The fifth greatest Chinese invention

From time-to-time I have stayed in Jingdezhen to administer the spiritual necessities of my converts, and so have interested myself in the manufacture of this beautiful porcelain, which is so highly prized, and is sent to all parts of the world. Nothing but my curiosity could have ever prompted me to such researches, but it appears that a minute description of all that concerns this kind of work might, somehow, be useful in Europe.
— Père d’Entrecolles, Jesuit priest, from his letter of 1 September 1712, to Père Orry, procurer of the Chinese and Indian missions

 A Yuan Dynasty ‘Cizhou’ Sgraffito Meiping Vase, c.1279–1368 A.D., 36cm Est AUD2,000–4,000

Chinese porcelain, highly prized across Europe and the Islamic world, was one of the country’s major exports and the city of Jingdezhen (Ching-te-chen), in Jiangxi Province, has been the epicentre of porcelain producing for more than 1700 years.

There are a number natural factors that can be attributed to the rise of Jingdezhen porcelain.

The first factor is the region's geology. Mount Gaoling, to the northeast of the city is essentially a clay mountain. Derived from the name of the mountain, the pure white clay is called kaolin, or ‘China clay’ in Europe.

The raw material from Gaoling is white powdery clay usually found mixed with other granular minerals. The purity of the clay is quite variable; in the best places, pure white clay was found, in other areas raw material from the ground was mined, crushed and rinsed to separate the prized white powdery clay from the surrounding material.

The second factor was that the town is located on the Yangtze River. This natural transport route provided an easy way to deliver the materials required for porcelain production. Clay could be brought down the smaller Donghe River to the city from Mount Gaoling, and pine logs delivered to supply the kilns. The finished porcelain products would be shipped down the Yangtze River to other parts of China, to Shanghai, and to the world.

Finally, it was the beauty and workmanship of the Jingdezhen white pottery that brought fame to the town. The porcelain products were noticed by the imperial court and desire for these beautiful works of art cemented the town’s future. More kilns were built to supply demand and then at the beginning of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), the Imperial Porcelain Factory was established there.

Porcelain was exported around the world on an unprecedented scale with the opening of the Imperial Porcelain Factory but it was during the rule of the Wanli Emperor (1573-1620) that the kilns became the main production centre for large-scale porcelain exports to Europe.

At this time, on the other side of the world the Dutch East India Company had established strong trade links with China and in the early 1600s imported millions of pieces of porcelain. The workmanship and attention to detail of the exotic Chinese porcelain impressed the Europeans and demand quickly grew.

Following the death of the Wanli Emperor in 1620, the supply of porcelain to Europe was interrupted and local Dutch potters around the town of Delft took it upon themselves to imitate the Chinese porcelain style and designs to cater for the still strong local demand. Delft designs inspired by the Chinese originals were produced widely from approximately 1630 to the mid-1700s alongside their original European patterns of similar style.

This combination of demand and trade between Europe and the East initiated a curious circle where Delftware was not only exported around Europe but also to China and Japan. Chinese and Japanese potters, seeing the designs from Europe, then made porcelain versions of Delftware for export to Europe.

The pottery tradition is still alive in Jingdezhen, where today the town still hosts pottery markets such as the Pottery Workshop.


A brief timeline of the period

Five dynasties (907-960)
Song: Northern Song (Bei Song) 960-1126; Southern Song (Nan Song) 1127-1279
Jin (1115-1234)
Yuan (1279-1368)
Ming (1368-1644)
Hongwu (1368-98)
Jianwen (1399-1402)
Yongle (1403-25)
Xuande (1426-35)

Interregnum: Ming Mid-15th Century: Zhengtong (1436-49); Jingtai (1450-57); Tianshun (1457-64)

Chenghua (1465-87)
Hongzhi (1488-1505)
Zhengde (1506-21)
JiaJing (1522-66)
Longqing (1567-72)
Wanli (1573-1620)
Tianqi (1621-27)
Chongzhen (1628-44)

Further reading

A guide to Chinese porcelain marks 

The New Yorker: The European Obsession with Porcelain