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Kingdom of Clay

A lens on the ancient city of Jingde Zhen

06·21·2013

You might not have heard of Jingde Zhen (景德镇), but—chances are—you’ve been closer to it than you think. It is the home of China’s porcelain. The city has a documented history of over 2,000 years, and for most of the last 1,700, it has been the center of porcelain production and technology in China and around the world.

I had originally been asked to photograph Zhou Jun, who moved there to explore making 3D sculptures of his photographs, giving me the opportunity to discover the city alone among the locals. This is a city that has incorporated porcelain art into its very fabric.

The main ceramics market, which is located in the center of town, is huge, featuring mass-produced, handmade and historic porcelain. In the back alleys, beyond the new buildings, you will find small shops selling pieces from the Cultural Revolution and the early 20th century, which is about as antique as it gets for foreigners, as earlier pieces are illegal to export. Near the Jingde Zhen Ceramic Institute, you can find another bustling street of shops selling contemporary handmade works. For those willing to search a bit deeper, a little further out of town, at the village of Sanbao (三宝村), there are many international residency programs that offer the opportunity to mix with local artisans. If you climb the hill in the city center and look over the houses, you can see people hard at work on rooftops alongside rows of pots.

Jingde Zhen is relaxed and polite with a fascinating history; however, it’s important to remember that tourism may be a bull this china shop can’t take for long.

Jingde Zhen 1

The tried and tested method for extracting porcelain clay from the ground looks as though it has barely changed for a thousand years

Jingde Zhen 2

Small back alley shops provide interesting scenes of life in China

Jingde Zhen 3

Hand-spun cups ready for firing at master Wang Ting’s studio

Jingde Zhen 4

Zhou Jun in his studio

Jingede Zhen 5

Zhou Jun creates scaffolding for a new work

Jingde Zhen 6

In Sanbao, outside Jingde Zhen, when the rubbish bin isn’t porcelain, the rubbish is

A dragon made of blue and white plates and bowls

A dragon made of blue and white plates and bowls

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