The Art of Jingdezhen Porcelain: An Interview with Mud and Leaves

I was recently on Instagram and I found the acount belonging to a Jingdezhen porcelain company called Mud and Leaves. A personal fan of porcelain I just had to jump on the chance to learn more about one of the best materials for brewing tea. So with out further adue, an interview with Mud and Leaves.

Tell us a little about you and your Company Mud and Leaves.

It began with us opening our store earlier this year, in February. My wife and I have been drinking tea for a long time, but I guess my interest in Chinese ceramics began when we picked up a really nice celadon tea set around 10 years ago. It was handmade and I could tell, it was much nicer than the usual factory stuff. We had friends who were interested in traditional Chinese tea ware as well, and they introduced us to friends they knew who had studios in Jingdezhen and Yixing.

Jingdezhen Porcelain Studio

Tell me a bit about the City of Jingdezhen

 

Jindgezhen has all sorts of manufacturing facilities. You have very small studios, you have family operations, you have large factories; some are state owned, some use to be. You have very fine handmade porcelain and you have mass produced factory stuff.

The history of Jingdezhen porcelain goes back 1000 years. It’s too bad my wife isn’t here she really knows a lot more about the history of the city. She has an article about Jingdezhen on our blog that talks more about the history. For some of the smaller studios working in traditional media and techniques, not much has changed except for the fuel of the kilns. They use traditional methods but not traditional fuel. It’s all electric now due to laws governing air pollution.

 

Is it easy to find good teaware in Jingdezhen or do you need to know someone. 

You have to know what you’re looking for, that’s the most important thing. If you know what’s good and what’s crap, then no one can fool you. In a way, porcelain is easier to distinguish as far as quality than some other (ceramic) materials, especially if you don’t have extensive knowledge. Once you hold a well-made piece of porcelain you can tell it apart from the mass produced stuff.

As far as if you would be able to find anything (quality porcelain) when going there, it would depend on luck and if you’ve done your homework before going. I would say: do some research. If there is a studio you are interested in, then try to contact them before going and see if you can visit.

 

 

Can you describe the difference

 

I should first stop and define what we’re talking about when we talk about porcelain, because there isnt a lot of agreement, and there is a difference between what people consider to be porcelain in the west and what it means in China. Broadly speaking porcelain is taoci 陶瓷. That also includes what we consider to be porcelain in the west: Baici 白瓷, the white porcelain. But also includes things like ruyao 汝窑, qingbaici 青白瓷; which is the blueish greenish pale white porcelain from the song dynasty; celadon can be considered porcelain. In china porcelain is high fired ceramic. It is very smooth and strong even without a glaze. Usually when we are talking about porcelain we are talking about bai ci which is white porcelain.

 

So when you’re distinguishing good porcelain from mediocre stuff there are a couple things you could look at. First when it’s real Jingdezhen porcelain, it must be high-fired. We are talking about 1200-1400c. It costs more to fire at that temperature. That’s the temperature it should be fired at. Low quality stuff is fired at a lower temperature. I actually have two in front of me so I can describe the difference. One is a cheap factory-made porcelain tea cup, the other is our handmade Jingdezhen white porcelain gaiwan. There are a couple differences which are noticeable right away. One is that the low quality stuff is dull, it is white porcelain as well but it doesn’t glow like the gaiwan. Jingdezhen porcelain is likened to jade. It has a very slippery, smooth, jade-like appearance that gives it a kind of glow. If you hold a good piece of porcelain in your hand and compare it to the stuff you find in grocery stores or the fakes, you can tell the difference instantly.

 

The reason it’s fired at a high temperature, is that it makes it stronger and smoother. Now of course when you give it a glaze you add a smooth surface as well. But it you’re looking at something that’s not too thick you can tell if it has that smooth surface and that glow. That’s the quality of Jingdezhen porcelain.

 

Since we are talking about glazes, I know there are a few different type of glazes can you tell us more about that?

