by Ali Evans on October 4th, 2016
We are delighted this week to welcome friend of Canton and CHAYOU tea house founder, James Thirlwall, as guest blogger.
Here he shares his experience from a recent trip to Jingdezen, the “Porcelain Capital” of China
Jingdezhen – in northeast Jiangxi, is a mecca for all lovers of tea and its most delicate and beautiful vessel – porcelain.
Lying on the southern banks of the Chang river, this ancient town formerly known as Changnan saw production of early ceramics begin in the Han Dynasty (206BC – 220 AD) continuing all the way up to the present day as it remains a centre for the finest porcelain in the world.
I travelled to Jingdezhen earlier this year with tea expert and translator Lijing Zhu of Yi Shu Tea to meet up with Turui Ming – a ceramicist whose studio sits on the banks of the Chang river. Turui is living the artists dream – having left his life as a civil servant to pursue his passion for traditional ceramics. His studio houses an exhibition space, workshops, offices and lodgings – from which he is pioneering a renaissance in Jingdezhen porcelain.
Before a delicious lunch of local organic produce including pickled duck eggs Turui showed me around his exhibition space. One vast wall contains a transcription – made entirely of porcelain tiles – of a meeting held between local ceramicists and business leaders to discuss the future of Jingdezhen ceramics. My eye was drawn to the only English tile – ‘007’. “Is that what I think it is?” I asked. “Yes” he laughs “One of the ceramicists said that we will make Jingdezhen porcelain as famous as James Bond!”
Arriving into downtown Jingdezhen the first thing I was struck by were the rows of lamp posts made from blue and white porcelain. They line the streets for miles like a honour guard of ancient Ming vases.
Our first stop was to visit an ancient dragon kiln dating from the early part of the Qing dynasty (1644-1912). Dragon kilns were designed with multiple chambers which climb uphill towards a flue or chimney. The kiln would be loaded with the pots, then sealed. The pine wood fire would be lit through a hole in the entrance, then tended and stoked through this and other small holes (known as dragon eyes) in the sides of the kiln.
Maintaining the correct temperature of the kiln was crucial to a successful firing, so this job was given only to the most experienced man at the kiln – the modern day COO. You can still see the hole on top of the kiln through which the temperature was tested by pulling up ‘test pieces’ with a metal rod to check on progress, or simply spitting down onto the pots below to see how fast the moisture evaporated.
Next stop was a meeting Jiang Bo – a breezily cool patron of the arts at Zhenrutang. This picturesque ancient village was moved piece by piece from another part of China and reconstructed in a valley just outside Jingdezhen’s San Bao area.
Today it serves as a heritage centre and a modern hub for Chinese and international artists to learn the skills needed to produce traditional Chinese ceramics for modern tastes. The main exhibition space houses beautiful teaware, censers and statues that are selected to adorn tea houses across China.
We then returned to Turui’s studio for tea (of course) and a tour of his workshop. Making the delicate egg shell thin tea cups beloved of Chinese tea drinkers requires extreme skill and craftsmanship. Each cup will be cast in a mould to create the basic shape. Then it is placed on a wheel and the process of gradually taking down the thickness of the walls of each vessel begins. This refining takes around 10-12 minutes to complete by hand and Turui’s craftsmen are only paid for the cups that pass muster. Any defects are rejected so their focus and skill are honed to perfection.
Turui’s renaissance is well underway. With a growing Chinese middle class there has been a re-emergence of interest in traditional Chinese arts such as the tea ceremony. Students of ‘chadao’ are signing in their thousands to study the art of tea. A trend that Jingdezhen is taking full advantage of. Nowhere can this be seen better than at the night market where you will find an entire shopping street with over 50 independent tea shops selling high quality teaware to tea tourists, wholesalers and online customers all over China and beyond. If you haven´t found what you´re looking for at their sites, then check out This great website to find what you´re looking for, you can even find native musical instruments.
Our final stop of the evening was to visit an old industrial kiln complex. Until the early 2000’s this monster of a kiln was churning out the kind of low grade, mass produced table ware that could be found all over the world with ’Made in China’ stamped on the bottom. Faltering exports and a saturated domestic market meant that Beijing central government came in and literally pulled the plug overnight. Lights out.
Now, the whole complex has been given a makeover with digital design agencies, marketing companies and you guessed it – tea companies – moving back in to promote and sell the very thing that has given life to Jingdezhen for over 2000 years. I can’t see it taking another 2,000 years for Turui’s vision to become a reality.
References & links:
If you are keen to see a Dragon kiln in action in the UK. A replica has been built by Oxford University and you can come along and get involved in loading and firing the kiln. Visit Oxford Anagrama Project.
About James Thirlwall
James is the founder of CHAYOU Tea House, and runs modern tea events, steeped in tradition. They specialise in intimate tea tasting events that delight the senses and soothe the soul. Their events include fun tea tastings, timeless tea ceremonies and inspiring tea workshops for private and corporate groups.