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2021-05-11 11:55:51 Voices

Jingdezhen is a small city by Chinese standards, with a population of under 1.7 million and, as best I can tell, almost no cabs running after 10 p.m. Still, it has a small airport, and it was during my descent into the city that I caught sight of a surprising billboard. Placed prominently by the side of the runway, it proclaimed Jingdezhen the “City of the World.”

It’s not such an unusual claim. Historically, Jingdezhen, located along the northern border of Jiangxi province, over 500 kilometers inland from Shanghai, was a center of Chinese ceramics production. Its goods have been so inextricably linked to China in the international imagination that they share a name in English. Even after the Communist revolution in 1949, the famed “10 Great Ceramics Factories of Jingdezhen” guaranteed the city’s continued relevance.

Visitors curious about this history might pop by the local Chinese Ceramics Museum or visit the ruins of the city’s ancient kilns, but I was interested in getting to know the city on another level, beginning with the contemporary ceramic artists who are carrying on Jingdezhen’s legacy in the modern day.

Every year, Chinese from all over the country arrive in Jingdezhen to study and practice the art of ceramics. Those that stay long term, known colloquially as “Jing drifters,” join local studios and factories or take advantage of the city’s low rent and cheap raw materials to set up their own businesses. One estimate from 2020 put the number of these Jing drifters at more than 30,000.

A view of a ceramics market in Jingdezhen, Jiangxi province, Oct. 21, 2020. Courtesy of Liu Ruoxi

A view of a ceramics market in Jingdezhen, Jiangxi province, Oct. 21, 2020. Courtesy of Liu Ruoxi

Although once the undisputed champion of Chinese ceramics, in the aftermath of the country’s market reforms in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Jingdezhen’s leading factories split into individual studios, and the city’s output fell behind rapidly industrializing manufacturing hubs like Chaozhou, Foshan, and Dehua along the southern coast. This backwardness, combined with the city’s historical and cultural legacies, tends to draw a different kind of migrant to Jingdezhen, one distinct from the assembly line workers who turned South China into a manufacturing powerhouse. The artisans who stay on at the city’s studios pride themselves on their meticulousness, ingenuity, and skill. Rather than maximizing output, they’re willing to devote significant time and energy to making pieces by hand — even if that means having to start over repeatedly due to defects or mistakes in the production process.

Yet, in a market where artisanry is neither particularly recognized nor appreciated, these practices have left contemporary Jing drifters facing a dilemma: Do they stick to the pure, down-to-earth, but not particularly renumerative lifestyle of the artisan; or do they embrace modern business and industrial techniques?

Take the siblings Luo Xiao and Luo Hua, for example. Luo Xiao was a well-known craftsman in Jingdezhen who grew tired of the income fluctuations inherent to artisan life and eventually started a larger factory with his brother. Yet, according to Luo Hua, Luo Xiao remained conflicted about selling out and uncomfortable with his new identity as a businessman, rather than a craftsman, frowning any time someone referred to him as “boss.”

Ceramic products made by young Jingdezhen artists. From the website of Taoxichuan Ceramic Art Avenue

Ceramic products made by young Jingdezhen artists. From the website of Taoxichuan Ceramic Art Avenue

Jingdezhen’s artisans aren’t the only ones struggling with questions of identity. As the city increasingly fell behind coastal manufacturing hubs, municipal officials began to talk of “upgrading” its relatively small and fragmented ceramics industry into something more capable of driving growth in the 21st century. Beginning in the 2010s, the Jingdezhen government worked to promote ceramics not necessarily as an industry, but as a tourism draw. In 2013, the city started construction on the “Taoxichuan Ceramic Art Avenue” project, converting old porcelain factories into museums, ceramic shops, cafés, restaurants, and other recreational facilities.

But some Jing drifters remain unconvinced that these shifts are as game-changing as the city insists. “The government keeps saying, ‘Let Jingdezhen talk to the world,’” He Meng, a coffee shop owner and potter told me in an interview. “But Jingdezhen began talking to the world hundreds of years ago.”

(Jingdezhen) doesn’t promise an escape from work and stress. Rather, it offers an alternative way of thinking about work.

Others worry that developement risks alienating the Jing drifters keeping the local ceramics industry alive — many of whom appreciate the break the city offers from the monotony of southern factory towns. “Though Jingdezhen may not be the most beautiful (place in China), making ceramics here is a good way of life,” said Li Yalou, a Guangdong-based ceramics artist who spends a month or two a year in Jingdezhen. “Doing things in the presence of mountains and rivers is satisfying.”

In its role as a magnet for a different type of artisan, Jingdezhen presents something of a unique case in China. Unlike other destinations popular among young urbanites looking to escape the 9-to-5 grind like the southwestern cities of Dali, Lijiang, or Lhasa, Jingdezhen is a functioning industrial town with a centuriesold tradition of ceramics production. It doesn’t promise an escape from work and stress. Rather, it offers an alternative way of thinking about work: a lifestyle that transcends the work-leisure dichotomy by blending the two together.

To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with pursuing economic development and a better quality of life; but our current approach has a way of forcing everyone, willing or not, to play the same zero-sum game. In the excitement over market reform and mass production, China became too used to seeing everything in terms of output and profit margins, while ignoring the cultural value of processes. Whenever a disconnect between market value and artisanal values crops up, we instinctively look for ways to “reform” the latter, but there is a potential future in which artisans and factories coexist, each adhering to their respective logics and processes.

Japan offers a valuable lesson here. For instance, some Japanese ceramacists have successfully repositioned themselves as creators and artists rather than makers or producers. By emphasizing the artistic value of their works, they can sell to a high-end market at prices that make up for their low output. Of course, this route is fraught with risks and not open to everyone, especially in China, where there is still little in the way of support or developed markets for high-end domestically produced goods.

A view of the entrance to a ceramics factory compound in Jingdezhen, Jiangxi province, Oct. 21, 2020. Courtesy of Liu Ruoxi

A view of the entrance to a ceramics factory compound in Jingdezhen, Jiangxi province, Oct. 21, 2020. Courtesy of Liu Ruoxi

Part of the problem is the lack of stable go-betweens to help artisans market their goods. Currently, artisans rely on sales channels reflective of the traditional mobility and randomness of small-scale self-employment, including street stalls, markets, and the occasional corporate-sponsored bazaars. An artisan may meet the owner of a grocery store there, over time converting them into a steady buyer, but these venues aren’t conducive to helping sellers build a real reputation, especially as artists.

Efforts have been made to address this problem: Beginning in 2019, the state-affiliated Youth Entrepreneur Alliance in Jingdezhen has promoted local ceramics at fairs across China. Tech giants, meanwhile, have floated the idea of using blockchain to protect creators’ intellectual property, another major obstacle to them monetizing their products.

Most of these ideas remain untested. In the meantime, life in Jingdezhen continues much as it always has. Before I left the city, I visited a friend and interviewee of mine, Mai Zibin, a former white-collar worker turned pottery artisan who has so far eschewed expanding his business in favor of focusing on his craft. Chatting about the differences between ceramics and other industries, I mentioned that ceramics seems like slow work.

"Yes,” he replied with a smile. “It really is.”

Translator: Lewis Wright; editors: Cai Yineng and Kilian O’Donnell.

(Header image: An artisan paints pottery in Jingdezhen, Jiangxi province, April 13, 2021. Tong Guoqiang/People Visual)