 

Yeah, there are the traditional glazes that go all the way back to the Yuan dynasty (When China was ruled by the Mongol Empire), the Ming dynasty, the Qing dynasty. Each has its own legacy of styles. Many are still being used today. Some are recently being reproduced, some have never stopped being produced. They do go through periods of popularity. Our studio Qinqkexuan, does use many of these traditional styles, including Qinghua 青花. Qinghua is the painting of a pattern or painting using cobalt blue pigment on the surface of the porcelain and then applying a clear glaze over it. This is the classic blue and white associated with fine china in the West.

Qinghua Porcelain Chinese Tea Cup by Mud and Leaves
There is also fencai which is multi-colored. This is one of my favorites. Fencai is involves adding enamel colors to the porcelain. Oranges, greens, that sort of color. Another example is Jilan, which we have an example of in our shop, the cobalt blue glazed gaiwan. Jilan is a dark cobalt-blue glaze covering white porcelain, giving the outside surface of the ceramic a very dark, very smooth appearance, but also with an inner glow that shows in certain lights, similar to a very dark piece of jade.

Fancai Chinese Tea Cups by Mud and Leaves

We also have a vintage gaiwan in the shop. It’s a factory-made, 1980s gaiwan, so the quality isn’t as high but it has vintage value. It’s from a time when China was opening up and increasing foreign exports. The style is wanshou wujiang, a style from the Imperial tea ware of the Qing dynasty.

Also famille rose is a popular style of glaze found on antique foreign exports and fake antiques. Very colorful enamel painting on the surface of the tea ware.

Another example is doucai which has an underglaze of cobalt blue, a clear glaze, and then other colors added over the surface.

 

Can you tell me about the studios you work with?

All of our white porcelain comes from one studio, called Qingkexuan, focusing on handmade high quality porcelain. It’s a smaller studio. It differs from larger factories in its focus on traditional techniques and materials. You have the master apprentice relationship. There is a division of labor, but it is handmade. So our gaiwan, for example, is wheel-thrown by hand. They are all hand painted. There is someone whose speciality in the studio, as the artist, is painting patterns or pictures on the porcelain, someone is wheeling it, someone is overseeing the whole process. Some of the cheaper, mass-produced stuff is hand painted (although this is less often the case), but it’s done quickly and roughly, following a simple pattern. More often, the factory stuff has patterns and pictures printed by machine. That’s another tell-tale sign of quality, is whether the design is printed or not, and whether it is done well or not.

Hand made Jingdezhen porcelain.
Working at the wheel, from http://www.mudandleaves.com

 

Of course there are other studios in Jingdezhen that are producing high quality art, following traditional procedures to also distinguish their work from mass-produced stuff. It is a niche market though, because it does require a higher amount of skill and a much higher amount of labor. It does take much more time to produce. So when you see something that someone claims is “ handcrafted by a master” and is selling for 80 RMB (or about $11 USD). No way. It’s not possible.

Jingdezhen porcelain ceramic handmade
An artist at work, from http://www.mudandleaves.com

Some of the stuff we supply from time to time is from smaller studios, sometimes very small, sometimes, just one man. There are a couple of ceramic pieces we just sold, not porcelain, lower-fired clay with a glaze, quite beautiful and completely hand made. We sold the last of those this week. That was from a very small studio. When you know the place, you network and meet other artists you find there is another side to Jingdezhen than the big mainstream market where you have to wade through a lot of factory teapots. It really does still have that “community of artists” atmosphere. You still do have the traditional artists working in traditional media.

Ruyao?
Ruyao also called ru kiln, is a style of Chinese porcelain ceramic. In China it is considered to be porcelain; in the West it is often set in a separate category. To produce good ruyao, is very difficult, very labor intensive, requires a lot of expensive material, and is very difficult to fire properly.

Ruyao in itself has its origins in the Song dynasty, when it was produced for the emperor. There is very little left in the world. One of the reasons for that is that the end of the dynasty was very messy and it was only produced for a short time before its production ended.

The ruyao produced today is attempting to reproduce the recipe. There are a handful of artists who have their own recipes to produce it. You also have every low quality ruyao that is mass produced. They have to cut a lot of corners to produce it cheaply and quickly. There are a lot of materials that aren’t added that should be. And it shows in the final product, the quality and appearance of the glaze. I wouldn’t call it ruyao. Ruyao can only be produced using these complicated methods and recipes. There is a lot of mass-produced “ruyao” in the market, but it’s not genuine ruyao. If  you hold the two next to each other it’s night and day.

