Weekend break: Jingdezhen

Jiangxi's porcelain-producing city makes for an arty weekend getaway

People in Jingdezhen are obsessed with porcelain. Students from around China study it at the Jingdezhen Ceramics Institute; visiting artists are hooked on opportunities to experiment with it; and city planners have decorated lamp posts and traffic lights with the stuff. This is where the popular Spin Ceramics produces its wares, and where Ai Weiwei employed 1,600 people for five years making 100 million ceramic sunflower seeds.

The Jiangxi city of 1.5 million is a uniquely Chinese travel destination, and November is the perfect time to visit – daily max temperatures average 19C – before winter’s rain and cold slow production, much of which relies on the drying power of the sun.

Two dead chimneys, rendered obsolete when production shifted from coal- to gas-powered kilns around 1990, tower over The Sculpture Factory. Here, you’ll find the studios of artists and designers who work with craftsmen skilled in techniques including: making moulds, producing greenware (unfired clay), and adding glazes and decals, the pottery equivalent of iron-on transfers.

A worker named Chen Jimin at The Sculpture Factory told us he had been commissioned to make 500 ceramic snakes. He makes about 30 per day, completing the whole process from raw clay to painted piece by himself.

Chen’s snakes are made in moulds, but Agnes Fries, a Swedish artist who visits Jingdezhen annually, says the city’s real stars are the throwers, people who ‘pull’ bowls, vases, cups and so on using pottery wheels. ‘If you’re a thrower, you’re a hot shot and probably a little bit of a diva,’ she says.

One of the things artists like Fries enjoy about The Sculpture Factory is the opportunity to rent just a little space in a large public kiln, which fires overnight, 5pm-midday. This allows them to experiment with and modify their designs as they produce them, instead of having to wait until they’ve produced enough work to fill an entire kiln themselves. The public kiln in The Sculpture Factory is known as ‘the cow kiln’ because every day for the past few years pale green cows, which are used as baijiu bottles, have been fired inside.

Within the Sculpture Factory you’ll also find both the Jingdezhen Youth Hostel and The Pottery Workshop (0798 844 0582; www.potteryworkshop.com.cn), which has its own small gallery, café – the best place to pick up a map of the city (5RMB) and tips for how to get to the Big Pot and Big Tile Factories – and a well-attended Saturday market, with around 60 individual stalls run by entrepreneurial young potters. At the market you can buy mugs from 30RMB, ceramic hip-flasks with corks for 100RMB, small bowls from 30RMB, and modern, beautifully painted vases for around 650RMB.

Established in Jingdezhen since 2005, The Pottery Workshop offers group tours and classes, plus professional artists’ residencies for 2,600RMB/week, including a bedroom and studio space. It also has kilns for hire – electric, gas, soda glaze and a wood kiln built by Japanese ceramics star Masakazu Kusakabe mostly used for pizzas.

Cambridge-born Caroline Cheng is the executive director of The Pottery Workshop. She exhibits her works, including garden gnomes painted with Chinese motifs and an ancient Chinese smock decorated with 10,000 handmade ceramic butterflies (300,000RMB), which she hires locals to produce. The Pottery Workshop also sells cups and mugs, though not on the same scale as Spin. ‘Spin is only average,’ Cheng says, ‘but it’s the best in China.’ Cheng also (diva-ishly) dismisses Ai Weiwei’s art as derivative.

Easily the most picturesque place in Jingdezhen is San Bao (0798 8483 665; chinaclayart.com), a collection of traditional buildings bought from four families and converted into an international ceramics institute on the southern edge of the city. 

Jackson Li, a Jingdezhen native who shows work in Shanghai at Two Cities Gallery, created San Bao as his own private studio in 1995. The ceramics institute, which welcomes artists in residence, was inaugurated in 2000, and now San Bao has a bar, the best restaurant in town and a museum, which, during our visit, was showing work by artists based in Delft – the city in Holland where European ceramics arrived from China thanks to the Dutch East India Company.

When we first arrive at San Bao, Li is dipping bottles in different glazes. ‘Some people look down on you for making your own work,’ he says. ‘But if you like cooking, do you hire someone to cook in your kitchen? Do you pay someone to fuck for you?’

Li aims to create contemporary ceramic pieces while preserving some of Jingdezhen’s traditional methods and culture. ‘Creating San Bao was a dream, a romantic idea, but artists who think like that always struggle. For 15 years I didn’t get paid,’ Li says.

We asked him if Ai Weiwei’s famous commission was good for local business. ‘The sunflower seeds weren’t especially good for Jingdezhen, but they were good for Ai Weiwei,’ Li says.

Li plans to make his own art installation of 10,000 bowls, representing different stages of ceramic development. He is currently working on 10,000 unique bottles for baijiu brand Maotai.

Essential info


Comfortable and perfectly situated in The Sculpture Factory, though a little run down, the Jingdezhen Youth Hostel offers private rooms from 108RMB. 139 Xinchangdong Lu, at the entrance to The Sculpture Factory. (0798 844 8886; bit.ly/jdzyh). 新厂东路139号, 雕塑瓷厂正门口

Eat and Drink 

Jingdezhen isn’t the greatest dining destination (The Pottery Workshop plots KFC on the map it gives to artists in residence), but the restaurant at San Bao is fantastic. You can eat jiachangcai for around 50RMB/person. San Bao has a great bar, too – with homemade plum wine – but closer to downtown is cosy Gallery 2, situated on ‘Ceramics Gallery Street’. Lianshe Bei Lu, near People’s Square. (136 0798 8788). Open 2.30-11.30pm. 莲社北路, 近人民广场

Get there 

There’s just one Shanghai flight to (8.45-9.50am) and from (9.10-10.10pm) Jingdezhen daily. Shenzhen Airlines offers return flights for 1,360RMB. Slow trains leave once daily for Jingdezhen (12.48pm-4.17am) and return to Shanghai (5.45pm-10.33am). The journey takes just over 15 hours, and sleeper berths cost 192-309RMB/one way.