Chinese Pottery
History & Types of Ceramics from Ancient China.

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Chinese Pottery belonging to the
era of Neolithic Art.

Ever since the Stone Age, China has
led the world in ceramic art and
design. Its pottery workshops have
inspired us with their modelling,
glazes, firing techniques, painting
and enamelling, and its porcelain
remains the finest ever made.

Chinese Pottery (10,000 BCE - 1911 CE)
Development of Porcelain, Celadon, Stoneware

Chinese Stone Age Pottery (c.10,000-2000 BCE)
Chinese Bronze Age Pottery (c.1700-221 BCE)
Chinese Pottery During the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BCE)
Chinese Pottery During the Han Dynasty (206 BCE - 220 CE)
Chinese Pottery During the Six Dynasties (220-589)
Chinese Pottery During the Sui and Tang Dynasties (581-906)
Chinese Pottery During the Song Dynasty (960-1279)
- Ding Ware (c.1000-1400)
- Qingbai Ware (c.960-1350)
- Black-Glazed Pottery (c.960-1250)
- Northern Celadon Pottery (c.960-1450)
- Longquan Celadon (c.960-1279)
- Jun Ware Pottery (c.1050-1450)
- Tz'u-chou Pottery (960-1600)
Chinese Pottery During the Yuan Dynasty (1280-1365)
Chinese Pottery During the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644)
- Blanc de Chine
Chinese Pottery During the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911/12)


Some of the thousands of Terracotta
Army Warriors being reassembled.
The 8,000 warriors took 38 years to
make ( c.246-208 BCE), using over
700,000 workers, and were buried
with Emperor Qin Shi Huang
of the Qin Dynasty.


Earthenware Budda
Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).

DIFFERENT FORMS OF ARTS
For definitions, meanings and
explanations of different arts,
see Types of Art.

HISTORY OF VISUAL ARTS
For important dates, see:
History of Art Timeline.
For details of art movements
styles and genres, see:
History of Art.

Chinese Stone Age Pottery (c.10,000-2000 BCE)

Despite the discovery of unfired Chinese pottery, supposedly dating from 33,000 BCE, during the Paleolithic era, the earliest known ceramic art produced in China dates back to Paleolithic culture (c.18,000 BCE). Archeologists uncovered numerous items of domestic earthenware at the Xianrendong Cave site, in Jiangxi province. (See: Oldest Stone Age Art.) Other ceramic artifacts (dated to 15,000 BCE) were found in the Yuchanyan Cave in southern China. Most of this early pottery was hand-made by coiling, then fired in bonfires. Decoration was achieved by stamping, impressing and other simple methods. Motifs were typically abstract or geometric in nature. (For details of early symbols, see: Prehistoric Abstract Signs 40,000-10,000 BCE.) However, based on archeological excavations at Xianrendong, in Jiangxi province, it appears that Chinese potters soon began to produce a range of delicate, polished and coloured vessels for more ceremonial purposes. These were introduced into a number of Neolithic cultures which grew up along the Yellow and Yangtze river valleys, like the Dadiwan (c.6000 BCE), Pan-po (ca. 5000 B.C.), Miao-ti-kou (4000-3000 BCE), and Yangshao (4000-2000 BCE), and especially the more advanced Longshan (3000-2000 BCE) and Dawenkou (4500-3500 BCE). For details, see: Neolithic Art in China (7500-2000 BCE).

By 3000 BCE, these Stone Age ceramics exemplified a craftsmanship and elegance which was quite exceptional for the time. Closely interlinked with social status, as evidenced by the presence of fine pottery, jade carving and other precious objects in the burial mounds of prosperous individuals, this ceramic form of Chinese art was further enhanced by the early development of bronze, and Chinese lacquering techniques. For the chronological evolution of ceramics (earthenware and porcelain) in China, see: Chinese Art Timeline (c.18,000 BCE - present).