There are a couple of things that characterize ruyao: the cracked glaze or opening cracks, which will darken over time as the cup is stained with tea, like a cracked egg shell. Ruyao has a different feel to white porcelain. It’s thicker, it has the cracked glaze. It’s very smooth, but it’s surface has a special texture, like the surface of the skin of a citrus.

Our supplier for ruyao is Lee Shanming, he is a very old hand in the industry and a ceramic artist who specialized in white porcelain. A little while ago he switched over to Ruyao. It’s a passion of his. It is a very difficult item to produce. Especially my favorite, the red ruyao. It’s a very brilliant, deep red. It can go from a very dark ox blood red to a lighter powder red depending on the conditions in the kiln, the materials and even the time of year (fall is the best time for ruyao production due to the stable, dry weather). It is very difficult to make, it has a very high scrap-rate. Many of the pieces that are fired are damaged or destroyed during the process. Or it comes out completely the wrong color. Black marks will come out, or the glaze will remain light grey, and that stuff has to be thrown out. A lot of the stuff that comes out never makes it onto the shelf.

The colors and glaze all come from secret recipes developed through experimentation. Certain materials I can tell you about. The red for example comes from iron oxide, so you’re getting the very deep red from that. If the firing temperatures aren’t controlled properly the iron oxide will give you black splotches or fail to turn red and it will be ruined. It’s very difficult to adequately-control the firing conditions for each piece.

Why porcelain

Other materials, such as zisha are also great. Zisha is great for what it is. I own a couple zisha teapots that I use regularly. However, I think when you are in the market for tea ware porcelain has a few advantages that are often overlooked. One of them being that it’s easier to tell real porcelain from fakes than it is for real zisha. With zisha you can get a feeling for it over time if you’ve been exposed to enough of the real stuff. But it does take time and it is a risk if you are just getting into it. The worst thing that happens if you buy very cheap porcelain, is that you just don’t have a very good gaiwan, but it’s still ok to use. I have a cheap gaiwan that I use regularly, and I don’t worry about dropping it. That’s another advantage, cost.

To get a real zisha teapot, even if it’s poorly-made but made from the real material, it can be expensive. If you get a gaiwan made from bad porcelain it’s still perfectly ok to use.

Of course if you have nicer stuff it’s much better to use. Very good porcelain is often much more affordable than real zisha.

Another advantage is that it is impermeable. So it’s not absorbing flavor and it’s not adding any flavor. So when you’re drinking tea, all you’re tasting is the tea. Some might say that one of the disadvantages of porcelain is that it doesn’t smooth out the flavor of the tea like zisha can, but if you have good tea it’s probably going to taste good enough, it doesn’t need it’s flavor to be smoothed out or changed by zisha. So you know what you have when you are drinking the tea.

Another advantage is heat transfer. Porcelain is very good for transferring heat. Some people would want a duanni zisha or zini because it is very good at insulating, it doesn’t transfer heat. For some teas, like green teas, as well as oolongs, you don’t want to stew the tea, so it would be better to use porcelain.

Another advantage is the strength of porcelain. Overall, it is much stronger than other materials, than low fired clay or zisha for example. Zisha is beautiful but I always take extra care when using it because it’s quite fragile. Porcelain is much stronger, of course if you drop it on the ground it’s going to break, but it’s much stronger when it comes to normal use and water temperature.

Any last thoughts

We work with a very limited number of artists and the inventory is often changing as a result. It’s all handmade and limited in number. While there are certain pieces that the artists always love to produce, others are only in the shop for a few months before they sell out. So always check back in, we are constantly updating our inventory. We will also start selling the “leaves” part of “mud and leaves”. We have suppliers in tea farms in Fujian, Guangdong and Yunnan. We will be selling tea that is high quality but affordable. We are very excited about it, it is tea we have been drinking and enjoying for a while now and look forward to sharing.

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