Chinese ceramics and pottery

Background

Ceramics are objects that have been shaped from earthen materials and fired in a kiln to make them waterproof and fairly durable. The basic materials are a mineral-rich clay containing kaolinite, silica and feldspar. The crystal structure of these minerals makes the clay supple and easy to shape into just about any shape that withstands the firing process. Feldspars are aluminosilicates that contain sodium, potassium or calcium, all of which are fluxing agents that reduce the melting temperatures of the silicates that harden the object. After the raw materials are mixed, the vessel is shaped on a rotating wheel if it is to be round. The objects are placed in a cold kiln and heated from room temperature to a high temperature and then brought back down again to room temperature, which allows the silica particles to bond, consolidates the object’s shape and reduces the size of the material’s pores to make the vessel smoother.

At this stage the earthenware can be refined by either vitrification or glazing. Vitrification changes the silicates crystal structure into an amorphous glass structure by firing the vessels at very high temperatures of between 1,500 and 1,800 degrees Celsius. Glazing is done by applying a glazing slurry (by dipping the object or painting the slurry on) and then re-firing it at a somewhat lower temperature than the main firing. At this stage special metallic oxides can also be added to give the vessels a relatively small range of colours.

Mankind has always made earthen wares and ceramics and even in the Neolithic age in China there were fragments of ceramics that were not only functional vessels but which also displayed a high degree of artistry.

Primitive celadon and early Chinese ceramics

Primitive celadon was harder and more durable than pottery but the modelling was fairly drab because of poor plasticity and the body was likely to crack because of its impurities. It too, was glazed, and produced a ringing sound when knocked, but the glaze colour was unstable and the thickness was uneven.

In the Dong Han Dynasty, the method of throwing clay was applied to making primitive celadon. The result was that the shape was more regular, the surface was smooth and the glaze became thicker; the period of mature celadon was coming. A milestone in Chinese ceramics was the appearance of mature celadon at the Yue kiln during the Dong Han Dynasty. Throughout the Wei Dynasty, Jin Dynasty, and the South and North Dynasty, developments were being made that paved the way for these changes. Different nations were being unified and Buddhism was being introduced, both of which influenced ceramic styles.

Looking first at the earlier periods and developments in ceramics, we can go all the way back to the Dawenkou culture in Shandong, from 5000-3000 BC, when red coloured vessels painted with geometrical patterns were produced. Sometimes these vessels were shaped like animals, and sometimes they featured the three-foot or tripod shape. During the Longshan culture which followed from 3000-2000 BC these pottery styles were refined. The eastern type of Longshan pottery was black and was already bore the same shapes that would be made into bronze vessels during the Shang period, like the tripod ding vessel. This Longshan tripod, called gui, was not only a prototype of tripods which became popular during the Sang and Zhou Dynasties, but also shows the nipple-nail patterning of the later bronze vessels.

At the same time as the Dawenkou culture in Shandong, the Majiabang culture in the Yangtse valley was also producing ceramics from 5000 to 3500 BC. The vessels were mostly brown and had non-geometrical patterns and sometimes realistic motifs like birds or fish. Most of the vessels were wide-bellied cooking pottery.

While pottery from the stone-age was painted or decorated with cords, Shang pottery decoration became more sophisticated and had new patterns like flower and labyrinth motifs. Shang ceramics were more affordable and easier to produce than the world famous Shang bronze vessels, and they were similar in shape and decoration.

Even during the Warring States period, vessels were made from clay as well as bronze and had the same smoothness and beauty as their bronze counterparts. Late Zhou artists created vessels with fantastic shapes and patterns, like bird-shaped vessels and other imaginative forms.

Perhaps the most famous Chinese earthenware pieces are the Imperial Army clay soldiers which were unearthed in 1974 near the tomb of the First Emperor of China. There are several thousand of these nearly life-size soldiers, which include infantrymen, generals and chariot drivers. Up through the Shang Dynasty the soldiers asked to guard the dead emperor’s tomb might have been real soldiers, buried alive or dead with their commander, but by the time of the Zhou dynasty, human sacrifices did not take place so often and clay statues were allowed to stand in for real people. None of these statues have the same face and each is realistically sculpted, a feat that must have taken enormous time and manpower. Archaeologists have not been able to reproduce a clay soldier because the special blending and firing techniques used to create them were not passed down to future generations. Today, it is simply not known exactly how they were created, but it is known that the original soldiers were all painted when they were made and they were equipped with wood weapons that have not stood the test of time.

