Bronze Age (1500-476 BC}
Chinese Bronze Age pottery was mainly grey but small quantities of white pottery were produced. This “proto-porcelain” seems to have been produced almost by chance. Kaolin (the main constituent of porcelain) was relatively common and the temperature required to smelt bronze (1100 degrees C) happens to be close to the firing temperature for porcelain (1250 degrees C). Very few of these white pottery items have been found and most of these were in the tombs of kings.
Warring States Period (475-221 BC)
Types of pottery were produced during the Warring States Period included grey, red brown and black. The brown pottery was painted with coloured patterns. The black pottery was produced by smoking the pot when it was partly dry so that particles of charcoal adhered to the paste. After firing these pots were polished to a high lustre.
Ch’in Dynasty (221-206 BC)
The army of more than 6,000 terracotta “entombed warriors” discovered in 1974 near the emperor Shih Huang Ti’s tomb was produced during the brief Ch’in Dynasty.
Han Dynasty (207 BC to 220 AD)
Pottery sculpture continued to advance during the Han Dynasty. Human figures, Animals and buildings were common. Painted pottery of high quality was also produced. The designs were lively and brightly coloured. Han Dynasty potters developed the art of glazing pottery. The earliest known glazed pottery dates from the reign of Emperor Wudi (140-97 BC). By Wang Mang’s reign (8-22 AD), Han potters were producing pottery with yellow, green and brown glazes. Among the green glazed pots were some porcelain pieces which later became known as celadon. Some black pottery was produced by coating the vessel with layers of lacquer.
Sui Dynasty (581-618 AD)
Sui Dynasty potters developed techniques for managing the temperature of the kiln during firing. This enabled them to produce a “warm” ivory-white porcelain. The glaze colour of Sui pottery was also cleaner and more crystal-like than its predecessors. Sui pottery was more graceful in shape than earlier pottery. In general, it had a bulbous body with a short neck, a thick ridge around the middle and a slender base. The decoration on Sui pottery was most often impressed cord designs or floral pattens but there were some pots with underglaze painted decoration – mainly human figures painted in black.
T’ang Dynasty (618-906)
The most famous Tang ceramics are tri-colour glazed (“sancai”) figures and utensils. The tri-colour pottery was made of kaolin. Some had a slightly red tinge but most was spotlessly white. This was decorated with a bright, lustrous glaze, usually in three colours. The glaze was made from lead silicate with metal oxide pigments – brown and red from iron, yellow from antimony, green from copper and purple from manganese.
The most common sancai glaze figures were horses and, secondly, camels. But there were also many human figures and pots. The heads of human figures were usually left unglazed with white powder applied to the faces and the hair painted with black ink.
Tri-colour vessels range in size from 3 cm to over 160 cm. They were often buried with their owner. As a result, a considerable amount has survived.
Monochrome porcelain was also produced in a number of places during the Tang Dynasty but relatively little has survived.
The various type of porcelain are named after the the prefecture (zhou) in which it was produced.
Yue ware (from Yuezhou) was the most highly prized. it was a celadon porcelain with a translucent, pale blue-green glaze usually with incised decoration.
Ding was ranked second. This was usually black glazed porcelain.
White porcelain was produced in a number of places, the most important being Xingzhou. Xing ware was famous for its “snow-like” glaze.
Tang porcelain, particularly Yue ware, was exported to Japan, Persia, Egypt and the nations along the land and sea routes to these countries.
Five Dynasties (906-960)
Despite continual warfare between rival kingdoms, foreign trade with Japan, Korea and the Arab nations expanded during the Five Dynasties. As a result, ceramic production increased, particularly at Yuezhou, where celadon with elaborate incised designs was produced.
Sung Dynasty (960-1279)
During the Northern Sung Dynasty (to 1126), foreign trade increased, cities prospered and tea drinking became popular. All of this spurred the increased production of porcelain. Various schools, each with a distinctive style, developed in different parts of the country
Fine white porcelain was produced at Dingzhou. Vessels were stacked in the kiln during firing, so that the mouth rims were unglazed. This was not acceptable for nobility or high-ranking officials, so they were finished with gold, silver or copper rings.
Ju ware had a multi-coloured glaze, similar to Tang pottery, but using sky-blue, white and rose-purple glazes. Longquin porcelain followed the tradition of Yue porcelain of the Tang Dynasty. It had a blue-green glaze with incised decoration.
Two types of porcelain were made solely for court use. Ru ware had a thick lustrous, green glaze with a sapphire-blue tinge. Guan ware had a pale greenish grey glaze and a distinct crackle.
Yingquing, or “misty blue”, porcelain was produced at Jingdezhen. It was a fine white porcelain with a faintly blue glaze.
Late in the Sung Dynasty, Dutch traders reached China and brought porcelain back to Europe where it traded on an equal weight basis for gold.
Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368)
All crafts, including ceramics, declined during the Yuan Dynasty. Ju, Ding and Ru porcelain were almost forgotten. Areas south of the Yangtze suffered less than the north. Longquan celadon and, particularly, misty-blue porcelain continued to be produced.
Yuan misty-blue porcelain was bluer and less translucent than Sung Dynasty misty-blue. The glaze was usually uneven and spotty with the footrim left unglazed.
Jingdezhen increased in importance in porcelain production. Building on Sung techniques, potters there evolved blue and white and underglaze red varieties.
The technique of painting pottery with underglaze cobalt blue was probably introduced from the Arab countries through the Mongols. Copper frequently occurs in conjunction with cobalt and, so, the use of copper oxide for red decoration is a natural extension of the use of cobalt blue.
Yuan blue and white porcelain had bright blue designs with deep blue splashes, often used to accent blue flowers.
Underglaze red was less successful. The intensity of the red varied greatly and often produced only a faint tinge.
Chinese ceramics available now
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