Maris Gillette | 14 September 2018
Jingdezhen, August 1924
Little Jiang hummed a tune as he darted down the street, dodging two carriers transporting planks of unfired greenware on their shoulders, a man pulling a wheelbarrow of finished porcelain wrapped in straw, and three women lugging laundry and water back from the river. Bounding up the winding alley to the kiln, he waved good morning to his neighbors, not bothering to call out since they could hardly hear him over the carriers’ warning shouts, barking dogs, and dull thuds of men loading wet logs for the kilns. He picked his way past oozing garbage, excrement, and misshapen lumps of fused saggars and porcelain, heading for the dark kiln shed.
Finally, an order for the underglaze blue bowls that he and his older brother produced. They’d pawned his wife’s gold earrings to get enough to cover the kiln master’s meat money. Why do they call it meat money, he’d complained to his older brother. Everyone knows it’s a bribe. His brother told him to shut up and deliver the payment, and make sure their bowls were loaded in the middle four rows. This time, the Jiang family workshop needed their porcelain fired in the best place in the kiln. No gray- or yellow-looking bowls for them this time.
Little Jiang entered the shed and stood a moment, blinking and clutching the door. Strange, he thought, as his eyes adjusted to the dim interior. Where is everyone? No loaders, no kiln workers. No Master Feng. He skipped over to the egg-shaped kiln and looked in. It was still warm from the firing they’d unloaded yesterday. Empty saggars, and greenware waiting to be carefully lowered inside them, greeted his gaze. He frowned, puzzled. Why weren’t they loading yet? It was close to seven o’clock. He’d never seen the shed so quiet.
“Master Feng,” he called, turning his head right and left. “Mister Kiln Master, it’s me, Little Jiang!”
“Up here,” Feng’s voice wafted down from the second floor. “Come up, we’re upstairs.”
Little Jiang climbed the ladder to the wood storage area. Master Feng sat drinking tea with Scabby Liu and Orphan Wang. His mother’s…he swore under his breath. He should have come earlier. Had Liu or Wang talked Master Feng into putting their wares in the four middle rows? Well, maybe this time he’d brought more money. He breathed a quick prayer to the God of Wind and Fire. Please, let it be me this time. We really need this sale.
“Sit down,” Feng said, jerking his head toward a log.
“Where is everyone?” Little Jiang asked. “Why so late today?”
“We’re not firing,” Feng said.
“Not firing?” Little Jiang stared at Master Feng, then turned to Scabby Liu and Orphan Wang. What was he talking about? The two potters eyed him silently. Little Jiang twitched back to Master Feng. “Why? When are you going to fire? What happened?”
“Nothing,” Feng said. “We’re not firing. Boss’s orders.”
What in the hell was this? Little Jiang shook his head. What the hell was that fat-ass Cao up to this time? That son of a bitch. He’d raised his kiln fees twice in the past year. Little Jiang and his brother had gone along with it, as had Scabby Liu, Orphan Wang, and the other potting households. What choice did they have? They had to fire at Cao’s kiln.
We River West Village people have to stick together, Cao had said unctuously. You know what the other owners are doing, right? Building those huge kilns so they can fire more pots, earn more fees. They fire those kilns so hot, the saggars melt. Half the loads come out ruined. I wouldn’t do that to you, right? We all need to make a living from this.
Right, Little Jiang thought sourly. We River West Village people have to stick together. Except that some of us live in villas and send their sons to school, while the rest of us wear straw sandals.
“What’s happening, Master Feng,” he asked, his voice rising. “Please, tell me what’s going on. My brother and I have a new client, we’ve finally got some business again. We need these bowls fired right away! He’s not going to wait for us. The broker will just take the order elsewhere!”
“There’s nowhere else to take the order,” Orphan Wang said.
“Yeah. Quit worrying, boy.” Scabby Liu snickered.
Little Jiang looked at them blankly. What was wrong with these people? They just didn’t get it. Hadn’t they seen how thin his wife had grown? And her pregnant, too. He and his brother needed this order. He swung around, slamming his hand hard against the shed’s wall. “What…are…you…talking…about!” he said, punctuating his words with slams.
“Sit down, Little Jiang,” Master Feng said.
Little Jiang sat down abruptly. “How much does he want this time?” He knew what this was. He and Elder Brother would have to see a money-lender. There was no way around it. They had nothing left to pawn and no one left to borrow from.
“Pay attention, boy,” Scabby Liu said. “There’s more to this than you think.”
Little Jiang thought. They had to have something else to pawn. What could they possibly…
“All the kilns in Jingdezhen have closed their doors,” Orphan Wang’s voice broke in. “Nobody’s firing in the whole city!”
“What!?!” Little Jiang jumped up. “What do you mean? How did that happen?!” He paced over to the wet logs. No one was firing? How could he find someone else to fire his bowls if no one was firing? He squeezed his eyes shut for a moment as he admitted to having the idea. Heaven help him, he’d break guild rules to finish this order. Old Zhang the broker had told him and his brother that this client was a big fish. If only they could have a regular client placing steady orders again…They had to do this right.
“How many kilns in this town, Little Jiang?” Orphan Wang asked.
