Culture

The market where you can buy dug-up antiques

Dec 06, 2018

Antique markets are a fixture in Chinese communities around the world, where one can find anything from worn-out amulets to porcelain allegedly dating to dynasties past.

Where I live in Hong Kong, there’s an entire street called Upper Lascar Row dedicated to old, worn-out things. Yet I learned the hard way that some of the items there are actually fake.

After a while, a vibrant “antique” jade coaster I bought had begun to stain my wooden dining table a curious shade of green. When I picked up the coaster—wet from condensation—my hands also turned green.     

There is a market in mainland China, though, whose inventory stands a very good chance of being authentic. That place is called the Ghost Market, and it’s in Jingdezhen, a small city in southeastern China’s Jiangxi province that’s known as the country’s porcelain capital.

(Watch: The men who make 6-foot-tall pots)

Jingdezhen has been producing pottery for 2,000 years and still retains a very vibrant ceramics scene.

The Ghost Market is one of the town’s staples, a biweekly gathering of merchants touting antiques and porcelain shards. It opens for business at 3 am, its name supposedly derived from the eeriness of that early morning scene of a bunch of people with flashlights setting up shop under the cover of darkness.

The Ghost Market is a biweekly gathering of merchants touting antiques and porcelain shards.
The Ghost Market is a biweekly gathering of merchants touting antiques and porcelain shards. / Photo: Clarissa Wei

For the average tourist, the market is rather esoteric. People mainly come for the mud-stained porcelain shards laid out on the ground. Some customers are hawk-eyed collectors, hoping they will score an item from one of the older dynasties, but the bulk of serious shoppers are ceramics students looking for design inspiration. Many are drawn by the classic blue and white patterns on old dishware and vases.

Many customers are drawn by the classic blue and white patterns on old dishware and vases.
Many customers are drawn by the classic blue and white patterns on old dishware and vases. / Photo: Clarissa Wei

“I’ve been selling here for the past 10 years,” says Gao Xiaoling, one of the vendors. “When people are tearing up a site to prepare it for construction, we’ll go and pick up any shards we find.”

In Jingdezhen, old porcelain shards are a common find. The city used to be the capital of the imperial kiln, which produced ceramics for Chinese royalty during the Ming and Qing dynasties.

Discarded shards on sale at the Ghost Market.
Discarded shards on sale at the Ghost Market. / Photo: Clarissa Wei

Discarded shards were a natural byproduct of those kilns. If a piece emerged slightly discolored, it was smashed and buried in pits. Today, these fragments are highly coveted despite the imperfections.    

Gao shrugs when I ask him about the origins and historical context of his inventory. Many of the vendors I solicit are like this. They are merely opportunists catering to a very niche crowd of pottery enthusiasts.

Gao Xiaoling is one of the vendors at the Ghost Market.
Gao Xiaoling is one of the vendors at the Ghost Market. / Photo: Clarissa Wei

“[The Ghost Market] is the perfect place to see a contiguous representation of the different types of ceramics produced in Jingdezhen over the last 1000 years,” says Nathaniel Brown, director of product at Wing on Wo & Co, the oldest extant store in New York’s Chinatown.

Wing on Wo & Co specializes in antiques and porcelain, and Brown, who has been coming to Jingdezhen for the past six years, occasionally buys for them at the Ghost Market.

“While I don’t usually end up buying much here, it’s often the inspiration for future ideas and my main source of  insight into the myriad patterns and motifs that exist in antique ceramics,” he says. “Even the wood carvings or the Communist-era trinkets—everything here has so much personality.”

Communist trinkets on sale at the Ghost Market.
Communist trinkets on sale at the Ghost Market. / Photo: Clarissa Wei

At its core, the Ghost Market is essentially a marketplace where people sell and buy the trash of people long gone—the discarded shards of ghosts.

While the authenticity is hard to prove, that’s sometimes besides the point. The jumble of excavated shards—a mix of old and new—serves mostly as inspiration for the up-and-coming generation of ceramicists.

At the Ghost Market, the old informs the new.

The Ghost Market
Ming Dynasty
Jingdezhen
Antique markets
Porcelain