Pottery making began to develop in China during the New Stone
Age some 10,000 years ago. Pottery wares have been unearthed in
many historical sites dating from the New Stone Age. The pottery
jar found in the Cave of the Immortals in Jiangxi Province has
a history of more than 10,000 years.
China is one of the countries where colored pottery first appeared.
Gansu and Qinghai Province on the upper reaches of the Yellow
River has yielded more colored pottery wares than any other places.
Ruins of the lower type of culture at Shiling in Minhe County,
Qinghai Province, clearly demonstrate the degree of development
of pottery making at that time. Artifacts from virtually all ancient
sites include pottery containers made from clay of different colors
and quality. In most cases, the method of applying clay strips
was discovered, according to which clay was first shaped into
long strips and then piled up from the bottom to create a rough
base, on which adjustment and further shaping were done. On the
surface of some pottery wares colored painting is visible. Most
colored pottery wares have a blue color, although red and white
colored ones have also been unearthed. The majority of the patterns
on the pottery wares are geometric. A pottery basin unearthed
at Upper Sunjiazhai, Datong, in Qinghai Province in 1973, had
a dark red surface. Below the basin's rim are painted in blue
three groups of dancers with five dancers in each group. They
have the same costume and hairstyle, and they are hand in hand,
dancing to the same beat, bringing to the present the image of
ancient people dancing and singing after work some 5,000 years
The blue pottery cup unearthed from the ruins of the Longshan
Culture in Shandong is as thin as an eggshell, representing the
highest level of pottery making in the late period of the New
Stone Age. The speedy development of pottery making gradually
gave rise to an independent trade, and the emergence of cutting
and shaping techniques on a fast-turning wheel greatly raised
the level of pottery making, enriching the variety of shapes.
Pottery wares in hitherto unseen shapes such as an eagle-shaped
tripod which represents the clever combination of animal images
with actual pottery wares and the application of high-heat baking
technique created the conditions for the appearance of metallurgy.
In the Shang Dynasty (16th-11th centuries BC), primitive porcelain
made from kaolin clay appeared, which required a much higher degree
of fire in the kiln to around 1,200 degrees C. These wares showed
a much lower water absorption level and bore the initial qualities
of porcelain, which occupies an important position in the development
of ceramics in China. The earliest porcelain found to date is
a primitive porcelain wine vessel unearthed at Erligang, Zhengzhou,
Henan Province, in 1953. First, kaolin clay was shaped into the
form of a vessel and then baked with high degree of fire. A thin
layer of greenish yellow glaze on the surface gives the vessel
an ancient elegance.
In 221 BC, the ruler of the State of Qin unified China with the
help of a powerful army, and became the first emperor of the country.
When he died in 210 BC, 700,000 slaves produced a pottery army
of more than 8,000 life-size warriors, including archers, chariots
and horses, which were buried to protect his mausoleum. The different
and vivid expressions of the pottery soldiers, and the attractive
colors on their armor demonstrate the level of pottery making
and colored sculpture making, winning the terracotta army the
reputation of being the "eighth wonder of the world".
In the middle period of the Han Dynasty (202 BC-AD 220), glazed
pottery using a lower degree of fire appeared. These products
were mostly used as burial objects. In the south of the country,
hard pottery which required a high degree of fire and solid base
came into fashion. Besides, it was very common during this period
to apply colored paint to ready-made pottery wares. Colored patterns
mostly appeared on the cover, neck, shoulder and belly of pottery
wares and figures, the most popular patterns being dragons, tigers,
zhucui (a legendary bird guarding the west), and clouds.
The Eastern Han was an important period in the development of
pottery. Blue porcelain first appeared as early as in the Shang
Dynasty, but reached its maturity in the Eastern Han. The blue
porcelain had a fine and solid base, embellished with an even
and shiny color. It laid a solid foundation for porcelain making
in the years to come.
During this period, porcelain making in the south made great
headway, as proved by new characteristics in the shape, decoration
and industrial art of porcelain making. On the basis of blue porcelain,
blue glazed porcelain with a high sheen like lacquer ware appeared.
A blue glazed porcelain pot was cleverly designed with the spout
shaped as a rooster's head and the handle as a rooster's tail.
In addition to its unusual shape, it was convenient to use.
Among the burial objects unearthed from tombs of the Wei-Jin
period (220-420), many are blue porcelain art objects with a smooth
and lustrous finish.
What makes blue porcelain special is the use of iron in the pigment,
which, after being fired, gives a luster of bluish green or yellow,
hence the name blue porcelain. Most of the blue porcelain wares
are covered with exquisite patterns finished with such techniques
as carving, sculpting and molding, symbolizing an important step
forward in porcelain making.
