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Gone to pot

Blog | By Roger Law | Aug 21, 2023

Dirt, dust and dexterity: Roger Law experiences the chaotic life of a ceramicist in Jingdezhen, China’s Porcelain City

While millions of oldies are muttering about having to work beyond a pensionable age, I decided at the age of 70 to go and work in the sweatshops of Jingdezhen, China’s Porcelain City, where porcelain has been made for over a thousand years. And I do mean ‘sweatshops’. At times temperatures are above 40 degrees with 100 per cent humidity, and sometimes, as a special reward, one returns to the hostel to read the words ‘No Water Today’.

If you have no Mandarin, and I don’t, to work in Jingdezhen it is essential to find a translator. I found Joey Zhou. Joey turned out to be a humorous and melancholic young man with an insatiable curiosity and a fascination with death. Like everyone in Jingdezhen, Joey makes ceramics. At the time we met he was working on a series of small ceramic gravestones – very ornate with lashings of black and gold. Joey explained that Jingdezhen is not full of huge factories but is made up of hundreds of small family concerns spread throughout the city. Each business specialises to the nth degree and encompasses every kind of ceramic skill you can imagine, from larger-than-life figures of Mao (army coat blown open and arm raised as if hailing a cab in a hurricane) to minute porcelain shirt buttons.

Pots are everywhere. Even the lampposts of Jingdezhen are made of decorated porcelain (peach blossom along one street and dragons down another) which helps to navigate the city, which is exactly what Joey and I did, looking for a place to start work. We would pile into local taxis (mobile adrenalin enhancers), the taxi drivers an aid to Joey’s pre-occupation with the Reaper. The main roundabout in the city centre sees off citizens on a regular basis, which is just as well, as Joey tells me the ghost of the dead person has to wait until the next fatal accident for a new ghost to replace him. While looking for workshops one morning we spotted a pair of high-heeled shoes, straps buttoned down, standing upright in the middle of the road. We wondered if they belonged to a ghost-in-waiting.

The first workshop Joey and I settled on belonged to Deng Xi Ping. Xi Ping is an important woman in the city with a special stipend from the government to prove it. In her sixties, she is a striking-looking woman with steel-grey hair.

I think she took me on because I could afford her prices, and as she had survived the Cultural Revolution she probably thought I would be a walk in the park. We had our ups and downs and some shouting competitions. I sometimes got the feeling she would like to send me to the countryside for re-education.

I once introduced Deng Xi Ping to a formidable upper-class English woman who declared her to be a proper person. And indeed she is – as professional and reliable as ceramics allow. If you buy one of her pots it is accompanied by a certificate, with a photograph of a much younger Xi Ping, the gold lettering and scarlet binding uncomfortably reminiscent of Mao’s ‘Little Red Book’.

Deng Xi Ping’s spick-and-span factory with its display cases and ordered stock is a far cry from Mr Wu’s Big Pot Factory where I work these days. The earth floors are so strewn with debris it is difficult to stand upright. It is also hard to fall down as every inch of space is covered with large pots and young workers painting and carving. The only things sacred are your tools. Step out for a pee and your four-inch stool will be under someone else’s bottom on your return. The arguments and teasing among the apprentices make the atmosphere not unlike my old Spitting Image workshop.

Mr Wu’s Big Pots is a bit of an understatement. On my first visit I saw a huge cup and saucer. I climbed into the cup and could only just see over its rim while the accompanying teapot towered above me. I came down with serious pot envy. I had made some small, carved pots with Deng Xi Ping, but now it was clearly time to up the ante.

Most workshops in Jingdezhen are chaotic. In fact everything in this city is filthy except the people. How they achieve this is beyond comprehension. After a day on the earth floors the men and women emerge spotless, the women’s high-heels as clean as the day they were bought from the shop. The potteries ensure plenty of carcinogenic intake – porcelain dust, copper, lead and zinc, glazes and solvents. I bought a pot of glue from an art shop and below the logo were the words in English: ‘It is high to glue to fuck the health environmental protection quickly.’ No kidding. Refreshingly honest, I thought.

Working at the Big Pot Factory one day I surfaced from drawing the inside of an Ali Baba-sized pot and was waiting for my blood to drain back into place when I noticed someone had left a pair of dirty brown gloves on my sandwiches. The gloves moved. A couple of rats were having an early lunch. Life is hard in the workshops. I am convinced that Kentucky Fried Chicken, known locally as ‘The American Embassy’, is so popular because it is air-conditioned. When not eating at the Big Pot Factory I can be found in Food Alley which, as the name suggests, is a long and narrow passageway packed with cafés, food stalls and carts. You can down delicious pork and scallion dumplings served in bamboo steamers as you play ‘spot the rat’ – all frightfully good for the immune system.

Methods of working in Jingdezhen are familiar but I have learned new skills, and with Joey translating I have even been able to show the apprentices a trick or two. Once people realise that you are not there to play, and that you have an understanding of materials and process, a working relationship develops, and the chances are you will be passed from one skilled specialist to another. Joey refrains from translating when a conversation becomes heated – I can become very volatile in 100 per cent humidity. He waits until things calm down. I asked him why the Chinese are not more direct when dealing with problems. ‘That is not the Chinese way,’ Joey replied sagely. ‘They will say nothing and hate you secretly.’

Working in Jingdezhen all adds up to making an old man feel very, very old very, very quickly.