My history of china

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By Hans Börjeson
The year is 2004 and the Chinese have decided to celebrate the millennium of the ‘invention’ of porcelain in the porcelain city of Jingdezhen. I ended up at the centre of events in this very year. That’s just the way things went – accidentally or as the result of a long string of events in my life as a potter.

Jingdezhen, in northeastern Jiangxi Province, is a modern, pulsating city in explosive development, where I was on a study trip with Birgitte and a party of international ceramists. We were received very festively with a circus, dance, acrobatics and Peking Opera – matchlessly skilled and disciplined.
A thousand years have passed since the time when the emperors of the Sung Dynasty reigned. One of these mighty lords who felt the beauty of the white porcelain, or chai, as it was called in the eleventh century, is supposed to have said it had to be like a blue-green sky, as clear as a mirrors, as thin as paper and have a sound like jade rock. Marco Polo too gave an account of the material when he passed through Jingdezhen in the thirteenth century. He compared it to a particularly fine, thin cowrie shell that is shaped like a small pig – in Italian a porcellino. So it became porcellana.

Today Jingdezhen is growing, bulldozers are clearing new roads, houses are being built, the old things are disappearing. What lies hidden under the caterpillar tracks? Potsherds in inconceivable quantities, in some places to a depth of 18 metres; remains of fine porcelain bowls, decorated with sensitive brushstrokes; symbols, signatures, perhaps the name of an emperor.
The imagination can easily paint a picture of rows of kilns up the mountain slopes – dragon kilns, as they are called; crowds of people and workshops up and down the river, where the junks transported raw materials and the finished products.

But in fact porcelain wasn’t just ‘invented’ like that. It is likely, though, that it was in Jingdezhen that the story began. There was wood, water and a workforce, and a mountain in the area that was full of large quantities of ‘white gold’, a malleable, white-firing clay. The mountain is called Gaoling – in the old western spelling Kaolin. Another mountain in the endless landscape of forest-clad mountains and valleys consisted of a greenish rock, a kind of feldspar.

It was crushed by water-driven hammer mills, washed out and formed into blocks in brick size, which were called baiduntze or petuntze. These blocks were easy to transport down the river to the workshops, where they were mixed with the kaolin into a porcelain paste which on firing to 1300o becomes white and translucent – the end product of generations of innovative development.

But there can be no doubt that Jingdezhen is the porcelain city. This was where all the Imperial porcelain was made in the Yüan, Ming and Qing dynasties. Today it is said that a million pieces of porcelain are made every day. And a big new ceramics museum and a sculpture park are being built. The mayor of the city, perhaps a descendant of an emperor, decreed that the city lamp-posts were to be made of porcelain, in honour of the first pioneers. No sooner said than done. Huge lumps of porcelain clay were thrown by four hands in an even rhythm into large cylinders – and then, after firing, were built up to a height of 3-4 metres. Boulevards and streets now have their lamp-posts, meticulously decorated in blue with dragons and chrysanthemums. Chinese chutzpah!

But my ‘journey’ to China really began at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London one day in the mid-fifties. I was on my way down to Cornwall to Harry and May Davis of Crowan Pottery, to work.
Amidst the museum’s impressive collection of human artefacts from near and far, I came to a halt at some bowls from Sung Dynasty China, of the finest white porcelain. Ever since then, it has been one of my ambitions to know the history of these bowls. For someone young and inexperienced in ceramics, working with Harry Davis was a great challenge, and I probably told myself this would take time – learning the world’s oldest craft. Perhaps I started at Crowan at a very fortunate time. Harry had long had plans to explore Cornwall’s geological riches. The research began with evening lectures at the Cornwall University of Mines – rather a tall order for me, but gradually the elementary geological concepts began to seep down through my own mental strata. And of course it was very good to hear explanations of the processes involved in the creation of kaolin and the famous English ball clays. The knowledge I gained took me out on longer and longer expeditions, either alone on my bike or with Harry in his old Bedford.

Abandoned, overgrown quarries appeared everywhere along the small roads. We collected specimens from all the different quarries for later glazing experiments. It was incredibly exciting. Each rock took its name from the nearest village or hilltop, which also later became the name of the special glaze, for example ‘Carnmenellis’ or ‘Tregonning Hill’. An abandoned stone crusher was found, and ballmills were thrown at the workshop. The research project began. Harry’s big ceramics encyclopaedia, which was kept in the kitchen, was
busily consulted. I read about the history of porcelain, and suddenly there I was in China, a thousand years ago – a Great Leap Back in time. Somewhere in Jiangxi Province in the time of the Five Dynasties, in the years 907-960, a porcelain white as seashell was made. Later, in the year 1004, the Sung Emperor Jing-De noticed the fine white bowls and the place was named Jingdezhen after him. In the thirteenth century substantial exports of porcelain
from there began. Centuries must have passed before this ‘china’ reached the harbours of Europe.

The alchemist Böttger was held captive by Augustus, Elector of Saxony, to solve the riddle of making porcelain. He succeeded in 1708, and in 1710 Augustus founded the first European porcelain factory in Meissen. The French Jesuit Père Francois Xavier d’Entrecolles was sent out as a missionary to Jingdezhen in 1712. He had a good knowledge of the Chinese language and culture and must have known how important information about porcelain would be in France, so his letters home to Paris include very precise descriptions of the raw materials petuntze and kaolin. He also describes the technical processes, the kilns and the division of labour in what was by that time a flourishing industry.

The French historian Du Halde’s History of China from the beginning of 1700 includes d’Entrecolles’ letters, which were translated into English in 1738, so the English could at last join in. The English chemist William Cookworthy, who lived in Plymouth, was probably well aware of Cornwall’s huge wealth of kaolin, clay and minerals. He writes in his diary about how, during one of his rides, at a place called Tregonning Hill, after reading d’Entrecolles’ letters, he found his petuntze and his kaolin, from which he made the first English porcelain in 1750. My heart leapt when I saw the name Tregonning Hill while reading his diary, for that was exactly where I had found the old quarry, hidden away under bushes and ferns. When I told Harry about the place, we immediately took the Bedford and drove off. We collected specimens, which became many fine glazes, but making porcelain in Cookworthy’s way was too cumbersome in 1958. But I’ll never forget the feeling of having rediscovered Tregonning Hill!
(PS! In 2005 it is precisely 300 years since William Cookworthy was born.)

Hans Börjeson.

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