For centuries, the most coveted china came from the kilns at a remote town in Southern China - Jingdezhen, ‘The Porcelain City’.
Jingdezhen has produced ceramics since the early Chinese dynasties but it was during the Tang dynasty (618 - 907) that word of the town’s art spread. By the 14th Century, it had become the largest centre of production of Chinese porcelain and a new product - porcelain painted with cobalt blue under a transparent glaze - had begun to dominate the Chinese ceramic industry. This development of ‘blue-and-white’ remains one of the most important, influential events in world ceramic history.
Dynasties rose and fell but each new emperor ordered porcelain from Jingdezhen to their courts, with imperial officials posted at the kilns to oversee production and ensure perfection. From the Ming period (1368 - 1644) onwards, official kilns were controlled by the emperor, making imperial porcelain in large quantities for the court and for the emperor to give as gifts.
The kilns also produced pieces for domestic use and for trade (‘Chinese export’). By the 15th Century, Japan, Vietnam, Persia, Turkey and Mexico had begun to produce wares in response to Chinese blue-and-white porcelain, the most desired and technically advanced. By the 17th Century, millions of Chinese and Japanese porcelains were imported into Europe in an exchange of technology, shapes and designs that remains unparalleled in world history. Chinese potters imitated European wood, glass and metal vessels while Chinese shapes (such as the teapot), were introduced to Europe. The relationship between Chinese and Western ceramics expanded again in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when concerns about urbanization, industrialization and the impact of mass production revived interest in early Chinese ceramics.
The fall of the Qing dynasty (1644 - 1912) and war and revolution in the 20th century broke the artisan culture and after the Communists took over in 1949, Jingdezhen became known for the production of propaganda statues. However, there has been a revival in interest in the tradition, in part due to the country’s middle class boom of recent decades leading to a greater demand for porcelain.
Today, certain works from the Jingdezhen imperial kilns are amongst most prized (and forged) in the world. At a 2014 Sotheby’s auction in Hong Kong, a Shanghai businessman offered a record-setting $36.3 million for a delicate Ming dynasty porcelain ‘chicken cup’ fired in Jingdezhen’s imperial kilns. Only 16 known ‘chicken cups’ survive, most in public museums with only 4 remaining in private hands.