Excerpt: The Great Smog of China

AAS Publications is pleased to announce the release of the newest volume in our Asia Shorts series, The Great Smog of China: A Short Event History of Air Pollution, authored by Anna L. Ahlers (Max Planck Institute for the History of Science), Mette Halskov Hansen (University of Oslo), and Rune Svarverud (University of Oslo). In this book, the authors examine the history of air pollution in China, looking beyond the headline-grabbing “Airpocalypse” of 2013 to consider the presence of haze, smog, and miasma from ancient history through the present. “Along the way,” Asia Shorts series editor William Tsutsui writes in his Foreword to the book, “Ahlers, Hansen, and Svarverud reveal the complex interplay of culture, politics, ideology, science, and nationalism in the Chinese experience of air pollution.” The excerpt below discusses smoke pollution in Jingdezhen, China’s famed center of porcelain production, between the 13th and 17th centuries.

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Smoke Pollution in Jingdezhen as an Air Pollution Event

The grandest of all energy-intensive, industrial feats in premodern China was the production of porcelain in the porcelain capital Jingdezhen 景德鎮, located in what is today Jiangxi Province. The fabled history of porcelain production in Jingdezhen goes back to the Song dynasty, and Jingdezhen is where concern over smoke nuisance from premodern industry in China first became an air pollution event.

A special kind of stone, referred to as “china stone” or “porcelain stone,” rich in mica and low in kaolin (clay), can be found in the area around Jingdezhen and a few other places in East Asia. This stone facilitated the production of the exceptionally white, pure, and translucent porcelain that would eventually become a highly appreciated commodity worldwide. The Song emperor Zhenzong 真宗 (reign 997–1022) patronized the small town, sending an official and later establishing an office to control supplies of fuel, to collect taxes, and to control the supply of Jingdezhen porcelain to the court as tribute wares. The Yuan (1279–1368) and Ming (1368–1644) dynasties exercised greater control over the production of porcelain in Jingdezhen, and by the sixteenth century, the imperial manufactory had been turned into a massive industrial enterprise with twenty-three storehouses, fifty-eight kilns, four temples, two wells, and restrooms for the workers, and was producing porcelain for a large, international market. During the Qing dynasty (1644–1911), this industrial town flourished as never before and grew to a population of more than one million in 1712, with the town’s activities mainly centering around the production of porcelain. Jingdezhen’s 3,000 kilns produced 17,000 first-class pieces and 7,000 second-class pieces per year. However, in 1786 the Qing emperor abolished the practice of sending officials to supervise production, while also investing heavily in the production of porcelain in Jingdezhen. Investments in the porcelain industry became an economic liability for the Qing, and the Qing court had to cut costs due to other fiscal requirements caused by growing demographic pressures and local popular uprisings. After Qing imperial disinvestment in the porcelain industry, production in Jingdezhen gradually declined until April 1950, when it recommenced under state control as part of the CCP’s policy toward winning local political support and trust in areas like Jingdezhen.

Porcelain plate produced at Jingdezhen in the 17th century. The delicate wares fired in the Jingdezhen kilns contrasted with the harsh air pollutants emitted into the city’s air by those kilns.

Public domain photo via Wikipedia.

Undoubtedly, the large-scale production of porcelain in Jingdezhen over the centuries had considerable local environmental consequences. First of all, production caused large-scale deforestation in the area. The kilns in Jingdezhen were fired by pine logs and brushwood from the eleventh century until the early 1950s, unlike in north China where coal had been used as an energy source for kilns for centuries. These sources of energy were exhausted in the Jingdezhen area through gradual deforestation, and pine logs had to be imported from farther and farther away. The high cost of transportation caused the government to turn to coal in the 1950s, and later to propane gas as well.

The Jingdezhen kilns released massive smoke emissions into the vicinity of production sites, particularly from the Yuan dynasty onward. Smoke pollution, alongside other factors that contributed to environmental degradation, was indeed becoming a nuisance to the town’s growing population. Maris Boyd Gillette has studied the long history of porcelain production in Jingdezhen and sums up how she understands the environmental consequences of the town’s accomplishments: “Jingdezhen’s success had far-reaching ramifications. The massive scale of porcelain production caused significant environmental degradation: deforestation, huge quantities of industrial garbage (kiln wasters, spent kiln furniture), and air pollution.” Based on studies of local historical sources, Anne Gerritsen has likewise described the sight that a traveller would have encountered when arriving in Jingdezhen: “To the outsider arriving in Jingdezhen, the multitude of kilns pumping smoke into the skies must have been an extraordinary sight.”

Gillette and Gerritsen have, through their studies of historical sources, illustrated how smoke emissions from kilns in Jingdezhen became an air pollution event during the Yuan and Ming dynasties. The earliest individual account of smoke emissions from the Jingdezhen kilns is depicted in a poem by the Yuan dynasty poet Hong Yanzu 洪炎祖 (1267–1329), who is said to have loved pottery but was upset when entering the town of Jingdezhen one autumn. One stanza in the poem “Observations One Autumn Morning in Fuliang: Three Poems” (Fuliang qiu xiao shu shi san shou 浮梁秋曉書事三首) describes the gloomy sight of mud, dust, and pottery shards around the kilns of Jingdezhen. The line “Wind and mist render the autumn even gloomier” appears to refer to the smoke emitted from the kilns, adding to Hong’s distress (which was originally over another matter). A much later image of the smoky sky over Jingdezhen has been preserved in a photograph printed in the National Geographic Magazine in November 1920. The Christian missionary Frank B. Lenz was living in the provincial capital Nanchang and took a photo of the Jingdezhen “skyline” in 1919 or 1920. The photo reveals Jingdezhen’s extreme air pollution—the product of its hundreds of wood-fired kilns.

Jingdezhen was likely the most air-polluted town in China in premodern times. Smoke pollution in this porcelain city was described in poetry and communicated through historical sources. The smoke emissions in Jingdezhen stand as a symbol of the effects of China’s premodern Age of Smoke that was, first of all, prompted by a quest for luxury goods and tribute wares. Human exposure to air pollution in Chinese proto-industrial towns like Jingdezhen was spurred by China’s early Age of Smoke and caused by the exploitation of wood and coal as sources of energy. Acceleration in population growth, which prompted the establishment of ever larger urban centers and cities, exposed urban dwellers to other and new forms of polluted air.