Home of Ceramics

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 ago.

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 imposing.

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 unique charm.

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 contrasting colors.

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.


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