The past two weeks in Jingdezhen have been busy with Chinese ceramic art history classes each morning presented by Shoji Satake. Afternoons were dedicated to workshops with local masters demonstrating carving, mold making, overglaze decoration, and Qinghua (qīng-huā – cobalt ‘blue flowers’) underglaze techniques. Visits to local craftsperson’s studios and demonstrations in the Pottery Workshopprovided an introduction to tools and techniques used on porcelain wares.
Everyone in Jingdezhen specializes in a particular aspect of porcelain production. It is taking some time for me to adjust because I am accustomed to preparing my own materials and doing all of my own fabrication. Although it would be possible for one person to do everything here, it is impractical.
Hundreds of small shops specialize in clay preparation, jigger-jolly production, glazing, brush-making, slip casting, overglaze decorating, decals, and the list goes on. Entire streets are dedicated to one aspect of the process, decal street, glaze street, and so forth.
Similarly, one can find concentrations of hardware stores, scooter sales, metal and welding shops, and every imaginable combination of these, one after the other along the streets. Shop owners weld, repair scooters, and make furniture in cramped spaces with their work extending out onto the sidewalks. Entrepreneurship appears everywhere – it is more reminiscent of Mexico than the United States. Prices are almost always negotiable.
I visited the ancient kiln museum in Jingdezhen with the West Virginia University group. The museum has an original Qing Dynasty(1644-1912) kiln and several examples of kilns from other regions of China. The museum also has a Buddhist temple for kiln gods, a workshop with potters demonstrating forming and decorating techniques, and a showroom of historic and contemporary porcelains.
A 15 hour train ride from Shanghai arrived in Jingdezhen at 4 am on Sept 15. We had a sleeper car which provided the eleven travelers in our group a chance to rest along the way. The train trip offered an opportunity to visit, play cards, and for some the sampling of a traditional grain alcohol called Báijiǔ. The aroma alone was enough to satiate my curiosity. I picked up the beginnings of a cold in Shanghai and fought it for several days in Jingdezhen. Thankfully, I am on the rebound and feeling better.
Jingdezhen (JDZ) is a city of 1.6 million people, 400,000 are involved in some aspect of the ceramic industry. Since the Song Dynasty960-1279, Jingdezhen ceramic production has been accomplished by the coordinated efforts of specialists in the skills of forming, trimming, decorating, and firing. Even today, individual craftspeople rely on the efforts of their neighbors to provide help during the production process. Typically, a craftsperson trains in a specific skill that becomes their specialty – decorating in blue and white for instance. In the few days since arriving in Jingdezhen, I have been introduced to kiln firers, a tile maker, underglaze decorator, relief carver, clay preparer, and jigger-jolly operator. The locals are curious about us Western visitors and have been extremely gracious in allowing me to take photographs. They often express thanks for my interest and I typically show them the picture from the back of the camera.
I went with the West Virginia University (WVU) group to visit the Qinghualinglong manufacturing facility where porcelain wares decorated with cobalt decals and a distinctive rice-grain translucent pattern are made. It is the only workshop in JDZ currently making the rice-grain wares. Thousands of simple bowl and plates filled the workspace as craftspeople formed, decorated, and glazed the work with great skill and efficiency. I was surprised by the amount of handwork needed to make the pots. The workers graciously allowed us to gather around their stations to take photographs during the visit. I think they enjoyed having visitors in the workshop.
Our group eats two meals a day at a local restaurant. The food has been exceptional and the ‘family’ style dining offers time to share our experiences from the day. Delicious food of great variety is also available from street vendors. Despite my wife, LeeAnn’s, concerns about patronizing street vendors, it is common practice among locals, ex-pats, and our group. Commonsense and a little luck seems to be the recipe for good eating so far. One of the unusual foods with an endless variety of preparation is the lotus root. Fresh fruit is also abundant from mobile wagons and countless small shops. Oranges are in season and sweet potatoes are expected soon.
My journey began before the first light of day at 4:30 am, September 10. I thanked LeeAnn for her support with a hug and a kiss, said goodbye to the dogs (who surely were expecting an early breakfast), and hitched a ride with Erica Cordero to the El Paso airport. My flight aboard a Boeing 787 wide-body jet took me north from Dallas, TX across the Western States, into Canada, and over Juneau, Alaska. The pilot said the plane was new, and by all accounts it was in pristine condition. A light load of passengers in the coach section allowed for plenty of room to stretch out across three seats. Lunch was served with the typical complement of wrapped-plastic utensils – and a pair of chopsticks – which served my needs fine and hinted that I was in for some changes ahead.
I am excited for the experiences that lay before me and a bit anxious about the new social and cultural surroundings in China. I took comfort in knowing there will be plenty of support from the group I am traveling with and from our hosts at the Pottery Workshop in Jingdezhen.
I have been in Shanghai for a couple days, walking the streets, riding the subway, exploring the mazes of shops and eateries, and negotiating a sea of humanity – 20 million strong. I am impressed by the civility of the people who go about their daily business in an orderly and respectful manner. I expect the glitziness of Shanghai’s downtown tarnishes as the city sprawls to its neighborhoods.
More to follow as I sort through hundreds of photographs to help illustrate the experience one of the most dynamic and vibrant cities in the world.
I am taking sabbatical from teaching at Dona Ana Community College in the coming year to study porcelain production in Jingdezhen, China. I will be traveling and studying with a small group of students and ceramics professor Shoji Satake from West Virginia University from September 10-December 14, 2015. WVU coordinates a Ceramics in Chinastudy abroad program in partnership with the Pottery Workshopin Jingdezhen. Upon my return to New Mexico in late December, 2015 I will turn my attention to creative work in the studio inspired by the experience of living and working in China.
The last couple weeks have been busy with the myriad of preparations, from medical records, travel paperwork, internet VPN access, and new electronic gadgets to become familiar with. My wife, Lee Ann’s help has been indispensable in organizing all of the resources that I need for travel. We have observed that it is not such a simple task to ‘go to China’.
Today, I am already feeling a little homesick for the familiar environment of Las Cruces, New Mexico. A couple photographs are included in this post to help remind me of the landscape and motor court apartments that have represented a sense of ‘home’ for the past twenty-plus years.