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Letter to the Editor:


China's porcelain capital aims to repair it's fractured glory

Chris Bodeen, 2000

JINGDEZHEN, China (AP) A hundred kilns pour smoke across downtown, a gritty sign of recovery for a Chinese city whose fine porcelains crossed oceans centuries before globalization became a buzz word.

On dusty streets, delicately painted wares of every size fill humble stalls and glitzy showrooms, lifting hopes that China's porcelain capital can revive its industry.

A peerless maker of fine china for 400 years, Jingdezhen's world dominance succumbed first to commercial espionage and competition and then to a century of war, chaos and communism. Less than a decade ago, all but two of its 32 state porcelain factories had closed.

Free-market reforms and outside investment are turning things around. But while China has surged as a low-cost global manufacturer, Jingdezhen, which still makes some things the old way, is struggling to reclaim its past glory. The city faces more competitors at home and abroad than at any time in its long past _ evidence that the new global economy spares no one, even those that created the product first.

"They already have what it takes. The only thing left to do is to mix it in the right proportions and let loose their numbingly huge production capacity to once again bring beauty and affordable porcelain to the world," said Jan-Erik Nilsson, a Swedish expert who runs a Web site for collectors.

In Jingdezhen's downtown, amid sidewalk games of billiards and snarls of motorcycle taxis, man-sized vases in wood crates are hauled on handcarts bound for buyers in Japan and Southeast Asia.

The city's 150 or so factories churn out more than a million pieces of porcelain a day, half of it for export. Not all is for eating and drinking. Jingdezhen's kilns also produce bathroom sinks and porcelain ware for industry.

Chinese potters invented porcelain as early as the 7th century, firing a mix of fine white kaolin clay and stone until it turned hard, glossy and nearly transparent. China held a global monopoly on porcelain for at least a thousand years.

Between 1350 and 1750, Jingdezhen (pronounced jing-duh-jen) was the center of world production. The city was close to plentiful sources of kaolin clay and timber to feed the kilns and had access to China's coast - Shanghai is 400 kilometers (250 miles) away. Export-oriented from the start, Jingdezhen made coffee and beer mugs centuries before those brews became popular in China, serving plates with Arab and Persian motifs and custom place settings for European noble families emblazoned with their coats of arms.

Commissions from China's emperors enhanced the city's prestige. European demand was virtually insatiable. Over 3 million pieces of Chinese porcelain reached Europe between 1604 and 1657 alone, according to scholar T. Volker, author of a study on the 17th century porcelain trade.

The common English word for porcelain, "china" comes from the country's name, so synonymous were the two. So much porcelain was made over the centuries that much of modern Jingdezhen rests on a foundation of shards from discarded and rejected pottery, more than 4 meters (12 feet) deep in places.

Porcelain's manufacture was considered a trade secret of the highest order. Jingdezhen was officially off-limits to visitors to safeguard against commercial spies. French Jesuit missionary Pere D'Entrecolles stole into the city in the early 18th century and learned the process but confused the clays. His mistake proved irrelevant. Around the same time, half a world away, two Germans working independently got the formula right, before D'Entrecolles' faulty information reached Europe. Large-scale production soon got under way in the West in 1710.

Then came Chinese civil war and economic collapse. After their victory in 1949, the communists forced the last of Jingdezhen's porcelain makers into collectives. State economic planners, not markets, dictated designs. Official commissions continued though, including massive table settings for Mao Tse-tung. Today, reforms have freed up production and the government is closing money-losing state factories in favor of smaller operations.

Over half the city's urban population of 120,000 works at making, painting or selling porcelain. Porcelain sales reached dlrs 96 million last year and are growing.

Huang Yunpeng, a former ceramics curator who partnered with a Hong Kong businessman to open his own factory, exemplifies the revived spirit of Jingdezhen craftsmen. Marrying high art and canny business practices, Huang and other private operators now account for a third of production.

At Huang's Jingdezhen Jiayang Porcelain Co., production is a mix of modern technology and painstaking traditional handiwork. Mass-produced bottles for storing liquor - newly fired - are stacked and crated downstairs. Above, workers paint birds, animals and flowers on more delicate wares, all exact reproductions of classic works from past dynasties.

"Only the experts can tell the difference," said Huang, fingering a delicate tea cup, a copy of a famous piece made for the emperors of the Qing, China's last dynasty.

Though fine artistry abounds, Jingdezhen's quality still lags - as does its domestic competitors' - compared with manufacturers in Japan, France, Mexico and elsewhere. Shapes are uneven, designs are outdated and the raw input, mixed porcelain clay known as paste, is less pure than that used in the past and currently in the West, said Nilsson, the Swedish expert.

Still, Nilsson said, Jingdezhen has what it takes to make wares highly competitive in style and price. And the city's porcelain studios show it.

Huang's studio is abuzz with activity. Li Yingfeng, once laid off by a state firm, is among the 98 workers painting delicate birds on plates at Huang's studio.

"It's difficult work, but if you're skilled, there's no way you cannot find a job in this industry now," Li said.

On the Net: Antique Chinese porcelain page:

By CHRISTOPHER BODEEN, Associated Press Writer

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Page design copyright © Jan-Erik Nilsson, Göteborg 2000.
Text content © Christopher Bodeen, Associated Press, 2000