Review by William R. Sargent
The Traditional Crafts of Porcelain Making in Jingdezhen / Jingdezhen chuantong zhi ci gongyi

Bai Ming. The Traditional Crafts of Porcelain Making in Jingdezhen / Jingdezhen chuantong zhi ci gongyi. Translated by Mao Zengyin. Jingdezhen: Jiangxi Fine Arts Publishing House, 2002. 275 pp.; bilingual (Chinese and English), 600 color photographs, 16 line drawings; bibliography. $47 (clothbound).

The 600 photographs reproduced in this book document the stages of ceramic production in the “porcelain capital of the world,” Jingdezhen, in Jiangxi Province, China. The images were culled from more than 2,000 slides taken over the course of seven years by the author, a well-known ceramic artist and painter in China, as well as a lecturer at the art college of Tsinghua University. While he is most likely not familiar to Western potters, he has been making porcelain in Jingdezhen for eleven years, and his list of accomplishments and memberships is impressive.

The front flyleaf states that Bai Ming has “not only documented the details of the magic skills of porcelain in the ancient town with a history over one thousand years for a vivid presentation to the world, but also given them a historic and documentary meaning as significance as the field survey.” Two issues immediately become evident: the difficult and admirable but often quaintly awkward translation by Mao Zengyin, and the nearly impossible task of summarizing in one book the more than one thousand years of history and technology of porcelain production in Jingdezhen.

I was fortunate to attend the China Ceramic Cultural Exchange program in Jingdezhen in 2000, managed by Li Jiangsheng, the international program director. We visited the San Bao pottery, both the reconstructed Ancient Kiln and the new study center, which are featured prominently in the book. I spent time wandering the back alleys of the potters’ district, where I nodded, smiled, and photographed the always generous and friendly potters and decorators, although I would not go so far as to say that I could “wholeheartedly listen to the merry songs arising from the hearts of honest potters” (p. 9).

Along with master potters from around the globe, I tried my hand at throwing, tooling, decorating, glazing, and firing. Any potter or ceramic historian who has visited the potteries in China, or has tried his or her hand at mastering Chinese methods of porcelain making, will appreciate this book. Jingdezhen is rightly considered the holy land for ceramic artists around the world, and “the delicacy of her products is [indeed] lost in wonder” (p. 34) to many of us.

This is not a technical volume, but rather a photo essay of the “magic skills” of the potter. A novice potter will not find much that thoroughly instructs, as there are no details of clay or glaze composition, or of kiln construction and firing. Unfortunately, as I discovered from my own slides taken there, still photographs, no matter how many you have or how well taken they may be, cannot fully capture the awesome technical ability of these potters and decorators. In this sense, then, the author’s goal to provide Chinese and foreign ceramic artists with “a full knowledge of the skills and techniques of porcelain in Jingdezhen” (p. 6) is perhaps not realized.

The book discusses quarrying, processing, workshop structure, shaping, joint forming, trimming, glazing, decorating, firing, and rice-straw packing. Although it is stated that the photos are more convincing than pages of written materials, only the skilled potter will fully comprehend what is going on, and there are a few photographs that leave even the initiated a bit confused, despite the brief descriptions.

Nevertheless, the skill of the potters is evident in these photographs. Although most of the Western potters on my tour failed miserably to create wares using the same methods as the Chinese potters, it was evident that the Chinese potters themselves believe, as the author says, that “nothing can never be done” (p. 74). The author also states, “The skills look quite easy, but it is very difficult to master it” (p. 80). Too true. The Chinese ceramic artists are fearless, and the millennia-old knowledge runs directly through their bodies to their fingertips, as they throw bowl after bowl after bowl with speed, accuracy, and great panache.

Decorating gets short attention here. A photo of a “long biscuit board” of greenware bowls decorated in underglaze blue with the “rice-straw motif” (p. 87) does not begin to hint at the speed and grace of the decorators. The results are a somewhat standardized, age-old calligraphic design in upper and lower registers that takes seconds for the decorators to apply. (This is one aspect of the artistry that is lost when a single photograph is used as an illustration.) Also, there is quite an industry of reproducing designs and forms from the last five hundred years going on in the city, but it is not discussed. The decorations illustrated are, for the most part, “modern”—in a handsome but slightly dated way. The one technique that is truly modern, called “overglaze new colors” (p. 234), is a technique that uses camphor oil or kerosene in its production. Again, however, there is probably not enough technical information for most potters to be able to imitate this method.

As a ceramic historian I was a bit disappointed by the superficial nod to the historic record. Only one illustration from Tang Ying’s eighteenth-century book and four small details from a book of the Ming dynasty are utilized to cover the story of ceramic production prior to 2002. The bibliography contains Chinese-language references only and so does not list such historic references as Walter A. Staehelin’s The Book of Porcelain,[1] which reproduces an eighteenth-century set of gouache paintings of ceramic production, or the letters of Père d’Entrecolles,[2] written in 1712 and 1722, which detail the technical aspects of ceramic manufacturing in the early eighteenth century, nor does it reference a 1920 National Geographic Magazine article on the town of Jingdezhen[3] that illustrates ancient forms still 

Technically, I found the illustrations of throwing the most engaging. These are of small pieces and—the most amazing—a large bowl, plate, and vase. By “large” he means, for example, approximately 42 inches for the plate (p. 106). I watched as two potters threw a plate larger than that, one working from the inside, one from the outside. It took 500 pounds of clay and five men to lift it off the wheel when it was completed. Although all the Chinese potters I observed created their wares with what seemed to us the utmost ease—even the large dish—I agree with the author that, “It is really no easy work” (p. 165, referring to glazing).

The section on the kiln is perhaps the most disappointing. The photographs are of the quite beautiful Ancient Kiln, outside Jingdezhen, which was reconstructed as a tourist site but is now idle. The group I traveled with visited several active kilns and we had the opportunity to participate in the firing of the Ancient Nanfeng Kiln in Foshan. It would have been nice if pictures of a kiln being loaded, fired, and unloaded had been included, especially since the author photographed over a seven-year period. While the old kilns are fascinating, most potters today fire in gas or electric kilns, and sometimes in coal-fired kilns, a fact that is not discussed; not to mention this is slightly misleading.

The text is minimal, so reading this small volume does not take much time. The reader is unfortunately left to decipher too much from the fine photography. The author says, “We have only one aspiration: We hope that all the readers would treasure the book” (p. 8). For those who have been there, the book is a treasured reminder of the ease and beauty of the work of the potters, even though it does not share much new information. For those who have not been there, perhaps this will inspire you to go. Meanwhile we await a film of the same subject, which may be the only way to fully capture the “magic skills” of the potters of Jingdezhen.

William R. Sargent
Peabody Essex Museum

Ceramics in America 2004

  • [1]

    Walter A. Staehelin, The Book of Porcelain: The Manufacture, Transport, and Sale of Export Porcelain in China during the Eighteenth Century, trans. from the German by Michael Bullock (London: Lund Humphries, 1966).

  • [2]

    Published in English in 1725, in Jean-Baptiste Du Halde’s General History of China, according to Ann Finer and George Savage, eds., The Selected Letters of Josiah Wedgwood (London: Cory, Adams and McKay, 1965), p. 162.

  • [3]

    Frank B. Lenz, “The World’s Ancient Porcelain Center,” National Geographic Magazine 38 (November 1920): 391–406.