White-Glazed Pottery
Sui Dynasty (581–618)


Goldfish Vase from Ming Dynasty
Under Jiajing Emperor (1521–1567).
See also Chinese Painters (220-present)

Chinese Bronze Age Pottery (c.1700-221 BCE)

Scientific, political and social developments in the Bronze Age during the Xia Dynasty Culture (2100-1600), as well as the Shang (c.1600-1050 BCE) and Zhou (1050-221 BCE) dynasties led to a number of changes in pottery production. (See: Shang Dynasty Art and its successor Zhou Dynasty Art.) Ceramicists experimented with techniques of high-fired glazing, creating pots with a brownish appearance which presaged Yueh ware, the later class of green ware known as celadon. Also, as prosperity increased and family groups coalesced to form new cities and principalities, a new market sprang up for the replacement of vessels and other objects cast in bronze to be made instead from cheaper clay, especially for home or funerary use. This expansion of the ceramics industry led to the emergence of a more streamlined mass-production process involving a clearer division of labour and facilitating greater use of lacquerware, molds, stamps and more elaborate methods of decoration.

BUDDIST PLASTIC ART
For details and styles, see:
Chinese Buddhist Sculpture
(c.100-present).

Chinese Pottery During the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BCE)

The ceramic highlight of Qin dynasty art was the Terracotta Army, a massive collection of 8,000 warriors, 130 chariots and 150 horses, along with numerous officials, acrobats, strongmen and musicians. This extravagant but awesomely lifelike set of clay figures, most of which still remain to be excavated, reputedly took 700,000 workers over 38 years to produce. It was commissioned by the Qin Emperor Qin Shihuang Ling for his mausoleum in Shaanxi province, and represents unquestionably the finest collection of terracotta sculpture in the history of art. Sadly, over the intervening years between their burial in 208 BCE and their discovery in 1974 CE, the sculptures have lost nearly all of their decorative paint.

[Note: The Qin Dynasty coincided with the final period of Classical Antiquity in the Mediterranean. For information about the art of ceramics in Ancient Greece, see: Greek Pottery.]

 

Chinese Pottery During the Han Dynasty (206 BCE - 220 CE)

The first of China's four most important dynasties, the Han era witnessed numerous cultural developments as well as the establishment of The Silk Road - the main overland trade route with the Middle East and Europe. Han pottery production was strongly influenced by three factors. First, continued growth in demand for all types of ceramic vessel, as well as ornaments, figurines, architectural models, farmyard animals, and horses, which in turn stimulated the emergence of a countrywide assembly-line industry capable of producing large quantities of mass-produced mold-shaped earthenware. Second, the discovery of fine clays containing kaolinite, from which an early form of true porcelain was made, initially in the province of Zhejiang. Thirdly, the invention of lead glazing, in which clay slips were coloured with copper to produce a green glaze, or iron to create yellow or brown. A soft-bodied variety of lead-glazed earthenware was produced in central China, while a high-fired stoneware version was the favoured product in southern China. Other developments during the era of Han Dynasty Art (206 BCE - 220 CE) included new forms of lacquer ware and polished black pottery, in both glazed and unglazed varieties.

 

Chinese Pottery During the Six Dynasties (220-589)

The Han Dynasty was followed by over 350 years of wars and political disunity - an era usually referred to as the Six Dynasties - during which both Buddhism and Taoism increased in popularity at the expense of Confucianism. In spite of this, arts of the Six Dynasties Period continued to develop in the area of Chinese painting, calligraphy, printmaking (via the invention of woodblock printing), and sculpture. In the field of ceramics, the Six Dynasties period is chiefly known for developments in the production of "Yueh ware" - a class of high-fired porcelaineous stoneware marked by a range of coloured glazes, varying from shades of green (known as Celadon ware), to hues of yellow and blue. Potters created Yueh ware by using iron oxide as the glaze colouring agent and firing the clay in a reduction atmosphere over 1200 degrees centigrade. Colour control was achieved by varying the composition of the glaze and the conditions of firing.

