There’s a lot more to China besides the glossy shopping malls of Shanghai and the power corridors of Beijing. The true essence is often experienced in its rural outposts, villages and tier III and IV cities located west of their more developed eastern cousins.
Little ‘Rain’ is six years old and lives with her parents and younger sister ‘April’ in Shenzhen, China’s bustling technology hub located on its southern fringes. Her father, Wan Hong, works with one of China’s leading networking equipment and mobile phone manufacturers. Every year, during the Chinese New Year (or Spring Festival, as it’s widely known in China), Rain travels with her family from Shenzhen to Jingdezhen in Jiangxi province further north. It’s a time to get together with her grandparents and celebrate the festival at her ancestral home in the vibrant ancient town. Jingdezhen, often termed the ‘Porcelain capital of China’, has over 2,000 years of well-documented history of producing world-class porcelain, a ceramic material. In fact, the connection between China and porcelain is quintessentially deep at multiple levels—for example, the probable answer to a very basic question: why is China called ‘China’? Back in the 10th century, in the days of the Silk Route, Chinese porcelain was a major export to the West, mainly the Arab countries and Europe. As per a 16th-century adage, Persians used to refer to Chinese porcelain as ‘chini’, which, in turn, is said to have been derived from the Sanskrit word for ‘qin’ to identify the Qin Dynasty, the first dynasty of Imperial China (200 BC). It’s no wonder then that most international airports in China are flooded with porcelain artefacts and souvenirs. In a way, they are synonymous with China.The efforts to preserve the art form (like many others across the world) have had their fair share of ups and downs, often impacted by political ideologies and regime changes. The Cultural Revolution in China during the Sixties and Seventies saw a large part of the cultural heritage and legacy being wiped out. But Jingdezhen and its tradition of producing world-class porcelain survived and, till today, there are thousands of families in the city that do their bit to preserve and promote the art form. Rain’s family is one such.
Wan Chansheng, her grandfather, is an engineer-turned-porcelain-artist, who spends a majority of his time painting porcelain vases. “Painting porcelain-ware requires years of practise and hard work. Amateur artists like me tend to develop individual areas of specialisation. I specialise in painting monkeys and squirrels,” says 59-year-old Chansheng, who has a separate room in his house full of vases with paintings of monkeys and squirrels on them. The Chinese, in general, are famous for their use of symbolism in their art forms and expressions, and nowhere is this trait as pronounced as it’s in their ceramics.Looking at Chansheng’s artwork, it seems as if he has been painting porcelain-ware for a long time now, but the truth is that he only started it closer to his retirement when he was 50 years old. And within nine years, Chansheng’s passionate pursuit of his hobby has led to offers from traders who want to purchase his work and use it commercially. No wonder then that porcelain is almost a way of life in Jingdezhen, even for those whose lives don’t directly depend on it. So what led to porcelain being so indigenous to Jingdezhen? The answer lies in its soil: the white clayey soil of Jiangxi province in south-eastern China, where the city is located, contains two essential components that are required to make porcelain: kaolinite, a clay mineral, and petunse, the basic rock that is an important raw material.
Jingdezhen has also produced internationally-renowned ceramicists many of whom have graduated from the famous Jingdezhen Ceramic Institute (JCI), the only university in Asia dedicated entirely to ceramics. It offers a wide spectrum of undergraduate, masters, as well as doctoral programmes in ceramics-related fields such as materials science, engineering, design and art. As far as the different forms of the art are concerned, the most commonly visible and available form of porcelain-ware is trademark blue in colour. More colourful pieces are available as well, but they are often more expensive. Typically, the more colourful and intricate the work, the costlier the piece gets. To explore the many kinds of porcelain art produced in Jingdezhen, it’s worth visiting the Jingdezhen Ceramics Museum, which not only documents the history of the evolution of the process of porcelain production, but also has a vibrant store with works from leading artists in the region.
There are multiple full-fledged porcelain industries in Jingdezhen, which focus on the different stages, or processes (from sourcing the clay/mud to sales, distribution and export of the pieces), that go into bringing out the final product. The most skillful, however, are the porcelain artists, who actually handpaint the pieces. And this begs the question: how does the art get passed down from one generation to another? By encouraging the younger generation to actively learn the art form. But there are challenges here as well. The two main ones are urbanisation and evolving business models, which make it much more financially lucrative for younger Chinese men and women to either move to booming cities to work or contribute to the growing ecosystem of tech-enabled and e-commerce-based businesses.
Yet die-hard evangelists like Changsheng are striving hard to preserve the art form. Every year, he spends time with Rain and April, teaching them how to hold the brushes, and makes them practise simple techniques. The training aside, getting together with the whole family on the Chinese New Year is an annual ritual they all wait for. Much like Diwali in India, the Chinese New Year is a time when everyone comes together and drinks Hongjiu (Chinese red wine) led by the men of the family, with the most elderly seated at the centre of the table. What’s most interesting is the community-based eating style that is characteristic of Chinese family eating in general—the entire family sits around a circular table, with a central rotating glass top on which dishes are placed.
In Rain’s case, the patriarchal head of the family is her great-grandfather Wan Fuzong. Almost 90 years old, fit as a fiddle and an ardent tai chi practitioner, he sits at the head of the table. His teachings and principles have been passed down through generations—much like in the Indian joint family system. If one were, in fact, to draw parallels, one would see many similarities, as well as a few interesting contrasts between the two cultures. A visit to an ancient town like Jingdezhen and living with the locals helps one explore the many dimensions.They say ‘true India’ is seen in its thousands of villages and towns. Likewise, there’s a lot more to China besides the glossy shopping malls of Shanghai and the power corridors of Beijing. The true essence is often experienced in its rural outposts, villages and tier III and IV cities located west of their more developed eastern cousins. All you need is an open mind and a desire to step out.
Amit Haralalka lives in Shanghai, is a published author and a self-confessed sinophile.