Porcelain making in the Tang Dynasty showed even more prominent
progress, as demonstrated by the emergence of some famous kilns
with distinctive characteristics, and the appearance of two major
schools known as white in the north and blue in the south. The
technique of creating color glaze in this period far outdid that
of previous dynasties, with new achievements. Porcelain wares
with blue glaze, multi-colored glaze and blended glazes emerged.
Porcelain as white as silver and snow, blue porcelain similar
to jade and crystal ice and the combined three colors typical
of Tang glazed wares together created the most colorful period
in China's history of porcelain making.
Porcelain making in the Song Dynasty (960-1279) revealed dazzling
exuberance. Kilns mushroomed throughout the country, with their
distinctive ceramics competing in elegance. The Jun, Ru, Ge, Guan
and Ding kilns are known as the five major kilns of the Song Dynasty.
The Ding kiln belonged to the north China porcelain making school,
and its porcelains display a well-balanced shape, whitish body
and smooth glaze. Highly decorative, they were rendered mostly
with vivid and well-arranged designs of flowers, grass, flying
birds and swimming fish finished with drawing, carving and stamping
techniques, demonstrating a high artistic level. Gold, silver
or copper was inlaid on the edges of the wares, which not only
covered up any defects, but also made them look more elegant and
The Jun kiln produced porcelains of varying degrees of bluish
and milky glazes as their basic ones. When the glaze was light,
it was the tint of a light blue sky or white like moonlight, while
in other cases, the glaze was deep sky blue. Copper oxide was
used as a coloring agent to successfully create a red glaze resembling
the evening glow in a blue sky. Among the outstanding porcelain
wares from the Jun kiln, those with rose purple and begonia red
tints are the most valuable pieces.
In the south, famous kilns included the Yue, Longquan and Jingdezhen
kilns. According to one story, during the Song Dynasty there were
two brothers with the family name of Zhang in Longquan, Zhejiang
Province. Each of them had a kiln producing blue porcelain. People
referred to the kiln of the elder brother as the Ge kiln, and
to that of the younger brother as the Di kiln (``ge" and
``di" meaning elder and younger brother, respectively). For
a long time, people could not find the exact site of the Ge kiln.
In recent years, however, archaeologists collected fragmented
pieces of porcelain from the Ge kiln in Longquan and initially
determined that products from the Ge kiln were a kind of blue
porcelain. Ge porcelain had pinkish blue, bluish white and millet
yellow glazes, the most outstanding feature of which was that
on the glazed surface were patched patterns of varying sizes arranged
in different degrees of compactness.
The Song Dynasty also saw busy trade between major cities along
China's southeast coast with the Arab and the Mediterranean countries.
Along this "Maritime Silk Road," Chinese porcelain spread
to different parts of the world, and won wide acclaim for its
Underglaze, a new porcelain making art, appeared during the Yuan
Dynasty (1271-1368). It was a major invention of the kiln at Jingdezhen.
Ming Dynasty porcelain showed a visible improvement in using
glaze, patterning and the shape of the wares. Jingdezhen became
the center of China's porcelain making industry. On the basis
of white porcelain, the art of blue patterns made the most conspicuous
progress and became the mainstream for colored porcelain wares.
Blue and white porcelain took cobalt oxide as its main coloring
agent. After coloring was applied to the body, it was baked in
a high degree of heat to create an underglaze, the light and quiet
elegance of which won the hearts of many. During the reigns of
emperors Yongle and Xuande, thin-body and bright-colored blue
and white porcelains were all over the world for their varied
patterns and shapes.
Porcelains of contending colors were a new variety created during
the reign of Emperor Chenghua (1465-1487) of the Ming Dynasty.
Blue paint was used to paint the contours of mountains, rivers,
flowers, birds and human figures on the body of the object. After
the porcelains were fired in high heat, yellow, green and red
colors were filled in within the contours of the patterns. Then
a low fire was used to bake them again. The underglaze was blue,
while above it were varied colors creating an effect of strongly
The five-colored porcelains that appeared during the Ming Dynasty
used red, yellow, green, purple and other colors to create patterns
on the porcelain to bring out an effect of sharply contrasting
dark red and dark green. Red was given particular emphasis.
Soft-colored porcelain was created during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911)
when lead powder was mixed with the paints. This way, each color
could show different shades.
It was not until the 18th century, more than a thousand years
after the Chinese mastered the art of porcelain making, that people
in the West began to understand its technology.