History of Chinese Ceramics

Beginning from the Neolithic Banpo Culture(1), China’s ceramic industry has a history of over 6,000 years.

The earliest Neolithic earthenware with very few adornments mainly falls into three categories: storing, boiling and drinking vessels. By the late Neolithic Age, carving decorative patterns on the surface of earthenware became a common practice, and the burnished black pottery of the Longshan Culture(2), which is as thin as eggshell, represents the highest technological level of baking earthenware at that time.

The earliest glazed pottery appeared during the Shang Dynasty (c. 1600-1100 BC). Three achievements had been made in this period. Firstly, the combustion chamber, originally on one side, was built directly below the oven where earthen items were placed, thus heating the oven to a temperature of 1,180° C. Secondly, as a result of the raised temperature, the white pottery made of kaolin and decorated with exquisite geometric and tao-tie(3)designs were successfully baked. Finally, the invention of lime glaze had greatly improved the pottery’s impervious, antifouling property.

However, challenged by the newly emerging bronze ware and lacquerware, the pace of change in the primitive ceramic industry had slowed down since the 16th century BC. It had a new lease of life during the Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220) with the high-temperature firing of celadon ware, which marked the appearance of the real porcelain in China.

During the Wei, Jin, Northern and Southem Dynasties (220-589) the white glazed porcelain was successfully baked by controlling the firing duration and temperature, and reducing the iron content of the raw material.

The ceramic industry was booming in the Tang Dynasty (618-907), and a number of famous kilns mushroomed all over the country, including the Xing(4), Dingzhou(5), Yue(6), Gongxian(7), and Yaozhou(8) kilns. Particularly, the tri-colored glazed porcelain made in the Yaozhou kiln and the transparent white porcelain made in the Xing and Dingzhou kilns had a name for excellent workmanship both at home and abroad.

China’s ceramic industry met its heyday in the prosperous Song Dynasty (960-1279). The “Five Famous Kilns”(9) as well as the Cizhou(10), Yaozhou, Longquan(11), Jianyang(12) and Jingdezhen(13) kilns all had produced valuable porcelain ware with a quality that the artisans of the later ages could hardly expect to attain.

The technology of baking blue-and-white (qing-hua) and underglaze red chinaware (you-li-hong), which first appeared in the Mongol-ruled Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368), acquired further development in the following Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) that witnessed another flourishing period of porcelain making.

With the introduction of the enamel, the chinaware of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) had taken on an entirely new look, thus becoming the favorites of today’s ceramic collectors.

All in all, the evolution of the ceramic manufacturing methods is a mirror reflecting the development of science and technology in China. Ever since the opening of the Silk Road in the Western Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 25) China-made porcelain ware had been exported abroad and found favor with foreigners. Even today they are very popular items on the international auction market.

(1) Located near Xi’an of northwest China’s Shaanxi Province.

(2) Named after Longshan of east China’s Shandong Province where remains of the black pottery were first unearthed in 1928.

(3) A mythical ferocious animal.

(4) In north China’s Hebei Province, producing white porcelain.

(5) In Hebei, producing white porcelain.

(6) In southeast China’s Zhejiang Province, producing celadon.

(7) In today’s Gongxian County of central China’s Henan Province, producing white porcelain.

(8) In today’s Tongchuan City of northwest China’s Shaanxi Province, producing tri-colored glazed porcelain.

(9) Namely, the Dingzhou, Ruzhou (in today’s Linru County of Henan Province), Guan (the imperial court porcelain kiln, originally located in today’s Kaifeng of Henan in the Northern Song, and moved to today’s Hangzhou of Zhejiang in the Southern Song), Ge (site unknown, its porcelain ware is noted for crackled glaze), and Junzhou (in today’s Yuxian County of Henan Province) kilns.

(10) In today’s Cixian County of Hebei Province, producing black and white porcelain.

(11) In today’s Longquan City of Zhejiang Province, boasting a 1,600-year history of producing porcelain.

(12) In today’s Jianyang City of southeast China’s Fujian Province, noted for its darkish porcelain.

(13) A town in east China’s Jiangxi Province, one of China’s leading porcelain-manufacturing centers.

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