Jesse Golden, Good Dirt LA Teacher
Dec. 6th, 2019
Qīng-huā (pronounced ching-wah-zte) is mandarin for blue and white, and has become synonymous with the famous porcelain city of Jingdezhen, China. Located a 4-hour bullet train west of Shanghai, Jingdezhen is world renowned for its over 1000 years of producing the finest quality ceramic wares. The blue and white style of clay evolved in Jingdezhen to be used by emperors and commoners alike. I had the pleasure of spending five weeks in this charming city at a ceramic residency learning its history and working with its materials.
The classical blue and white uses brushed cobalt blue oxide underglaze on pure white porcelain greenware. Pieces are sprayed with a clear glaze and fired to cone 10 (2380°F) over 9 hours in a gas reduction kiln. Wait, these pieces are only fired once? How do these pieces not blow up or crack from the intense thermal shock? The materials from this city are perfectly elastic to withstand this unique and efficient firing process. The clay and glazes use the same pure kaolin rock and feldspar stone which make them incredibly compatible.
The history of this style in Jingdezhen became famous in the Ming Dynasty (14th century) when the white porcelain kaolin rock was locally found and the blue cobalt stone was initially shipped from Persia. The technique became accepted by the imperial court and imperial kilns were established to produce millions of pieces of ‘China’ to meet the growing demand for the porcelain tableware. Jingdezhen is widely recognized as one of the first industrial towns in the world. With the expansion of global trade by the 16th century the beautiful blue and white images could be seen throughout Europe.
In the present day you can see the progression of the blue and white style from looking at its antiques. The city has had a long devotion to perfection. Pieces would be discarded in large ditches when a kiln would over fire or imperfections could be found. Present day construction projects find massive antique ceramic deposits which have created a weekly antique market nicknamed the ‘ghost market’. The pieces can be dated from the materials used and particular painted images of their time. I had the chance to tour this market with a local antique dealer who helped determine replicated fakes from excavated antiques.
I took a cobalt painting class during my residency from a Shifu (master) in the art of blue and white tile painting. The first step was seeing how the different brushes are meticulously made and the cobalt blue powder mixed and used. The powder is mixed in tea to create darker or lighter shades of blue. I also mixed the powder in peach sap to make it adhere to the piece for painting detailed images. The process has similar methods to water color painting except the colors are not true until the piece is fired. This makes shading and layering extremely difficult.
Through time and technique advancements the classical blue and white style has evolved, but not by much. These days screen printing have created transfer paper patterns to make it fast and easy to adhere intricate patterns to tableware. Some artists use this traditional style on modern images, but overall Jingdezhen has maintained its regard for the past. It has maintained its attention to perfection, its industrial production infrastructure, and still produces thousands of beautiful pieces of porcelain with the classical qīng-huā style each and every day.