Jiangxi Province, 280km (174 miles) NE of Nanchang, 430km (267 miles) E of Wuhan

Did you know that the English word "china" probably derives from Jingde Zhen's former name, Changnan? The place got its big break in the first year in Jingde Reign of Song dynasty (1004-07), when the potters of the town, then known as Changnan, picked up a juicy commission from the Zhen Zong emperor. The royal court decreed that local artisans stamp their bowls and vases with the wording "Made during the Jingde Reign" printed on the bottom of every piece. Hence the city assumed the name of its imperial patron "Jingde Zhen."

By the Ming dynasty, Jingde Zhen had become a major export center. Several hundred kilns turned out hundreds of thousands of pieces each year and, conveniently located not far from the original Ming capital at Nanjing, it continued to keep the emperor and his concubines in teacups. When the capital moved north to Beijing, Jingde Zhen maintained its connection to the court via the waterways of Poyang Lake, the Yangzi, and the Grand Canal. Porcelain now runs deep in Jingde Zhen's history. The layer of discarded porcelain shards and kiln debris under its streets is said to be 9m (30 ft.) thick in places.

Although 17th-century Manchu riots destroyed much of the town, the Yangzi to the north, and river systems leading south to Guangzhou, enabled Jingde Zhen to get its wares around China for sale, and later, via the treaty ports, to an increasingly enthusiastic European market. Imperial support also helped -- some kilns were employed solely for the making of wares for the emperors and their officials. The first kiln site to produce white china and to use certain underglaze painting techniques, Jingde Zhen reached its peak of technical brilliance during the mid-17th to late 18th century with the gaudy full-colored enamel overglaze illustrations of famille vert and famille rose china.

The secret, as Jingde Zhen potters had known for more than 1,000 years, lay in using the right combination of clays and feldspars. The most famous of these was kaolin, or china clay, which got its name from the high ridge, or Gao Ling, just north of Jingde Zhen combined with the timber from the surrounding hills as coal caused yellowing in the glaze. Industrialization of the area, which employed around half the town's workforce, soon stripped the hills bare and enough coal was fired to turn the skies black. Just 10 years ago, mass-production kilns began to be converted from coal to gas. The air is much better now and even the porcelain quality has improved thanks to this change in technology.

With Jiang Zemin (he was born nearby) as its champion, Jingde Zhen attracted huge amounts of investment in the 1990s and early 2000s but since Big Brother lost power, the city has withered as presidential focus has returned to Zhejiang. The best example of this is the enormous museum at the end of Changnan Lu, which is already derelict and falling into disrepair although the old bus station is a depressing reminder that the future of Jingde Zhen is unclear. Rising real estate prices have forced many factories to relocate and the town's reputation as a wholesale center has rapidly been eclipsed by the rising star of Yiwu, in nearby Zhejiang. Much of the city is now run down and depressing, although places like the Sanbao Ceramic Institute definitely seem to be moving in the right direction.