Middle Kingdom Porcelain: Interview with Alison Alten and Bo Jia
Bo Jia and Alison Alten founded their porcelain label Middle Kingdom in 1998. They built their kiln near the old imperial kilns in Jingdezhen, China’s “capital of porcelain,” where well-trained ceramicists handcraft each piece of Bo’s design to the highest standard.
Widely acclaimed for their elegant silhouettes and innovative use of color, Middle Kingdom’s wares have been curated by many museums and boutiques across the globe, including the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, the Lane Crawford department store in Hong Kong, the MOMA store in San Francisco, and the National Gallery of Art gift shop in Washington D.C.
Bo (left) and Alison in their Georgetown home,
a house filled with beautiful porcelain wares and antiques from China.
WHAT INSPIRED YOU TO CREATE A PORCELAIN BRAND?
WHAT WAS YOUR VISION WHEN YOU FIRST STARTED?
Bo studied graphic design at Zhejiang Academy of Fine Art in Hangzhou (now known as China Academy of Fine Art) but spent a lot of his time painting in oil. Alison studied Chinese language and history at William and Mary, and took a detour into art history courses as a graduate student of East Asian Studies at Harvard. However, neither of us formally studied ceramics!
After Bo emigrated to the U.S., he discovered that the depth and greatness of China’s traditional culture was completely overlooked by most of his new Western friends and acquaintances. He disliked hearing well-meaning comments attributing Chinese people as “honest and hard-working” - certainly positive traits, but often veiling the ignorance of the abundance of creativity and skillfulness of traditional and contemporary artists in China.
We embarked on the creation of a new brand from China that would represent the best of traditional techniques with our modern interpretation, and in a material that could not be misinterpreted as an appropriation from any other culture - porcelain.
AND NOW, DO YOU THINK YOU HAVE
ACCOMPLISHED THE GOAL FOR MIDDLE KINGDOM?
We have been collected by the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and the Baltimore Museum of Art in Baltimore, MD, so we consider that we have achieved some of what we set out to do. Our design and production ethos has been well received by museum stores, boutiques and department stores around the world, and our designs have been featured in many different magazines and publications over the years. We accept that we are ambassadors for an ancient culture and art form, though we are not bound by tradition.
CAN YOU TELL US A LITTLE ABOUT YOUR DESIGN PROCESS?
Our design inspiration comes from the purest expressions of ceramic artistry from the Song and Ming Dynasties. We feel we are creating modern examples in this great tradition, updating the “family tree” with a modern interpretation of color as well as our own design inputs. We start first with design, but are very open to the opinions of our skilled potters who are so knowledgeable about the technical possibilities and limitations of the medium.
WHAT ABOUT THE CRAFTING PROCESS?
ARE THE ARTISANS MAKING EVERYTHING THE TRADITIONAL WAY,
OR ARE THEY ALSO USING NEW TECHNOLOGIES?
Our kiln building is arranged in the traditional manner, as is our production, with stages of production that a potter from the past would recognize. We do, however, use some modern conveniences like electric wheels and a gas kiln.
JINGDEZHEN WAS ONCE A WORLD-
RENOWNED PRODUCTION BASE FOR PORCELAIN.
HOW ARE THE CERAMICISTS THERE DOING NOW?
The skills of the potters in Jingdezhen have never disappeared, but the levels of artistry and creativity have waxed and waned over the centuries as a result of the input and desires of the customer base. There is so much untapped potential in Jingdezhen; however, the creative forces there are subject to the same constraints as those of Chinese laborers - for instance, many kilns in Jingdezhen used to make porcelain wares as luxury gifts and yet the recent crackdown on corruption in China was a strike to the sales of porcelain luxuries. The conflicts between economic planning and free markets are hindering this industry to develop according to real demand.
On the other hand, the local government has been keen to showcase the Jingdezhen “brand”, but their funds go to exhibition halls and museums that rarely attract visitors, or international symposia that are not attended by a full complement of international ceramicists, etc.
We are not hopeful of the government to harness the skills of the industry in order to make a name for Jingdezhen ceramics as the imperial patrons did in the past, but we do hold out hope that individuals and private companies will be able to channel the skills of technicians and artists to create work that can be rightly and proudly called Jingdezhen ware.
DOWN THE ROAD OF BUILDING A BRAND,
WHEN DID YOU FEEL THE HARDEST?
AND WHAT WAS THE MOMENT THAT MADE YOU ECSTATIC,
FEELING THAT EVERYTHING HAD BEEN WORTH IT?
When we first started, no one believed our wares could be Chinese, since the quality was so high. Yet despite our hard efforts to bring a native craft to an international audience, we faced the lack of recognition from sources in China, and that has been one of our biggest disappointments.
Our proudest moment was the call from the Victoria & Albert Museum that our wares were worthy of inclusion in the museum. We are so proud to be considered exemplars of “late 20th century industrial production,” which is a description more dry-sounding than what it means!
Bo once likened this phenomenon to a child recognized and loved by an "adoptive mother" rather than the "birth mother." Despite these circumstances, as more Chinese have growing disposable income, gain an appreciation for their own history, and become educated on historical preservation practices from other countries, we believe there will be a larger audience for our story.
Photos: MIDDLE KINGDOM