Grave furnishings were also typical during the Han Dynasty, when rulers put things they thought they needed for their daily lives into their final resting places. As well as earthen vessels for eating and drinking, there were beautiful works of art like statues of dancing girls, which were found in Han Dynasty graves. The court life during the Han Dynasty was filled with music, dance and entertainment, and the ceramics of this time tell us about their customs and clothing. The shapes of Han Dynasty vessels were similar to earlier vessels, but the decoration changed to feature scenes of aristocratic life rather than geometrical patterns or dragons. It was still not glazed, and was painted mainly in black and read. In southern China during this period, the ceramics were gray, white and black and had patterns featuring birds, flames, clouds and even pictures that represented the souls of the dead.

Glazed pottery and stylistic changes

The technique of glazing pottery was discovered during the 2nd century AD. Later Han ceramics were glazed by using a yellowish brown, green-grey, black or translucent slurry. In the Jin Dynasty, pottery began to be more round than vessels had been from the Shang to the Han dynasties. A common shape was a wide-bellied body with a thin, straight neck. Black glazed pottery is typical of Eastern Jin times.

Of course, shapes and styles may be copied in later times. Today tripod pots similar to those being made in the Six Dynasties time are still being produced. During this time of division, the nobility still wanted figurines for either their palaces or their tombs; in the more civil south, the nobles wanted officials and court women as figurines, while in the mercurial north they preferred figures of soldiers.

In the latter part of the North Dynasty, white porcelain first appeared in northern China. Iron content was controlled and the difficulty of generating colour in iron was overcome. This development laid the foundation for ancient painted porcelain. The successful firing of white porcelain was another milestone in Chinese ceramics. The Sui and Tang Dynasties were very prosperous and ceramics flourished and soon the distinction of ‘celadon in the south and white porcelain in the north’ was established.

Although the Sui Dynasty was brief, artists and artisans during that time developed their own style. Sui Dynasty jars are recognisable by their long necks and a dragon head handle which is partially hidden in the spout.

Three-colour glazing became popular during the Tang Dynasty. The popular art of the time reflects the fact that non-Chinese people were arriving in China and influencing the culture. Camels travelled along the Silk Road to Inner Asia, carrying merchants and musicians from the West. Horses were invaluable to the militaristic Tang, and figures of horses were commonplace. Tomb findings tell much about the life of the nobility during the Tang Dynasty, when members of the ruling class were buried with three-coloured figurines of court ladies, dancers, eunuchs and officials.

It was during the Tang Dynasty that many famous kilns appeared; Yue kiln in the south was famous for the high quality celadon vessels that were made there; the tyre was light, thin and compact while the glaze was transparent and elegant. The Xing kiln in the Tang Dynasty was representative of the ‘North white’. Whiteness was a much sought-after quality and here, the colour was pure and strong and the glaze was good. When vessels from the Xing kiln were struck, they produced a ringing sound.

Ceramics continued to flourish in the Song Dynasty, which was also a period of prosperity during which technology, culture, art and handicrafts were highly developed. It was during the Song Dynasty that kilns with regional features spread all over the country, which laid the ground for the ‘six kiln factions’ (Ding, Jun, Yaozhou, Cizhou, Longquan and Jingdezhen) and the ‘five famous kilns’ (Guan, Ru, Ge, Ding and Jun). Earthenware during the Song Dynasty was mostly glazed with blue flux, and the shapes of the vessels became completely different than traditional pre-Han forms. Even though most vessels were blue or green there were fresh colours like rose red and even black glazings. Sometimes patterns were cut into the ground material clay before firing.

After the establishment of Guan kilns in the Song Dynasty, different artistic styles developed in regional kilns. The famous porcelain city of Jindezhen sprun up during the Yuan Dynasty and was known for its blue and white porcelain, underglazed red porcelain and egg white porcelain.

Decorative porcelain

During the Ming and Qing Dynasties, painted porcelains took ceramic art up to a level of perfection. There were various kinds of single colour glaze; sacrificial red glaze, sacrificial blue glaze, Lang kiln red glaze, Jiangdou red glaze, yellow glaze, peacock green glaze and more. Ancient painted porcelain prospered: blue-and-white, wu-cai, dou-cai, plain tri-colour, underglazed san-cai, enamel colour, fen-cai and others. Wheel jiggering had replaced bamboo knife jiggering and blowing glaze technology began to come into use. The quality immensely improved and the quantity of porcelain rapidly increased; ceramics made during the Ming and Qing Dynasty reached a summit and greatly influcnce Chinese ceramics to this day.


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