Jingdezhen Porcelain and the name China

(Originally published July 1, 2016)

Every child in China learns that the country has been making porcelain ceramics as far back as the Tang Dynasty (AD 618 – 907), and that the small town of Jingdezhen 景德镇 has been the centre of this craft. While Chinese porcelain is also famous worldwide, few outside of China may know the importance of this town or have even heard its name.

Jingdezhen has over 1000 years of porcelain manufacturing history. The abundance of all the required materials for ceramic production may help to explain this long history. The materials (clay and stone), fuel (pinewood) and the wrapping (bamboo) can all be found in Jingdezhen. During the Tang Dynasty, white porcelain from northern China (Xing Kiln) and celadon (a blue-green glazed ceramic) from southern China (Yue Kiln) were very popular. A series of wars towards the end of the dynasty disrupted northern production and led to many white porcelain makers fleeing to the south to avoid the conflict. The town, later named Jingdezhen, welcomed these refugees. Mixing the styles of white porcelain and celadon, Jingdezhen artists created a bluish-white porcelain known as Qingbaici 青白瓷.  During the early Song Dynasty (AD960 – 1279), celadon was a very popular ceramic: clean, simple and elegant, the bluish white porcelain was similar to the Ru Kiln later developed under the Song Dynasty.

Bluish White Porcelain青白瓷(Qingbaici)

Bluish White Porcelain青白瓷(Qingbaici)

So, why is porcelain called China anyway?

Prior to AD 1004, Jingdezhen was known as Changnan town 昌南镇, the name meaning “south of Chang river.” The word “China” may actually come from the pronunciation of Jingdezhen’s old name “Changnan.” During that year, the Emperor signed an agreement with a northern neighbouring country called Liao, and agreed to pay them with money and/or goods each year to maintain peace between the two countries. Celadon was very popular in Liao, so the demand for this kind of green ceramics increased rapidly. The Emperor started to pay more attention to this little town, and encouraged it to develop its porcelain and ceramics manufacturing industry, at the same time renaming it Jingde 景德, after the name of the year of the Emperor’s reign.

Jingdezhen and the Porcelain Road

One cannot discuss the history of Jingdezhen without mentioning Kaolin. After the rapid increase of production under the Song Dynasty (AD960 – 1279), china clay was greatly depleted around the Jingdezhen area, leading to a search for new material. During early Mongol rule over China, known as the Yuan Dynasty (AD1271 – 1368), a new kind of clay was found in Jingdezhen – Kaolin clay. Kaolin has a high density and is also thermostable, allowing the temperature to be raised to 1300℃ during firing without destroying the porcelain. This material is also high in alumina, so the whiteness in white porcelain is much purer than previous china clay. With the invention of kaolin porcelain the world had passed from the era of soft porcelain to hard porcelain.

This period also saw a boom in cross border trade through the silk road. It was around this time that Arab merchants brought a blue pigment that contained cobalt (cobalt blue) to Jingdezhen, requesting the potters to manufacture porcelain for them decorated with this blue pigment. This is where China’s most famous ceramic export originates from, the famous Blue-and-White qinghua 青花 porcelain that later attracted so much European interest. Cobalt blue and white were popular colors used in patterns in the Arab world, and once produced for export, this new blue and white porcelain was a huge success in the Muslim World. Of the 100 surviving Yuan Dynasty pieces of Blue-and White porcelain, there are 60 pieces in Turkey.

During the Song and Yuan Dynasties, painting over the surface of porcelain was considered tacky and fell out of favour. As the street culture evolved in late Yuan Dynasty and early Ming Dynasty (mid 12th century), painting on porcelain began to reappear and it gained popularity.

Handmade Porcelain Cup with Qinghua (blue) painted motif.

Handmade Porcelain Cup with Qinghua (blue) painted motif.


Blue and White China

Cobalt blue pigment is used to paint the pattern on the kaolin base clay body, and then a layer of transparent glaze is put over the porcelain, and then the piece is fired once in the kiln. Once applied, the blue pigment will never fade, and because kaolin is such a strong and forgiving material to work with, there is a very low scrap rate during firing. The result is the perfect candidate for early mass-production and exporting.

