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A Mountain of Magical Clay

The Discovery of Porcelain Clay Bodies


Once upon a time there was a mountain. (It may even still be there, as mountains are slow to move.) Upon this mountain, some clay was found. It was unlike many clays, for it shone white in the sun. It even shone white when it came through the kiln!

The potters and the princes of the land rejoiced at this wondrous substance! The emperor himself wanted pots made of this very special clay. Soon others peoples began to know of the beautiful pots made from this clay. Having seen them, all the various peoples wanted these lovely and extraordinary pots, too (and no wonder). The potters in these far away lands tried and tried to reproduce these wonderful pots, but they couldn't. They could only mimic these exceptional wares.

Why? They could not find a magical mountain or forest or riverbank which contained this purest of clays. (Nor would they have been able to fire it high enough, even if they had found a source of this purest of clays.)

Now, of course, we have found more of this clay and have the means to fire it to the white-hot heat this white clay desires. So the story continues with the potters who work with the clay first found on a high ridge....

Can you guess the name of the magical mountain? I'll bet you may come close.... The mountain is Gaoling (Kao-ling), which is a mountain ridge to the north of Jingdezhen (in the northern portion of the Jiangxi Province in China). And the clay? Kaolin, the major component of porcelain clay bodies. It was here that porcelain was first discovered and from there has become a symbol of affluence in countries across the world.

Of course, you may be wondering...if the clay is called kaolin, why is the pottery called porcelain? That, too, is a bit of a story. It comes from the French porcelaine, which literally means "like a pig".

What?! Who would ever think that this lovely, white branch of the ceramic family would be called pig-like?

It came about in a round-about manner, as so many of our words have. It began with seashells, specifically cowrie shells. The rounded back of the cowrie shell reminded the French of a pig's back, so they were called "little pig" shells. When the first porcelain made its way to western Europe, people thought how the pottery had the same white, glossy glow that cowries did inside. Because of that association, pottery made with kaolin clay bodies became known as "porcelain".

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