 

Chinese Pottery During the Sui and Tang Dynasties (589-906)

The brief era of Sui Dynasty art (589-618) was followed by China's second great dynasty - the Tangs. Tang Dynasty art (618-906) was noted for a number of innovations. First, a popular range of exhuberant multi-coloured low-fired earthenware figurines (eg. camels and horses) for use as funerary items in tombs. Second, the invention of a set of highly unusual San-t'sai three-colour (green, yellow/amber, cream) or cobalt blue lead-glazes. Thirdly, a new range of lime-glazed Yueh celadon stoneware. Lastly, an improved variety of high-fired, translucent porcelains, manufactured in the northern provinces of Hebei and Henan. The last three innovations had a significant impact on succeeding generations of Chinese ceramicists, and - when news eventually filtered out - on ceramic styles throughout Europe. Tang porcelain, made from a combination of kaolin and petuntse (feldspar) and characterized by its translucent white clay body fired at a temperature between 1250-1450 degrees centigrade, was the thinnest yet hardest ceramic ever developed. Its pure white background gave ceramic artists the perfect base for colouring, and its plasticity made it ideal for delicate sculpture and ornamental work. It wasn't until the early 1700s, some eight centuries later, that comparable porcelain was produced in the West.

Chinese Pottery During the Song Dynasty (960-1279)

Viewed as the golden age of Chinese ceramic art, the great era of Song Dynasty art witnessed a country of two halves: a Northern half which enjoyed a relatively high degree of tranquility, and a Southern zone beset by invasion and upheaval. Despite this, most art historians agree that pottery reached its apogee during the Song period. More subtle than either its predecessors or successors, Song pottery was characterized by flowing monochrome glazes and a depth of colour that moves the viewer to touch and contemplate. In terms of their technical prowess, innovation, and aesthetic sensitivity to glaze and shape, Song potters stand above all others in the quality of their ceramic art. For a guide to the aesthetic principles behind traditional arts and crafts in China, see: Traditional Chinese Art: Characteristics.

Here is a short list of the most notable examples of Song ceramic ware.

 

Ding Ware (c.1000-1400)

The most famous and refined of Song Dynasty white stoneware, made in the Ding kilns of Hepei Province, south-west of Beijing. Ding ware was characterized by impressed and incised floral designs on high-fired, grey-coloured clay, overlaid with ivory-white slips and transparent glazes. Some vessels were decorated with hand carved patterns as well as intricate pressed motifs.

Qingbai Ware (c.960-1350)

Qingbai (meaning blue-white), also referred to as 'yingqing' (shadow blue), was a type of early porcelain made from a fine white paste overlaid with a thin, shiny bluish-white glaze. Produced at Jingdezhen in Jiangxi province, Qingbai porcelain led to the later introduction of the blue-and-white idiom, in Jingdezhen. The bluish tint was created by the reducing effect of the fuel (pinewood) used to fire the clay. Although relatively highly priced, Qingbai ware was much sought after by the middle class throughout China.

Black-Glazed Pottery (c.960-1250)

Accounting for as much as 20 percent of all Song Dynasty pottery, black-glazed ware (sometimes browny-black-glazed) comprised a range of functional items popular among the lower middle classes. Production centres included Fujian province, whose kilns produced opulent black ware using iron rich glazes from which they derived their famous 'hare's-fur,' 'partridge-feather,' and 'oil-spot' varieties, and workshops in Jiangxi, which employed stencil, leaf, and other complex designs in their glazes to make their stoneware tea bowls. Black-glazed stoneware became exceptionally popular with all classes as Fujianese tea drinking spread throughout Chinese society.

Northern Celadon Pottery (c.960-1450)

Northern celadon ware denotes a highly popular form of high-fired stoneware made in kilns and workshops in Shanxi province. It comprised a type of thin grey-coloured ware decorated with impressed or hand carved designs (featuring flowers, waves, fish, dragons, clouds) and overlaid with a translucent olive-green glaze, which was created from a mixture of iron and titanium oxide.

Longquan Celadon (c.960-1279)

Reputedly the most sophisticated porcelaineous celadon of the Song Dynasty, Longquan greenware was made in the Southern province of Zhejiang. Initially featuring a blue-green glaze on a fine, hard-wearing porcelain body, potters later developed a series of lime-alkali and jade-coloured glazes which were revered and imitated by later ceramicists during the Qing dynasty during the 18th century.

Jun Ware Pottery (c.1050-1450)

Characterized by their rich, opalescent glazes in a range of colours such as lavender blue, light green, and blue with purple splashes, this dark bodied stoneware was produced in Honan province. The finest examples of Jun ware feature light grey vessels decorated with light blue glazes. In later varieties potters added splashes of darker colour (eg. crimson or purple) by mixing copper-rich materials to the glaze.

