China Consumer

The porcelain paradox

What chances of a comeback for one of imperial China’s top exports?

Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel and China's Premier Minister Li Keqiang visit the Royal Porcelain Factory KPM in Berlin

Now made in Germany, Li Keqiang discovers

There was a time when porcelain-making mystified the West. Before chinaware became a common sight in the cupboards and cabinets of the urban middle-class, Chinese porcelain was a prized possession, couriered along the Silk Road, and coveted by the wealthy.

Efforts to unearth the secrets of Chinese ceramics began almost immediately, but were largely frustrated until Johann Friedrich Böttger made a major breakthrough a little over three centuries ago – in a Saxon prison.

Böttger was pursuing the alchemist fantasy of converting ordinary metals into gold, and was bold enough to boast openly of his progress. When the King of Prussia sought to put his talents to the test, Böttger fled, but he was taken into custody by Augustus II (the Strong), ruler of Saxony. He too demanded gold. As that task was proving fruitless, Böttger started working with another alchemist who had been asked to reproduce porcelain, a product that fascinated the Saxon monarch (Augustus was Europe’s most fervent collector of that Chinese ceramic). The chemists’ collaboration bore fruit in 1708 when they discovered kaolin, the substance that occurred naturally in some Chinese clays and gave porcelain its special quality. Having demystified the production process Augustus then established Dresden’s Meissen brand, making plain his wish to make porcelain to the same standards as China’s own master potters.

The technology knowhow was soon popularised elsewhere in Europe, giving rise to some of the oldest British ceramic brands like Royal Doulton, Aynsley and Wedgwood. (The Wedgwood and Royal Doulton brands were purchased by a Finnish company for $550 million this month.)

Meissen, meanwhile, has evolved into a luxury and lifestyle group that sells jewellery and fine arts alongside its more traditional tableware. It opened its flagship boutique in Beijing in January.

Today, the most revered works of porcelain bought and sold at auction remain those created centuries ago in imperial China. But commercially, the most popular products tend to be designed and developed elsewhere.

“A thousand years ago Chinese porcelain was the most sought-after luxury good of European nobles. A thousand years later the most famous porcelain brands are all owned by European or American firms. Chinese makers [of china] are finding it difficult to obtain a tiny slice of the market,” Xinhua complains.

Chinese producers would like to reclaim their historical mantle and this April saw the finale of China’s Ceramic Arts Exhibition, as well as the hosting of the first Hunan (Liling) International Ceramics Fair.

The events were co-held at the purpose-built Ceramic Art City in Liling – a colossal complex in Hunan province offering a million square feet of exhibition space, and constructed at a cost of Rmb3 billion ($485 million), according to the China Daily.

Why Liling? For millennia the town has been an important hub for the ceramics industry. In 1905, aware of the export potential, Emperor Guangxu even invested a significant sum to set up a state producer there, encouraging the pottery masters to pioneer a new underglaze technique, which stood out from the more traditional Chinese fashion of blue-and-white porcelain. The new style achieved recognition at the Panama-Pacific World Expo, held in San Francisco in 1915.

A century later the Liling government is investing again. According to the Ministry of Commerce, the International Ceramics Fair has the dual purpose of promoting ceramics culture and developing the ceramics industry. The secretary-general of the Hunan Ceramics Industry Association likens it to the “Olympics of the ceramics world”.

But inspiration is required if the Chinese are going to win any gold medals. The sector has been suffering, particularly since the European Union imposed anti-dumping duties of up to 31.6% on Chinese exports. (EU imports are still significant. The European Commission estimated in 2011 that $815 million of Chinese ceramics were purchased in the the trade bloc.)

However, for many Chinese pottery makers the problems are domestic in origin as well. The industry lacks brand names that command attention in the international market, and much of its chinaware production is actually made for foreign companies, who sell it under their own brands.

Reports in Xinhua suggest that even in Liling, up to 70% of the porcelain produced is made on behalf of foreign brands.

Domestic brand building will be difficult. Decades of mass production – with little innovation – have created a highly competitive market where few companies are able to achieve a technical or design-driven edge. According to figures from the Hunan government, in Liling alone there were 665 porcelain manufacturing firms at the end of 2014, hiring more than 150,000 staff. But about 80% of the workforce is low-skilled, the authorities admit.

Moreover, lax regulatory practices allow cheap imitations of original designs to flood the market soon after their initial release, making it difficult for local producers to focus on the creativity and brand-building that enable the establishment of pricing power.

Jingdezhen, a city with one of porcelain’s most storied histories, has acquired a less-than-glorious reputation for making the best antique replicas, for instance, while local artisans focused less on overseas sales than a grey market in one-of -a-kind items that businessmen could gift to corrupt officials to launder bribes.

Jingdezhen’s former days were much more reputable, however. Last year the Meiyingtang Chenghua ‘Chicken Cup’, a rare albeit tiny wine beaker, sold at auction in Hong Kong for a little over $36 million (see WiC233). Produced in Jingdezhen exclusively for the emperor’s lips at some time between 1464 and 1487, any cups deemed to be flawed were smashed and buried. Even fewer have made it to the present day: the auction house Sotheby’s says that only 16 survive.

Local ceramic skills are also being lauded at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s China-themed exhibition this month (see WiC282), with blue and white porcelain said to have inspired designer collections from Rodarte, Karl Lagerfeld and Roberto Cavalli.

To compete against the international brands today, Chinese producers have a lot of catching up to do. For instance it was tireless experimentation with traditional methods of porcelain production that led to the invention of bone china. But that breakthough came in the UK, not China.

And it is surely telling that in the case of three of the most iconic Chinese exports of the imperial era – silk, tea and porcelain – domestic firms have been unable to build modern global brands in any. Instead they’ve been outflanked by European names like Hermès, Twinings and Wedgwood.

And cynics say of China’s love for grand projects: spending billions on an exhibition hall in Liling, while nice, won’t guarantee that the country’s porcelain industry will return to its Ming Dynasty eminence.

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