For Wu Jinhua, ceramics isn't just about perfecting techniques.
Upon a white-glazed porcelain brush pot, the middle-aged porcelain craftsman from Jingdezhen, China's historical ceramic capital in Jiangxi Province painted a rooster, which in traditional Chinese culture represents auspicious meanings as well as the symbolic animal of 2005. Colors were spread out on the lubricated surface in graceful brushes to enliven the vase and indicate a life of peace and pleasure.
"Dealing with the classic themes, I introduce into them the modern spirit being simple, elegant yet positive," he said.
He explained, for example, that instead of peonies in heavy red or yellow, most people would prefer light colors.
"And a lively figure would be more preferable than those ancient ladies who feel distant from our life," he said. "I think it of equal importance for us porcelain artists to keep up with the times."
Jingdezhen celebrated the 1,700-year history of its ceramic industry last year, and has bred numerous well-known ceramists from home and abroad. But behind the industry's talented artisans, it remains to be seen whether they can create products that will hit a chord with more art lovers, and if they can get the support to foster the city's economic and cultural potential.
As one way to get their talents noticed, Wu is among the city's artisans showcasing some of their best creations at the 2005 Jingdezhen porcelain classics exhibition.
Running until January 8, the annual show is being held at the Antique City of Painting and Calligraphy Arts World in downtown Beijing. On display are over 400 pieces of high quality chinaware completed in recent years.
A larger part of exhibits are exquisite imitations of several royal tributes treasured in the Palace Museum, together with original classics from the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties and the Republic of China (1911-49) era. They include qinghua (blue-and-white) and famille-rose vases, brush pots, large bowls and dishes.
The earliest old porcelain imitations appeared during the reign of Emperor Kangxi (1662-1722), said Hu Zhilong, a ceramic expert from Jingdezhen and one of the organizers of the exhibition.
Even Emperor Yongzheng, a porcelain enthusiast like his father Kangxi, is said to have built up a royal kiln in the palace to produce copies of gorgeous painted enamels contributed by foreign missionaries when he was on the throne (1723-35).
Attentions is called to a selection of modern qinghua replicas by Chen Menglong.
Chen, the former deputy curator of the Jingdezhen Ceramics Museum, has been dedicated to the research into the antique chinaware and several major replication projects.
"Chen's qinghua works take on a calm yet restrained blue, outstanding ordinary ones in a flourishing blue, to reproduce a pure beauty of primitive craftsmanship," Hu said.
Contemporary creations on display from noted veterans and young talents in Jingdezhen also deserve the mention.
The highlights include a four-piece set of the qinghua porcelain boards with painted images by Qin Shengzhao, a talented female ceramist.
The works, recommended by the organizers as contemporary artistic classics, feature a traditional theme on plum blossoms, orchids, bamboos and chrysanthemum along with calligraphic inscriptions.
Yet more eye-catching appears to be a series of the Franz porcelain, the otherwise successful experiment of artistic household ceramics by today's Jingdezhen artisans. This type is more sophisticated than the typical household ceramics.
The artistic and household porcelains are the two genres in the ceramic industry.
The former one features superb artistic craftsmanship but with a high price tag most people can't afford.
"The Franz porcelain is quite a newborn genre in the ceramic industry and first appeared in Taiwan in early 2000," Hu said. "A refractory under-glazed variety, it has adopted the Franz glaze and distinctive European styles in adherence to Chinese ceramic technique."
Ceramic expert Hu explained the advantages of the Franz porcelain.
"Though of lower technical levels compared to the conventional artistic chinaware, it better meets the general demand of today's people, who seek a balance between good artistic taste and daily convenience."
Hu explained that the Franz porcelain tea sets and other household products have the high artistic quality and can be used in daily life.
However, homegrown ceramists in Jingdezhen like Wu not only followed their traditional creations but also tried to add new elements in their works. Wu was born in a porcelain family, and received comprehensive training of traditional porcelain craftsmanship. Influenced by his ceramic artist father, Wu excels at the artistic porcelain of animal and ancient figure designs.
Inheriting such a solid technical background, Wu classified himself as representing a generation seeking a promising future for the ceramic capital. He has distinguished his recent works from his father's by melding modern and traditional styles.
He lived in Guangzhou for a couple of years. "It was surely a cultural clash at the beginning. But on the other hand, I found broader art space in the city, from which I absorb fashionable elements to enrich my creativity," he said. "It differs a lot from the days in Jingdezhen and troubles me much. Now I would make countless trips between the two cities, in search of effective methods to fill that gap."
Wu is not alone to sense tough challenges from all sides in Jingdezhen.
It's been a hot topic for scholars and artists both inside and outside the city on how to wake up those conservative minds, which solely stress artistic pursuit, yet ignore a variety of demands of customers, such as those who want sophisticated household ceramics that they could use.
"The first Franz porcelain factory in Jingdezhen opened this October," Hu said. "It is an opportunity to test whether our extraordinary tastes and techniques can support a promising brand or not. The market has responded positively up to now, which proves that we should stick to artistic household porcelains."
Wu said there is a tendency to create personalized pieces of household ceramics for customers.
"It is not a question of technique for us artisans, but of the quick adaptation to that need," he said.
Yet that is far from enough to build a promising future for Jingdezhen's ceramic industry. There remain calls for more governmental support. Locals believe a systematic, authoritative and strategic evaluation to exploit Jingdezhen's economic and cultural potentials could be more helpful than merely giving money.
(China Daily December 30, 2005)