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Visiting Chaozho: Jiang Yan-ze visits this tableware producing area in China.

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CHAOZHOU IS AN old city with thousands of years of history. The city is located in the far east of Guangdong Province. It is famous for its cuisine. Delicious food should be served with nice utensils. Chaozhou porcelain is as well-known as its food. The art of pottery making in Chaozhou is dated as far back as 6000 years ago. During the Tang Dynasty, potters were already producing porcelain with aesthetic sophistication. By the Song Dynasty, ceramic workshops could be found all over the suburbs. The Song potters were unrivalled in terms of technical expertise, inventiveness, and aesthetic perfection of glaze and shape and this period is known as the golden era of pottery making in Chaozhou. At that time, Chaozhou became the porcelain capital of Guangdong Province. Its products were exported to the world through the Sea Silk Road. Highly decorated porcelain was the characteristic of Chaozhou ceramics. The above historical perspective was my simple understanding of pottery making in Chaozhou before my trip in January 2007.

The idea of visiting Chaozhou originated from two teachers Janet DeBoos and Professor Zhang Shou-zhi. Janet DeBoos is the Head of the Ceramic Workshop from the Australian National University School of Art and she is my teacher as well as a friend for many years. Professor Zhang Shou-zhi is from Qinghua University. He has devoted many years of his time to the development of the Chinese tableware industry and is currently an invaluable artistic consultant to many ceramic enterprises. In 2003 through Professor Zhang's introduction, Janet and I started working with Shandong Zibo Hua-guang Bone China Company, for bone china design and research. Professor Zhang joined us frequently during our discussions in Zibo. It was during the discussions that we began to hear more of Chaozhou, the porcelain capital of Guangdong Province.

Today, Chaozhou has become the world's largest tableware manufacturing base. After knowing about Chaozhou, we could not wait to visit the city. At the same time, Daniel Weisz, a young freelance designer as well as a student, was looking for a ceramic factory in China to produce his award-winning designs. In Australia, or in other Western countries, there is little large scale ceramic production. As we know, in recent years, many famous European ceramic factories have stopped production in their own countries because of high costs. These factories have outsourced their production to China. Thus, the plan for visiting Chaozhou in January began to take shape with Professor Zhang eventually making all the necessary arrangements.

We arrived at Chaozhou in the evening of January 19th. The first impression of Chaozhou came from the special ceramic advertisement pictures around the hotel where we stayed. In the following four days, we visited 18 enterprises as well as museums and a small private studio. We were like spinning tops, running from one place to another. Despite the hectic schedule, we saw and learnt a great deal from the visits. All the enterprises we visited are located in Fengxi District. Each enterprise has its unique lines of products. To help you in the understanding of these enterprises in Chaozhou, I divide them into three categories. Many of these internationally renowned enterprises evolved from small family factories. Their history not only reflects the rapid rise of Chaozhou as the new porcelain capital of today's China but also mirrors the state and direction of development of the modern Chinese tableware industry.

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SITONGGROUP ANDGREATWALLGROUP--SPECIALISTS IN DECORATIVE CERAMICS

Sitong Group is a family enterprise with more than 20 years of history in ceramic making. It focuses on the production of imitation antique furniture with compound decorative ceramic artwork. This type of decorative ceramic work is produced using a unique compositive technique called 'gilded carving lacquer ceramics'. The technique involves a process which combines different materials such as ceramics, wood, lacquer, resin and metal. The extraordinary decorations and the strong Middle-East feel of the ceramic pieces fill the exhibition hall with a sense of nobility. It is thus not surprising that the products sell exceptionally well in international markets and are especially well-liked by the European and American customers as well as those from the Middle East. In the past three years, Sitong had also started to produce white porcelain tea and coffee sets, and sanitary ware.

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Great Wall Group was established in 1992 by Cai Tingxiang. President Cai was an English teacher before starting the business. He worked hard, through trials and tribulations for 16 years. Cai is not only the president of the group but also the designer and manager as well. He is interested in new designs. Many of his designs originated from minute daily inspirations which eventually evolved into designs series. In the showroom, we had the pleasure of seeing some of his designs. The Group's products cover a wide range; 80 per cent of them are sold overseas. Its production volume of non-functional decorative ceramics is ranked first in China. We were also greatly impressed by the new well-lit spacious workshop as well as the skilled workers in the model making department.

SONGFAGROUP ANDWEIYEGROUP--SPECIALISTS IN PORCELAIN TABLEWARE

Because of Professor Zhang's long-term cooperation with Songfa Group, the group was always yhe focus during our discussions in Zibo. Among the enterprises in Chaozhou that produce porcelain tableware, Songfa is the indisputable market leader in terms of quality control, product range and exhibition style. During the early days of the group's history, Songfa followed traditional techniques of Chaozhou porcelain, making old style porcelain for the national market as other factories did. Today, Songfa's products include bonechina, colour glazed porcelain, in-glazed decoration porcelain, white-porcelain in different ranges of firing temperatures, and some art pieces. In 2004 Songfa was the appointed enterprise to produce porcelain tableware for the Chinese Central Government and became the pride of Chaozhou in its ceramic making history. In the factory, we noticed that all the techniques have been honed to perfection. Undoubtedly, the outstanding technical support has enabled the group to transform ordinary ceramic pieces into exquisite artistic pieces for daily use.