Tz'u-chou Pottery (960-1600)

Tz'u-chou ceramic ware encompasses a type of sturdy functional stoneware made in Honan, Shanxi, and Shandong provinces in Northern China during the Song and Ming dynasties (960-1644). It's signature feature is a creamy white slip which brightens the buff-grey tone of the clay body, typically decorated with black-and-white floral designs. The white slip led ceramicists to experiment with a wide variety of decorative techniques, including: incising, cut-glaze technique, black slip sgraffiato designs over the white slip, green lead-underglaze, and an early form of enamel overglaze.

 

Chinese Pottery During the Yuan Dynasty (1280-1365)

During the era of Yuan Dynasty art under the Mongols, led by Kublai Khan the grandson of Genghis Khan, the first blue-and-white porcelain was made and exported to Europe, startling everyone with its unique qualities. It was during the Yuan era that Jingdezhen, a town in the southern province of Jiangxi, started to become the most important centre of porcelain production in China and consequently the most important pottery centre in the world.

Chinese Pottery During the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644)

The last of the great four Chinese dynasties, the Ming era coincided with the European Renaissance and, as in Europe, it witnessed an upsurge in architecture, the arts and above all ceramic art. Porcelain - the signature feature of Ming Dynasty art - was perfected during the Ming Dynasty, and Xuande porcelain is now considered among the finest of all Ming ceramics. Moreover, the quality of Ming blue and whites is considered to be the greatest Chinese porcelain ever produced. All this contributed immensely to the global reputation of Chinese potters during the late Ming period when China shifted towards a market economy and began a huge program of porcelain exports to Europe during the rule of the Wanli Emperor (1572-1620).

Another major advance occured in enameled decoration, which flourished under the Chenghua Emperor (1464-1487). Improvements were also found in the formula for cobalt-blue glaze, whose colour had a tendency to bleed (spread) during firing. The addition of manganese to the glaze prevented this, although the result was less lustrous. Overall, workshops experimented with new methods of modelling and shaping, new painted designs (the most popular motifs being dragon and phoenix), and showed a new willingness to embrace foreign ideas.

Blanc de Chine

Manufactured in Dehua, Fujian province, Blanc de Chine (China White) is a type of white Chinese porcelain which first appeared during the Ming Dynasty. The key characteristic of Dehua porcelain is its extremely low iron-oxide content, which gives it an instantly recognizable warm milk-white or ivory-white appearance. In contrast, Jingdezhen porcelain has a much higher iron content and a correspondingly different character. Although potters produced a wide variety of shapes in Blanc de Chine - such as: cups and bowls, brush holders, vases and jars, teapots, lamps, cup-stands, and so on - its greatest examples were figures, especially religious figures, such as Guanyin, the Goddess of Mercy. Blanc de Chine white porcelain from Dehua is especially popular in Japanese art where it is called hakugoraior or Korean white. One of the world's broadest collections of Ming pottery (including Blanc de Chine) outside China and Taiwan is in the British Museum, in London. Amassed over 250 years, the collection includes around 7000 Chinese pieces - from the Stone Age to the present - of which some 900 are Ming Dynasty ceramics.

Note: For the impact of Chinese painting, sculpture, jade carving and pottery on the culture of Korea, see: Korean Art (c.3,000 BCE onwards).

Chinese Pottery During the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911/12)

During the era of Qing Dynasty Art, potters began using bright colours to adorn plates and vases with meticulously painted scenes. Porcelain ceramicists began producing five-coloured ware by applying a variety of underglaze pigments to floral, landscape and figurative scenes - a style which was (and is) highly sought-after in the West. During the Yung Cheng era (1723-1735) porcelain was enhanced by the development of fencai enamel in a wide range of colours and tones.

Chinese Pottery During the Modern Era (1912-present)

The turmoil in China during the first two-thirds of the 20th century led to a decline in the quality and output of ceramics across the country, especially porcelain. However, over the last 20 years production has been revived by the authorities as part of its ongoing program to invigorate China's cultural reputation across the visual and plastic art spectrum. As well as modern methods of maufacture, a number of centres have been re-established to reproduce the traditional pottery of the great dynasties.

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