O’er desert sands, o’er gulf and bay, O’er Ganges and o’er Himalay Bird-like I fly, and flying sing, To flowery kingdoms of Cathay And bird-like poise on balanced wing Above the town of King-te-tching. A burning town, or seeming so, – Three thousand furnaces that glow Incessantly, and fill the air With smoke uprising, gyre on gyre, And painted by the lurid glare, Of jets and flashes of red fire.
“Keramos”, by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, 1877.
Like Longfellow more than a hundred years before, we journeyed the summer of ’87 to the same porcelain factory town of Cathay. Today it is called Zingdezhen and Cathay is China, but the town still has the thousand furnaces, some more than a thousand years old. Zingdezhen is known as the Porcelain Capital of the world.
It wasn’t simple, our trail to Zingdezhen. First, we booked ourselves on the daily Yangtze River steamer out of Shanghai. It was romantic and exciting to board the relatively modern passenger and freight boat at sunset. Rail-birding outside our cabin with a cup of fresh tea in hand, we sailed down the Whangpoa River, shutter- snapping until the light gave out. The scenes were of the Shanghai skyline and of ships of the world at terminals or mid-channel anchorage and modern cruise ships attired in gay flags, emitting ant-link traffic flow of passengers onto the famous Bund. Ferries plied the shores endlessly. Ungainly container ships bulged with their toy-like boxes stacked, then handed across by cranes and loaded onto barges and trucks. Rusty freighters and small river craft of a thousand varieties added to the eclectic mix, while we sat by the rail and exchanged pleasantries with our new friends in the next cabin.
Two days later in the early afternoon we disembarked at Jiujany, a busy, ancient port where the Emperors and entourages also docked centuries before. They were going to their favorite mountain resort of Lushan. Even Mao Tse Tung had a villa up in the cool forest of Lushan. If time permits when you visit, spend a few days there. You can fantasize yourself as one of the royal staff, or sit at Mao’s desk, still fitted with rice paper and brushes awaiting further “sayings”. Mao’s slippers and robe hang from a clothes rack nearby.
On to the city of porcelain, purported to be but three hours away by road. We engaged a tiny red taxi (which was a Polish car assembled in China) and in a mere six hours of travel over partially finished roads, and a half-dozen river crossings by barge, we reached the ancient city of Zingdezhen.
The hotel complex high on a hill above a small lake was China-modern in a forest glade. The lobby, dining room and entranceway were bustling with businessmen from around the world, but mostly Hong Kong We were greeted and ensconced in a delightful VIP suite. The living room was crowded with overstuffed furniture, tables and cabinets and offered the inevitable hot water thermos complete with local China tea service. The bathroom had hot water from 5:00 to 9:00 and the tub with ancient clawed feet was welcomed as we soaked out the cramps of the road journey.
Our local guide spent the next few days escorting us through the factories to view the exquisite porcelains that have been created in this remote city for more than a thousand years. Enjoyed by Chinese emperors, Arabian princes and the royalty of Europe, the porcelain art ware has found its way into every corner of the world. The Ming Emperors had their own appointed factories, which used the deep cobalt blues, while the Qing preferred the garish yellows decorated with brightly plumaged Phoenix birds. Eggshell porcelains of incredible delicacy are still produced. Classic figures of Kwan Yin, the Goddess of Mercy, Shou-Xing Lao with his baldhead and long beard symbolizing the desire for long life, and Confucius are favorites, each sculpted by talented artists.
The art form of porcelains is to be enjoyed by everyone. Porcelains are available as modest decorative vases as well as the “show pieces” now allowed with modern innovation. Zingdezhen porcelain heirlooms grace the homes and museums of the world.
To care for your porcelains, try the following:
For Bisque Porcelain, which has no glaze, you need to be careful on how you handle it. They can pick up hand oils and dirt very easily. Handling them as little as possible is recommended. For occasions when you must handle them, make sure to wash your hands very carefully first. These bisque porcelains must never be soaked in water to clean, they will absorb the moisture. An option is to use a very slightly damp cloth or soft rag to clean if necessary.
Ceramic Porcelain has a glaze (meaning it is shiny). You should clean Ceramic Porcelain the same way you would for Bisque porcelain.
The important note here is to try and not get these porcelains dirty. You can accomplish this by handling them with care, or handling them very little with care.
It is nice to have a background on where some of the world’s best porcelains come from. If you ever get one of these pieces of art, I know you will enjoy it as much as I do.