This Blue-and-White porcelain quickly became very popular in Asia and Europe during the 16th century, as there was no ceramic like it outside of China. During the Ming Dynasty, Zheng He, the famous Chinese mariner and explorer, sailed to southeast Asia and Africa (AD1405 – 1433). While travelling, he carried a large amount of blue and white porcelain to give as gifts to the kingdoms he encountered. From then on, Jingdezhen Blue-and-White porcelain came to symbolize China for the rest of the world. It was also at that time that the sea wave pattern in cobalt blue became popular.

Sea Waves Pattern Cup by QingKexuan 清可轩 studio

Sea Waves Pattern Cup by QingKexuan 清可轩 studio


During the Ming Dynasty (AD1368 – 1644), the multi-colored(五彩 wucai) style of porcelain was perfected and popularized.

During the Qing Dynasty (AD1616 – 1912), enamel was brought into China and popularized by the Qing Emperor Kangxi 康熙. However, this kind of porcelain never gained the popularity of previous forms as it had been kept within the Imperial court as a special interest of the Emperor. It wasn’t until much later, only the last few decades in fact, that a few Jingdezhen artists have revived this technique.

Qing Enamel Porcelain 珐琅瓷

Qing Enamel Porcelain 珐琅瓷

The five famous kilns producing porcelain during the Song Dynasty were: Ru kiln, Ge kiln, Jun kiln, Ding kiln and Guan kiln. The techniques once lost during the late Song Dynasty due to war, were brought back by Jingdezhen artists during the Ming Dynasty and have been subsequently passed down to later generations of Jingdezhen artists.


The secret of 1000 years.

The ceramic industry has lasted for over 1000 years in one town, and it has given the country an international historical influence. What’s the secret?
1) Local availability and abundance of building materials and fuel.
2) Support from the Emperor: Since the Yuan Dynasty, Jingdezhen has gained Imperial support, including contracts, finance and protection. During the Ming Dynasty, official kilns were also built in Jingdezhen. Official Kilns only produced porcelain and ceramics for the exclusive use of the royal family, and even the manufacturing process was under the supervision of an official sent by the Emperor. It ran under strict guidelines and all of the paintings on the porcelain were created by artists from the court. Only 4 pieces of porcelain were chosen out of 100 pieces to be sent to the royal family, the rest of the porcelain had to be smashed to pieces and buried. This production was not be shared outside of the royal family.
3) Division of Labor: By the Ming Dynasty, the division of labor in the porcelain industry had been well developed in Jingdezhen. To make a cup required 72 separate steps and required several dozen workers. This division reduced the training and learning time of new workers by simplifying the work of each craftsman, and therefore encouraged more people to join the industry.
4) Demand: From the story of the Blue and White porcelain road, we can see that Jingdezhen craftsmen have a history of being sensitive to the demands of the market, and using creativity and innovative materials to produce truly unique art that is popular worldwide.

​The artists from our partnering studios in Jingdezhen, hold the highest respect for this history and consciously follow the techniques that have been developed over the centuries. Every time we pick up one of their teapots or cups we can feel the history and respect for the craft and artistry of Jingdezhen porcelain. The product is a message from the maker developed through each step in the production process. The first time I bought a piece of Jingdezhen porcelain – a cup – I told the seller that I was going to place it on the shelf, because it was so beautiful and not as cheap as the factory-made cups from the supermarket. He waved his hand, “Don’t. It’s a cup, use it how it was meant to be used. Through use it will develop character and soul.” He was right, we should use the porcelain the way it was meant to be used. This is the tie that binds the artist, the porcelain, and the user.

Chinese Dynasties and dates mentioned in this article:

Tang Dynasty (AD618 – 907)
Song Dynasty (AD960 – 1279)
*Yuan Dynasty (AD1271 – 1368)
Ming Dynasty (AD1368 – 1644)
Qing Dynasty (AD1616 – 1912)

*Yuan Dynasty is the Chinese name given to the Mongol Empire’s rule over China.