A handful of clay from a Chinese hillside carries a promise: that mixed with the right materials, it might survive the fire of the kiln, and fuse into porcelain – translucent, luminous, white.
For centuries, porcelain has transfixed emperors and alchemists, philosophers, craftsmen and collectors – all eager to learn the recipe for this versatile and valuable substance. Porcelain was melted, smashed, or snapped into pieces as men struggled to decode the secret of ‘white gold’.
Acclaimed writer and potter Edmund de Waal sets out on a quest – a journey across continents that begins at Jingdezhen in China, the birthplace of porcelain, and embraces Venice, Versailles, Dublin, Dresden, the Appalachian Mountains of South Carolina and the English South-West, to tell the unbroken story of a global obsession. Along the way, he meets the witnesses to its creation; those who were inspired, made rich or heartsick by it; and the many whose livelihoods, minds and bodies were broken by it.
In these intimate and compelling encounters with the people and landscapes who made porcelain, Edmund de Waal comes to a more profound understanding of the material he has worked with for decades. It is a journey into an obsession with white itself.
I’m in China. I’m trying to cross a road in Jingdezhen in Jiangxi Province, the city of porcelain, the fabled Ur where it all starts; kiln chimneys burning all night, the city ‘like one furnace with many vent holes of flame’, factories for the imperial household, the place in the fold of the mountains where my compass points. This is the place where emperors sent emissaries with orders for impossibly deep porcelain basins for carp for a palace, stem cups for rituals, tens of thousands of bowls for their households. It is the place of merchants with orders for platters for feasts for Timurind princes, for dishes for ablutions for sheikhs, for dinner services for queens. It is the city of secrets, a millennium of skills, fifty generations of digging and cleaning and mixing white earth, making and knowing porcelain, full of workshops, potters, glazers and decorators, merchants, hustlers and spies.
It is eleven at night and humid and the city is neon and traffic like Manhattan and a light summer rain is falling and I’m not completely sure which way my lodgings are.
I’ve written them down as Next to Porcelain Factory #2 and I thought I could pronounce this in Mandarin, but I’m met with busy incomprehension, and a man is trying to sell me turtles, jaws bound in twine. I don’t want his turtles, but he knows I do.
It feels absurd to be this far from home. There is televised mah-jong at high volume in the parlours with their glitter balls like a 1970s disco. The noodle shops are still full. A child is crying, holding her father’s finger as they walk along. Everyone has an umbrella but me. A barrow of porcelain models of cats is wheeled past under a plastic tarp, scooters weaving round it. Ridiculously someone is playing Tosca very loudly. I know one person in the whole city.
I haven’t got a map. I do have my stapled photocopy of the letters of Père d’Entrecolles, a French Jesuit priest who lived here 300 years ago and who wrote vivid descriptions of how porcelain was made. I’ve brought them because I thought he could be my guide. At this moment this seems a slightly affected move, and not clever at all.
I’m sure I’m going to die crossing this road.
But I know why I’m here, so that even if I’m not sure which way to go, I’ll go confidently. It is really quite simple, a pilgrimage of sorts – a chance to walk up the mountain where the white earth comes from. In a few years I am turning fifty. I’ve been making white pots for a good forty years, porcelain for twenty-five. I have a plan to get to three places where porcelain was invented, or reinvented, three white hills in China and Germany and England. Each of them matters to me. I have known of them for decades from pots and books and stories but I have never visited. I need to get to these places, need to see how porcelain looks under different skies, how white changes with the weather. Other things in the world are white but, for me, porcelain comes first.