Schoolchildren try their hands at pottery at Minlong Ceramics in Beijing (COURTESY PHOTO)
As Chen Jinlin sits behind his ornately carved wooden table, pouring tea into delicate porcelain cups, it is a far cry from his earlier life as a fisherman in a small impoverished village in southeast China's Fujian Province. Today Chen, elegantly dressed in a traditional Chinese cross-buttoned velvet jacket, is a ceramic magnate who controls the fortunes of the thriving Minlong Ceramics, housed in Minlong Plaza in a commercial district in southeast Beijing.
The transformation began in 1978 when Chen left his village in search of new income opportunities. He worked in the bamboo and wood industries and then became a salesman in a ceramic company.
"My original intention was to make enough money to feed my family," he said.
After 15 years, the experience emboldened him to open his own agency. In the early 1990s, buyers' interest in ceramics was beginning to grow and Chen seized the opportunity. He pooled his savings with loans from friends to open Minlong Ceramics in 2002, Minlong meaning a dragon from Fujian. His vision was to provide a one-stop ceramic store where sellers trading in various products would come under one roof.
Minlong Ceramics has a 200,000-square-meter display area, with over 200 pottery factories selling directly to consumers through their in-store stands. In this way, Chen has cut out the middle man and product prices remain relatively low.
A large section of the second floor is a pottery-making area where visitors can try their skills with clay.
"Ambassadors and officials from more than 60 countries have passed through this building and literally tried their hand at pottery. In addition, there are regular student tours where youth can spend time creating with clay in workshops," Chen said.
He also liaises with government organizations to facilitate official visits. Recently, he acquired his own tour company which plans to develop a unique brand of cultural tourism that will promote ceramics. Visitors will have the chance to make pottery as well as learn about ceramics from the ceramic museum he has founded.
The Beijing Ceramic Art Museum houses contemporary and historical ceramic items. Besides being a marketing vehicle, it is also a tourist attraction. "Ceramics is a deeply rooted part of my life. I use it and see it daily and all my achievements come from ceramics. I need to give back to society by helping to raise awareness of this important, and often forgotten, part of Chinese culture," he explained.
Chen Jinlin, founder of Beijing-based Minlong Ceramics
An ancient legacy
Chinese ceramic production can be traced back to the Neolithic Age some 8,000 years ago. Porcelain-—ceramic products baked at high temperatures in kilns to get a translucent look—originated in China and is held as one of the country's top 10 inventions, characterized by a greenish-blue color or the iconic blue and white design.
According to UNESCO, the earliest porcelain appeared during the Shang Dynasty (1600- 1046 B.C.) period. During the reign of the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), Jingdezhen, a city in Jiangxi Province, became known as the capital of porcelain, first producing the famous blue and white porcelain.
Porcelain exports began during the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.-A.D. 220) period. Western craftsmen tried to duplicate Chinese porcelain, at first without much success. Then in the 18th century, English potters found a way to add ash from burnt cattle bones to clay to produce what became known as bone china, which is still very popular in Western countries.
Historically, China's porcelain has helped promote economic and cultural exchanges with the rest of the global community and has had a profound impact on the cultures of other civilizations.
Chen has taken it upon himself to be the unofficial ambassador of ceramics and promote the industry, both locally and abroad.
"With delicate chinaware being synonymous with China, these products should be the country's business card," he said.
Building a brand
While opening his ceramic company, Chen found competition in traditional products—like vases, bowls and decorative objects—was fierce. So he switched tack and focused on household products. Ceramic baths, basins, toilets, tiles and other household items became his focus.
The last decade has seen the quality and design techniques of ceramic household and bathroom items in China catch up with the Western world, Chen said. However, Chinese companies do not pay adequate attention to branding or promoting the local ceramic ware that is used in daily life, such as tea sets and dinner sets. Chen said this is one of the biggest differences between Western and Chinese ceramics. "We are behind in the branding and design of our practical use items. These are not as attractive and as reasonably priced as those made in the West," he pointed out.
China is now the world's largest exporter of ceramic products, accounting for some 25 percent of total global exports, according to Sun Zhenyu, President of the China Society for World Trade Organization Studies, who spoke at an annual conference of the ceramic industry hosted by the China Chamber of Commerce for Import and Export of Light Industrial Products and Arts-Crafts in June.
At the same event, Hu Ming, Vice President of the Beijing-based International Business Daily, said Chinese ceramic products serve not only as household utensils and decorations but also as a vehicle to promote Chinese culture abroad.
This is partly the reason Chen founded the Beijing Ceramic Chamber of Commerce in 2012. The chamber functions as a bridge between the government and ceramic companies, promoting the ceramic industry's development and raising awareness of Chinese ceramic culture. Members include ceramic experts and entrepreneurs.
Chen has been closely following the Chinese Government's Belt and Road Initiative, optimistic that it would expand the Chinese ceramic industry. "Ceramics were an important part of trade in the historical Silk Road era and foreigners got to know China and its rich culture through its ceramic products," he said.
Copyedited by Sudeshna Sarkar
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