Compared with Songfa, Weiye Group adopts a low-profile strategy, preferring an unpretentiously plain style, not only in the way it advertises and displays its products, but also in the way the leader and staff conduct themselves. However, its high quality products still enjoy a big market. Weiye focuses its marketing efforts on hotel and restaurant, mostly in the national market. Now, some of its products are also exported. Impressed by its excellent products, Daniel decided to ask Wieye to put his design into small production. As a foreign designer on his first visit to China, Daniel is naturally inquisitive and at the same time apprehensive. It is not easy to find a reliable factory to produce new designs. Of course, quality control is important. But just as important is the need to protect the patent of new designs.

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QUANFU CERAMICS AND XINGYE CERAMICS--PRODUCTION HOUSES FOR FOREIGN BRANDS

Among the enterprises we visited, Quanfu is the only one who makes products for a foreign ceramic company. It is the biggest manufacturer in China for the Australian brand Salt & Pepper (S&P). We also saw a small amount of products for S&P in other enterprises. S&P products comprise simple objects inspired from organic forms, blending modern materials with contemporary designs. At the showroom, we saw the display of pieces which can usually be seen only at department stores or homeware stores in Australia. In Chaozhou each enterprise has its own unique line of products. However, because of intense market competition, no enterprise allows photo-taking at the showroom in order to protect its trade secrets. While watching the company photographer busy at work, we had a sneak preview of what would constitute the latest market trends and designs from the pieces on display.

Different from Quanfu, Xingye makes products for several foreign brands, such as Australian S&P and British John Lewis. It also produces for the German market. Xingye was founded 40 years ago as a small factory processing painted porcelain. Through hard work and innovation, it has developed into a competitive business producing fine porcelain tableware. All its successes can be attributed to its emphasis on the use of technology. We marvelled at one range 'colour hard porcelain' among the exhibited samples. It uses the twice-firing technique. Firstly, a ceramic piece is given a low firing up to 800[degrees]C with a transparent glaze. This is followed by high firing for a coloured glaze. In this way, the white area covered with transparent glaze will be kept free from coloured glaze. This brings a fine clear edge and bright colour contrast. The company demonstrates that the path to success in the international market is to invest in technical innovation.

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The above six groups I have introduced constitute only part of the enterprises we visited. Even though each is unique and is a leader in its own field, they all, as a whole, share the following characteristics:

1. They are all private enterprises founded by farmers (the use of the term 'farmer enterprises' is not derogatory). The advantage of their humble beginning is that they are more willing to take risks and are free to try without being burdened or restricted by their past. For example, when the manufacturers from Jingdezhen turned down orders for the production of certain products involving the use of a technically challenging technique, the Chaozhou people were undaunted and jumped at the opportunity. They were confident of overcoming any technical difficulty. That explains why almost all the tableware of irregular shape from designers worldwide is produced in Chaozhou today.

2. They attach importance to every national and international trade fair and use them as opportunities to win recognition and build bridges to the world markets. In 1996, the local government organised the first group to attend the Guangdong Trade Fair. From that point on, the springboard was set for these enterprises to join the world market. Sitong rapidly wove a large international marketing net in that year. In 1997, Songfa also made its first inroad into the European and US markets through the Spring Gaungdong Trade Fair. For all of these manufacturers in Chao zhou, national fairs and international ceramic expositions are important windows to the world markets.

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3. They pay attention to the cultivation of leadership in the younger generation. Since most of the present leaders did not receive any formal education, they usually send their children overseas to receive modern Western education, studying subjects such as enterprise management, international transportation, finance and commerce. After grad uation the children return and play important roles especially in the company's production, management and sales areas. Because of their exposure to the West, they have brought back with them the latest management techniques, modern scientific quality control equipment and abundant market information. This new blood will undoubtedly inject immeasurable vitality to an already vibrant and successful industry.

4. The quality of a modern product depends not only on its technical excellence but also its aesthetic designs. Most of the enterprises specialising in tableware production fulfil orders from overseas. As such, they do not have their own unique designs. Janet DeBoos called it 'lazy design' because of a lack of 'a strong sense of design autonomy'. She said: "With such a rich ceramic culture and history, there was precious little in the way of individuality in design." Most of these designs are therefore just imitations of other successful designs. There are exceptions, of course. I noticed that some decorative ceramics designed for certain markets did have their own character. The leaders know the importance of design, but survival dictates that they respond to the changing needs of the market. Thus, fusing market demands with contemporary art forms and design concepts in the production of porcelain tableware products will be an important research area for today's ceramists and designers.

My first trip to Chaozhou in January was in a little bit of rush, but I had a rich harvest. I have been to the world's biggest tableware porcelain production base and have seen almost all the different tableware in the world. As a ceramist, I cannot hide my desire to carry on with my work. I hope that with the technical support from these enterprises, I can eventually see my creative designs produced into much sought-after collectible pieces, combining technical excellence with aesthetic sophistication.

Jiang Yan-ze is a Lecturer at Design College of Nanjing Art Institute, Nanjing, China.
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Author:Yan-ze, Jiang
Publication:Ceramics Technical
Date:Jul 1, 2007
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