blue became popular.
During the Ming Dynasty (AD1368 – 1644), the multi-colored(五彩 wucai) style of porcelain was perfected and popularized.
During the Qing Dynasty (AD1616 – 1912), enamel was brought into China and popularized by the Qing emperor – Kangxi(康熙). However, this kind of porcelain never gained the popularity of previous forms as it had been kept within the Imperial court as the Emperor’s personal hobby. It wasn’t until much later, only the last few decades in fact, that a few Jingdezhen artists have revived this technique.
The five famous kilns producing porcelain during the Song Dynasty were: Ru kiln, Ge kiln, Jun kiln, Ding kiln and Guan kiln. The techniques once lost during the late Song Dynasty due to war, were brought back by Jingdezhen artists during the Ming Dynasty and have been subsequently passed down to later generations of Jingdezhen artists.
The secret of 1000 years.
The ceramic industry has lasted for over 1000 years in one small town, and it has given the country an international historical influence. What’s the secret?
1) Local availability and abundance of building materials and fuel.
2) Support from the Emperor: Since the Yuan Dynasty, Jingdezhen has gained Imperial support, including contracts, finance and protection. During the Ming Dynasty, official kilns were also built in Jingdezhen. Official Kilns only produced porcelain and ceramics for the exclusive use of the royal family, and even the manufacturing process was under the supervision of an official sent by the Emperor. It ran under strict guidelines and all of the paintings on the porcelain were created by artists from the court. Only 4 pieces of porcelain were chosen out of 100 pieces to be sent to the royal family, the rest of the porcelain had to be smashed to pieces and buried. This production was not be shared outside of the royal family.
3) Division of Labor: By the Ming Dynasty, the division of labor in the porcelain industry had been well developed in Jingdezhen. To make a cup required 72 separate steps and required several dozen workers. This division reduced the training and learning time of new workers by simplifying the work of each craftsman, and therefore encouraged more people to join the industry.
4) Demand: From the story of the Blue and White porcelain road, we can see that Jingdezhen craftsmen have a history of being sensitive to the demands of the market, and using creativity and innovative materials to produce truly unique art that is popular worldwide.
The artists from our studio QingKexuan清可轩, hold the highest respect for this history and consciously follow the techniques that have been developed over the centuries. Every time I pick up one of their teapots or cups I can feel the precipitation of history and respect for the craft and artistry of Jingdezhen porcelain. The product is a message from the maker developed through each step in the production process. The first time I bought a piece of Jingdezhen porcelain – a cup – I told the seller that I was going to place it on the shelf, because it was so beautiful and not as cheap as the factory-made cups from the supermarket. He waved his hand, “Don’t. It’s a cup, use it how it was meant to be used. Through use it will develop character and soul.” He was right, we should use the porcelain the way it was meant to be used. This is the tie that binds the artist, the porcelain, and the user.
Chinese Dynasties and dates mentioned in this article:
Tang Dynasty (AD618 – 907)
Song Dynasty (AD960 – 1279)
*Yuan Dynasty (AD1271 – 1368)
Ming Dynasty (AD1368 – 1644)
Qing Dynasty (AD1616 – 1912)
*Yuan Dynasty is the Chinese name given to the Mongol Empire’s rule over China.