JINGDEZHEN is a scruffy city whose streets labour under the effects of severe pollution caused by the numerous porcelain factories dotted throughout the centre. The city has been producing ceramics for at least two thousand years, and thanks to local geography and national politics, ceramics remain its chief source of income and the reason Jingdezhen figures on tourist itineraries. You'll find a day-trip here worthwhile even without a special interest in porcelain – though given the filthy air, only ceramics buffs will want to hang around longer.
The city lies in a river valley rich not only in clay suitable for firing but also in the feldspar needed to turn it into porcelain; when the Ming rulers developed a taste for fine ceramics in the fourteenth century, the capital was at Nanjing, conveniently close to Jingdezhen. An imperial kiln was built in 1369, and its wares became so highly regarded – "as white as jade, as thin as paper, as bright as a mirror, as tuneful as a bell" – that Jingdezhen retained official favour even after the Ming court shifted to Beijing fifty years later.
As demand grew, workshops experimented with new glazes and a classic range of decorative styles emerged: qinghua, blue and white; jihong, rainbow; doucai, a blue and white overglaze; and fencai, multicoloured famille rose. The first examples reached Europe in the seventeenth century and became so popular that the English word for China clay – kaolin – derives from its source nearby at Gaoling. Factories began to specialize in export ware shaped and decorated in European-approved forms, which reached the outside world via the booming Canton markets: the famous Nanking Cargo, comprising 150,000 pieces salvaged from the 1752 wreck of the Dutch vessel Geldermalsen and auctioned in 1986, was one such shipment. Foreign sales on this scale petered out after European ceramic technologies improved at the end of the eighteenth century, but Jingdezhen survived by sacrificing innovation for more Ford-like production-line manufacturing. Today the town's scores of private and state-owned kilns employ some fifty thousand people.