Chinese Pottery

Chinese pottery describes objects made from clay and hardened by heat that have been made in China since prehistoric times. Also known as Chinese ceramics, the genre includes earthenware, stoneware and porcelain. Given its early origins, Chinese pottery is credited with influencing later European pottery.

The earliest pottery found, which was crudely made, is distinguished by geometric designs. Found in northern China, it is estimated to be about 8,000 years old. The art of the next era, the Neolithic era between 5000 and 3000 BCE, is called Yangshao, or painted pottery. The artists of the time decorated the jars with rich designs and color. They used geometric designs as well as animal and plant depictions. The Longshan culture, which designed pottery in the last phase of the Neolithic period (2200-1700 BCE), is known for its black pottery. The dark, smooth finish of the vessels gives them a metallic appearance.

The Shang dynasty, circa 1600-1046 BCE, developed pottery glazes and high-fire stoneware. The stoneware of that era is coated with a yellowish green glaze. Shang potters also used kaolin, a compound later used in porcelain, to form soft-bodied whiteware. Potters of the subsequent time period, the Zhou dynasty (1046-256 BCE), designed stemmed offering dishes. They made hard stoneware that they dipped in or brushed with glaze. To give the pottery a more luxurious look, they decorated the stands with shell discs.

Vessels from the next era, the Han dynasty of 206 BCE to 220 CE, have been found in great quantities in graves. Two shapes are common to that time period: the hu, a vase that was copied from similar bronze vessels, and the hill jar, which has a molded cover. Artists of the Han dynasty invented a low-fired lead glaze that was tinted with copper oxide.

In the Six Dynasties era of 220-589 CE, the pottery industry thrived. Artists of the time produced stoneware with an olive brown or greenish glaze. Instead of copying bronze designs, they produced shapes unique to pottery. Northern celadon style, produced in the sixth century, was exotic, mirroring the tastes of Turkish rulers and other Western Asian cultural contacts. Celadon style features lotus leaves, flowers and round decorative plaques.

The Sui and Tang dynasties (581-907) represent a time of advancement in Chinese pottery. Kilns of the era produced fine white porcelain. Ceramists also developed three-color pottery, called sancai, which were vessels and figurines coated with a low-fired glaze tinted with ferrous oxide. They were brightly colored in green, brown, yellow and blue. Other kilns produced stoneware with a rich black glaze. Design motifs of the era include hunting reliefs, boys with garlands, floral medallions and Buddhist symbols.

Celadons of the era are still common in Western art collections. Tangware features glazes covering a buff earthenware body. The sponge-painted dappled glazes include green, blue, yellow, orange and brown colors. The glazes usually exhibit a fine crackle finish. Marbled finishes are also representative of the era.

Following the rich Tang period, the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms times, from 907-978, were not favorable to the pottery industry in Northern China. Some types of wares, such as the three-color designs, went out of production. In contrast, Southern Chinese potters flourished, creating biseyao, or secret colorware, which were a type of fine celadon.

Perhaps the high point of Chinese pottery was reached during the Song dynasty (960-1279), when technique and feeling seemed to be aligned. The Song wares are renowned for simplicity of shapes and purity of color, as well as warmth indicative of the touch of a potter's hand. Pottery experts say that the glazes of those times have never been surpassed. Ru, the rarest type of Chinese pottery, was created at this time. Ru stoneware is recognized by a soft, milky glaze with a thin crackle that is pale blue or grayish green. Another type of pottery indicative of the era, Jun ware, is often marked with purple or crimson splashes. Cizhou wares, which are related to Jun ware, are sturdy potted jars and vases that are decorated with flowers and leaves painted in a rust brown color. During the Song time period, celadon and porcelain production continued.

The Yuan dynasty era (1206-1368) brought innovations in the decorative arts. Underglazing on fine white porcelains became widespread. Cobalt blue was brought in from the Middle East, creating a wave of popularity for blue and white pottery. The Ming dynasty of 1368-1644 continued to produce blue and white pottery, but also used overglazing techniques. Ceramists also created Yixing wares, which were individually made teapots that were unglazed and marked by striking colors such as yellow, black, blue, brown, beige and purple. These pots were treasured by collectors.

The Qing dynasty of 1644-1911 carried imperial porcelain to a new level of excellence. New colors, such as turquoise and eel-skin yellow, were introduced. A florally decorated type of ware with a predominantly green color was called famille verte by Europeans, while a rose pink color was called famille rose.

Chinese Pottery: Selected full-text books and articles

The Wares of the Ming Dynasty By R. L. Hobson Charles E. Tuttle Publishing, 1962
Stoneware & Porcelain: The Art of High-Fired Pottery By Daniel Rhodes Chilton, 1959
Librarian's tip: Chap. 1 "The Beginning of High-Fired Pottery in Ancient China"
Chinese Pottery of the Han Dynasty By Berthold Laufer Charles E. Tuttle, 1962 (2nd edition)
Chinese Porcelains from the Ardebil Shrine By John Alexander Pope Smithsonian Institution Freer Gallery of Art, 1956
Chinese Art: Bronze, Jade, Sculpture, Ceramics By Daisy Lion-Goldschmidt; Jean-Claude Moreau-Gobard; Diana Imber Universe Books, 1960
Librarian's tip: "Ceramics" begins on p. 285
The Romance of Chinese Art By R. L. Hobson; Oswald Sirén; Benjamin March; E. F. Strange; Jiro Harada; Charles F. Kelley; A. F. Kendrick; George F. Kunz; Carl W. Bishop; Kojiro Tomita; Warren E. Cox; Laurence Binyon Garden City Publishing, 1936
Librarian's tip: Chap. 9 "Pottery and Porcelain"
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