On Aug 13, the National Museum of China received a donation of 195 pieces of ancient porcelain recovered from the wreck of the Tek Sing, an important record of the prosperity of China's Maritime Silk Road.
In 1822, the Tek Sing, loaded with silk and porcelain from China, sank in waters off the coast of Indonesia. The sunken ship was salvaged by a commercial team in 1999, and the artifacts were then auctioned off.
Zheng Changlai, chair of Waterside Culture Group, a private Chinese firm which donated the relics to the museum, said that the ship's cargo of blue-and-white porcelain was manufactured at the Dehua kilns in East China's Fujian province during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). In 2018, the company purchased more than 100,000 pieces from a British company.
Zheng said he hopes the donation to the national museum will attract more people to participate in the protection, inheritance and innovation of Chinese ceramic culture.
Geng Dongsheng, director of the Ceramics Institute of the Academy of the National Museum of China, says the shipwreck's treasure, with its clear chronology and final resting place are of great significance and value to the study of China's maritime trade in the 19th century and the route of the Maritime Silk Road as well as the porcelain making history of Dehua.
The sintering techniques of Dehua porcelain have been inscribed on the list of China's national intangible cultural heritage.
Archaeological findings show that, with the rise of Quanzhou port in Fujian as the largest port in the East during the Song (960-1279) and Yuan (1271-1368) dynasties, Dehua ceramics became bulk commodities on the ancient Maritime Silk Road.
Rise and fall
The small county has basked in the rise and wallowed in the fall of the ceramics industry.
Chen Mingliang, a Chinese arts and crafts master and national inheritor of the Dehua ceramics technique, says that, during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), the techniques used to create Dehua ceramics reached a peak with porcelain being produced as white as cream.
"That was why the French named Dehua-made, ivory white porcelain 'Blanc de Chine' 300 years ago, a title that is still used today," says Chen. Highly-coveted by European nobles, Dehua white porcelain sparked the production of porcelain in Europe.
"Then, during the Qing Dynasty, because of the huge overseas demand for Chinese porcelain utensils, the fine art of blanc de Chine porcelain production gradually waned, as craftsmen turned to the mass production of blue-and-white porcelain utensils for export," explains Chen.
The Tek Sing ceramics are evidence of those mass exports, he says.
In the 1960s, ceramic craftsmen at Dehua researched and resumed the traditional sintering method of blanc de Chine porcelain.
Chen has stuck to blanc de Chine art porcelain making in Dehua, noting that it is necessary to combine traditional techniques to create works suitable for contemporary aesthetics in order that the porcelain craft can be revived to its former glory.
The only remaining ancient kiln in Dehua is the Yueji Kiln, which has been burning continuously for more than 400 years.
It still churns out four batches of pottery a year and the production attracts ceramic makers and visitors from all over the world.
Lin Zeyang, a 27-year-old local in Dehua, rents two small houses near the kiln as her ceramics workshop. She explains that, while people nowadays use electric kilns to make ceramics that are convenient and easy to operate, in the ancient wood-burning kilns, each ceramic piece takes on a unique shape because of the uneven heat.
"This imperfection creates an individuality that cannot be replicated by today's modern machinery, a quality which, in recent years, has been gaining in popularity among consumers both at home and abroad," she says.
She adds that artists can rent space in the Yueji Kiln to create their own work. Last year, demand for her porcelain from the kiln far outweighed production and she was unable to keep up with incoming orders.
To this day, Dehua remains China's largest production and export base of ceramic handicrafts.
By the end of 2018, there were more than 3,000 ceramic enterprises in Dehua, employing more than 100,000 people, with an annual turnover of 32.85 billion yuan ($4.65 billion), and the products were sold and exported to 190 countries and regions.
However, while once upon a time, the most popular exports were porcelain figures and utensils, these days Western craft porcelain fills the cargo holds of ships leaving China.
Whether it's the porcelain souvenirs sold at Universal Studios and the world's Disneyland theme parks, the best-selling ceramic cups in Starbucks, or small porcelain models found in European and American gardens－even seasonal porcelain for Christmas and Easter－most of them come from this one small county in southern China.
Zheng Pengfei, manager of Shunmei Ceramic Cultural Enterprise, one of the largest ceramic exporters in Dehua, says the company has earned international bargaining power through its exports. Its household porcelain products can now be found on the shelves of Walmart and other major international retailers.
He adds that Dehua porcelain needs to continue to impress the world, not only with its considerable production output, but also through its innovation and technique.