Every Saturday, come rain or shine, the stone-paved courtyard of a half-century-old ceramics factory in Jingdezhen is abuzz with creativity. Here, each of some 30 pitched white tents houses the artistic creations of a budding potter. Aptly called the Creative Market, this is a bazaar at which some of China's most original ceramics are showcased and sold.
It was the 2,000-year-old ceramics industry that put this Jiangxi province town on the world map - and may have given China, the country, its name. Over the past few decades, however, the once-glorious tradition has been beaten down by imitations and the flowering of fakery. Recently, though, a steady influx of young potters from all over the country has brought about a creative renaissance. They come to master the techniques, ply their wares and, all being well, make a living.
"To pursue art, I need to have an economic footing," says Zhou Xionghao, 23, who specialises in ceramic accessories and, according to her accounts, makes more than 500,000 yuan (HK$630,000) a year. "Such is the reality in China."
The market was founded by world-renowned ceramics artist Caroline Cheng, a Hongkonger who established the Pottery Workshop in Central 28 years ago. In 2005, Cheng refurbished a section of an abandoned ceramic-sculpture factory in Jingdezhen into a compound of design studios, workshops, galleries, stores, an artists' residence and a coffee shop. The weekly gathering sprang up in the compound's courtyard two years ago. The makers must apply for entry by submitting their works and, if accepted, pay a small rental fee. To stay in business, however, they must win over not only Cheng, the curator, but also customers.
This is a far cry from the days when local potters relied on the patronage of just one person: the emperor. One of the first royal customers was Emperor Zhenzong (whose reign, from 997-1022, was named the Jingde era), who decreed that all fine wares from the town, then known as Changnan - of which "China" may be a derivative - be marked with the "Made in the Jingde era" seal. With an imperial stamp of approval, it rose to fame as Jingdezhen (" zhen" is "town" in Putonghua).
With the imminent fall of the Qing court, the imperial factory was shuttered by 1910 and in moved the state-run Jiangxi Porcelain. The economic reforms of the 1980s weren't kind to the local industry and only two of Jiangxi Porcelain's three dozen pottery factories have survived.
Today, abandoned kilns abound around the old city centre. Many have become treasure troves for researchers seeking out clues to Ming and Qing dynasty ceramic art by combing through the shards of ornate ancient ware.
Upheavals notwithstanding, the ceramics industry here seems to have kept in touch with its traditions. Shiny brass plaques can be seen around town officially anointing this ceramicist or another to be a "successor to the traditional porcelain art of Jingdezhen". And on the city streets, conventional wares - flower pots, tea sets and vases fashioned in similar traditional motifs - flank the entrance to many a store.
Amid the sheer mass of ceramics that is Jingdezhen, young potters are nonetheless finding ways to stand out. By striking out on their own, the craftspeople, mostly graduates of the Jingdezhen Ceramic Institute, say they feel liberated from the shackles of conservative traditional taste. Through Cheng, they say, they've come to understand the aesthetics that inspire their creations.
"The Cultural Revolution killed the aesthetics," Cheng says. "Now people like all red and gold and rococo."
And fakes. As demand for the real thing grows, so does that for lookalikes. By some estimates, nearly four out of every five porcelain "antiques" with a fake emperor's seal can be traced to a Jingdezhen kiln. Fake antiques sail easily through unreliable scientific tests, making their way into collectors' homes and, in at least one instance, the Palace Museum, in Beijing's Forbidden City.
The proliferation of forgeries, ironically, has helped to keep craftsmanship alive and well in Jingdezhen. The artisans need to keep making their wares the traditional way in order for the fakes to pass as antiques.
A few years before Cheng brought her Pottery Workshop to town, Jackson Li Jiansheng, a Canadian-Chinese ceramicist who trained both here and abroad, established within a few traditional courtyard buildings a complex of pottery studios, complete with a wood-firing kiln, a bar and restaurants. Known as Sanbao Village, this has become a destination for both visitors with a penchant for unconventional ceramics and experienced artists yearning for workspace away from the bustle.
For Zhou, however, in the thick of things is exactly where he needs to be. A year out of school, the designer founded Taoyi Original Manual Jewellery Design Studio by assembling a team of craftsmen to mass-produce various types of pendants that he has marketed to great success.
Unlike earlier generations, these budding potters see themselves more as artists than artisans. Proud of their work, they often refuse to bow to pressure from bargain hunters and sell on the cheap. At the Creative Market, the "No haggling, please" sign isn't an uncommon sight.
Chen Yaxiong, a recent graduate from Changsha, Hunan province, designs unglazed mugs in his Kapoo Studio (" kapoo" is "cup" with a Putonghua accent) and decorates them with hand-drawn cartoonesque detail to appeal to young women and office ladies. His refusal to lower his prices is a matter of pride, he says. Besides, "anyone asking for too deep a discount just doesn't appreciate my work".
"I'm not a factory worker," says Chen. "I'm not selling my labour here, but rather my ideas."
Getting there: Shenzhen Airlines (global.shenzhenair.com) operates daily flights from Shenzhen Baoan International Airport to Jingdezhen. China Eastern Airlines (www.flychinaeastern.com) flies daily from Hong Kong to Nanchang Changbei International Airport. At Nanchang central bus station, buses departing for Jingdezhen's city centre leave every 30 minutes. The bus ride takes three hours.