“About a hundred.” What about Li Village? Could he find someone to carry the greenware that far? Would it break? Who did they know in Li Village? He’d ask his brother. His brother would know someone.
“Pay attention!” Scabby Liu said sharply. “A hundred kilns in this town, and not one firing. Who owns them?”
“I dunno,” Little Jiang said impatiently. “Cao owns a few! Master Feng knows how many. Don’t you manage three or four for him, Master Feng? Why are we talking about this?”
Scabby Liu spat. “This kid’s an idiot. Do we have to talk to him?”
“Of course we do,” Orphan Wang said.
“Little Jiang, pay attention. Jingdezhen has a hundred and four wood-firing kilns. Cao owns ten. The rest belong to eight other households. Get it? Nine families own all the wood-firing kilns in this town.”
“And they’re all from Duchang county,” Orphan Wang added. “Every single one of them.”
“All from Duchang!” Little Jiang said. “Huh. But Cao’s the only one from River West Village.”
“You think that matters? Wake up, boy.” Scabby Liu snorted. “The wood kiln owners have formed a new organization. They call themselves the “Three Kilns and Nine Associations.”
“They’re determined to run this industry!” Orphan Wang shook his head. “Every potter in the city is affected by this shutdown. Well, not the coarse ware potters, they can fire in the straw-burning kilns. But all the rest of us, open ware, closed ware, slab-makers, bodiless porcelain, nobody can fire anything. They’ve closed the kilns for the rest of the month!”
The rest of the month! Little Jiang was stunned. What the hell would they eat for the rest of the month? Longer, even—how soon would they get an order after the month was up? Guanyin have mercy. He jumped up and headed for the ladder.
“Sit down, Little Jiang,” Master Feng said.
Little Jiang didn’t stop. He was going to smash every saggar in the entire fucking kiln. He’d pick them up and hurl them at the walls. Maybe he could put a hole in the wall if he threw them hard enough. And if the greenware broke, so be it. That bastard Cao wouldn’t fire it for them anyway.
Suddenly Scabby Liu was at his side, grabbing his shoulders and strong-arming him over to the logs. “Get over here boy,” he said roughly, shoving him until he sat down hard. “Don’t you understand? There isn’t one branch of the entire industry that isn’t touched by this. Even high and mighty Feng is going to lose income this time. Think about it. Closing this kiln means he’s doing six less firings than he usually does. Feng manages four kilns for Cao. That’s twenty-four firings. How much meat money is he out?”
Little Jiang looked at Master Feng, trying to read him. Feng’s face looked the same as always, self-contained, authoritative, imperturbable.
“Every kiln manager in the city is going to feel it,” Scabby Liu went on. “Every manager, every worker, every loader. And if the kilns don’t fire, the saggar makers are screwed, because none of the kilns will need new saggars. And the painters, they won’t have any finished porcelain to enamel, so no money for them.”
“The wrappers won’t have anything to pack. The carriers will have nothing to carry,” Orphan Wang said. “Shit, even the brokers are going to take a hit.”
“The smaller brokers, you mean,” Scabby Liu said. “Those big Huizhou firms have huge stores of porcelain. It will take months for them to run out.”
Little Jiang tried to fathom it. Business had really fallen off in the last several years. It wasn’t just his family eating that watery rice porridge his wife was making. And if no one could sell anything for the rest of the month…if no one had an income for the rest of the month…
“So, so, what do we do?” he tripped over his words. “How do we make them fire?”
“Now you’re thinking,” Scabby Liu said. “Almost. What do we do. This is about all of us. This is bigger than one half-wit breaking up a few saggars, bigger than River West Village.”
“This takes some organization,” Wang agreed. “This time, even the kiln managers are going to be with us.”
Master Feng nodded slowly. “Talk, Liu. Tell us how we’re going to…”
“Take them down,” Little Jiang finished the sentence happily. “Tell us how we’re going to take them down!”
Scabby Liu spat. “This time, we’re going to take them all down.”
Author’s note: In 1924, ceramists in Jingdezhen, the city known as China’s porcelain capital, organized a massive protest. Sources differ as to who organized the strike and where it began: some say it started with kiln workers, protesting the delayed opening of kilns (see Dillon’s 1976 A history of the porcelain industry in Jingdezhen, p.162), while others suggest it was organized by the guilds, for higher wages and more food (see Dillon’s 1992 article “Fang Zhimin, Jingdezhen, and the Northeast Jiangxi Soviet: Tradition, Revolution, and Civil War in a Pottery Town” in Modern Asian Studies 26(3), pages 576-577). My fictional recreation is based on descriptions of ceramists, the porcelain industry, and Jingdezhen protest movements in Jingdezhen’s Commercial Kilns (Fang 2002, pages 143-255), A History of Jingdezhen’s Porcelain Industry (Jiang 1936, pages 40-44, 157-203), Draft History of Jingdezhen’s Ceramic Industry (Jiangxi Light Industry Bureau Ceramic Research Center 1959, pages 231-240, 260-281, 334-346), and ethnographic interviews that I conducted with seven elderly residents of Jingdezhen (aged 73 to 81) in 2005 and 2008. Want to learn more about Jingdezhen? Try China’s Porcelain Capital: The Rise, Fall and Reinvention of Ceramics in Jingdezhen. Check out a preview here.