The Dream of White Gold

Edmund de Waal in his studio, London, July 2013
Andrew Testa/The New York Tines/Redux
Edmund de Waal in his studio, London, July 2013

The White Road is a large and singular literary object, a book with no obvious prototype. Edmund de Waal has put forward its 401 pages on the strength of two credentials. The runaway success of The Hare with Amber Eyes (2010), an account of his Jewish ancestors in nineteenth-century Paris and twentieth-century Vienna, made de Waal known far beyond his native England as an intimate and lyrical writer with a sophisticated grasp of cultural history. But the preceding twenty-four years of his career had been devoted to pottery, in which art his favored material has been porcelain. That precious white substance is what his new book in some sense addresses.

In what sense? The text tells us something about how the author himself works porcelain and much about how it has historically been worked, as well as about how you might appreciate the results. It refuses to settle down, however, as a manual, a factual history, or a connoisseur’s guide. To call porcelain the “ostensible” subject of The White Road would suggest that the physical material stands for or else veils some ulterior concern. And yes, de Waal’s text has poetic and reflective aspects, but it can’t be categorized as allegory, autobiography, or cultural theory. It is presented first and last as a travelogue, bearing the subtitle “Journey into an Obsession.”1 The pursuit of porcelain, the phrase seems to suggest, has become its own reward. The text emanates from some all-absorbing abstract terminus for personal endeavor, some baffling white hole.

To make porcelain proper (“hard-paste” porcelain, as opposed to imitation “soft-paste”), you need to blend a white clay with a powdered rock. The two substances, each usually aluminosilicate in composition, will fuse and vitrify when fired at extremely high temperatures to deliver a translucent and heat-resistant product. Kaolin, the clay to use, takes its name from the veins of it found at Mount Kaoling, some forty miles outside the city of Jingdezhen, which is itself three hundred miles southwest of Shanghai.

It is in this region that de Waal starts his self-styled “pilgrimage,” his attempt to retrace the crossroads in his chosen material’s history. He enters a disused quarry on the mountain in which “the walls are great cuts of white” and picks up some silvery stuff from the floor that “crumbles in my fingers…. This is it, kaolin, my beginning.” His text would have you suppose that Jingdezhen is likewise porcelain’s “fabled Ur,” the site where the product originated a thousand years ago. More dispassionate historians complicate that story, explaining that a Song emperor decided to concentrate in this single site production processes evolved in other parts of China. Yet from a Western perspective the statement makes sense: it was items of elite artistry…

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