This sample history paper explores porcelain production in Ancient China, illustrating how this form of artwork and craftsmanship has provided historians with mountains of information about some of the cultures of the time period.
Tracing the development of ceramics and porcelain production in China
If we were to set out Chinese ceramics end to end from early development somewhere in Southern China during the Shang Dynasty around 1800 B.C. to the fall of the Ming dynasty in 1644, we would see a path that would cover more than three thousand years of history. While Western definitions of porcelain might exclude this early Shang Dynasty so-called “Zhejiang proto-porcelain”, greenware (a technical issue relating to translucence), which is also called Celadon, from Chinese culture’s standpoint it is the link to one of the oldest and most valued traditions in Chinese culture tracing back millennia, and eventually, after millennia, it has covered the world with ancient Chinese crafts and artwork.
Pre-Tang Dynasty ceramics
The natural occurrence of materials suited to production of ceramic art and porcelain in Southern China, such as igneous rock containing amounts of quartz and mica, led ultimately to the development of skilled artisans and vessel producers in the Shang Dynasty (i.e. Bronze Age). (Kerr “Science” 7) Eventually, production of ceramics in the North, using clay containing alumina but not much mica, began to spread. It appears from what has been recovered or preserved of ceramics production from these early times, that for almost two millennia dating back beginning in 1800 B.C.
Celadon, characterized by its greenish hue as a result of the oxides used in production, was the primary ceramic produced in China, until a burst of new techniques and materials came into use near the end of the 3 Kingdom period in 316 A.D., with the introduction of black glaze from Deqing, white ware in the North, and Yue greenware. But it was not until the Tang dynasty beginning in 618 A.D. some three hundred years later and lasting almost three hundred years more to 906 A.D. that porcelain became more diverse, artistic, and higher quality. (Kerr “Science”) In fact, Kerr has said:
Porcelain, less having been “invented” in China, more or less “emerged” over time: “It is sometimes said that porcelain was ‘invented’ in China, which raises an image of countless tests with likely and unlikely ingredients before an event occurred that created ideal material…a more accurate description for the process might be ‘discovered’, particularly as the material seems already to have existed in nature in north China, largely in the form that it came to be used by the potters. In fact ‘emerged’ might be an even better term, as porcelain seems gradually to have appeared in China as northern potters tested whiter and whiter ceramic materials, and coaxed their kilns to higher temperatures to mature them….Many of these whiter clays needed greater kiln temperatures…to achieve…a modest degree of translucency….In the late Sui to early Thang (sic) period this resulted in a range of wares with glassy and somewhat glue-like crackled glazes.” (Kerr “Science” 146-147).
Tang Dynasty porcelain
China, having been unified during the Sui Dynasty (Benn 1), at the outset of the Tang Dynasty showed relative domestic quiet which brought about increased commerce, cultural development in education and the arts and even for almost two centuries a strong Buddhist influence. While Europe experienced the Dark Ages during these centuries, Chinese culture flourished during periods referred to as a “Golden Age” (Benn), and became more outward-looking, although the cobbled together nature of the empire during this time led to much unrest and conflict, at times leading to cycles of building, destroying, conscriptions and famine.
Although certain elements of culture continued to mature, such as the arts and the growth of merchants, the Tang Dynasty saw 24 changes of power, leading ultimately to chaos. (Benn) During the height of artistic cultivation Li Bai was born, in around 701, and made his way from the farthest reaches of the empire in what became Gansu, growing up likely in a family of merchants along the Silk Road, spending the next fifty years wandering throughout the land, favored by common people and royalty alike, writing memorable poetry that has reached out even to western artists over seventeen centuries later. It was not until nearly the end of the 8th century that expansion by the Tang was thwarted in defeat by the Arabs at Talas. While the Tang Dynasty common man remained relatively poor with few prospects, there arose a wider merchant class giving rise to increased commerce in almost every respect, and also markets for products produced by artisans. (Benn 7)
In the Tang Dynasty era, porcelain production flourished, with greenware generally produced in the South, and white ware generally produced in the North. In this period, potters continued to develop painted decoration, using iron and copper oxides (to bring out red hues to decorations), and some cobalt pigments. Perhaps the most widely respected potters came from Changsha, where innovations continued to thrive in the Tang Dynasty period. In Henan, one innovation was black glazed pieces with blue and white strokes. During this time, China’s manufacturing exports grew, both in silk and porcelain, expanding to Western Asia and the Middle East, bringing international acclaim to the potters not only from Changsha, but also from Yue and Xing as well.
In Zhejiang, Yue kilns specialized in production of greenware, which during the early 800s began to transform from “proto-porcelain” to porcelain. In fact, some compared the greenware produced in Zhejiang to jade, and potters began making more elegant pieces, thinner and employing engraved (incised or carved) floral designs. (Kerr, “Science”) In fact, the Yue greenware was immortalized in poetic form by Lu Guimeng (known most for his rhyming verse and literary works describing the Tang Dynasty life of the common people, fishing, tea and occasionally politics) in the mid-ninth century in a poem whose title means secret color. Lu in his poem says that Yue porcelain is produced in autumn, and compares to the green from trees surrounded by a thousand mountains. (Benn 173-175)
As far as color is concerned, potters during the early Tang Dynasty continued the Shang Dynasty experimentation with kiln temperatures and cycles, achieving some excellent results, such as the san cai (three color) technique. As Kerr observes:
“This hard-biscuit/soft-glaze approach was a later Thang (sic) dynasty refinement, although the term san cai was likely not coined until the early 20th Century during railway construction when Tang burial urns were found in Northern China, with three colors, generally straw, amber, and green, or in some cases blue, red, white or black.” (Kerr, “Science”, 148).
A hundred years later, white porcelain had been added to the san cai products, and accepted as “imperial tribute.” (Kerr, “Science”, 149).
During the short Five Dynasties period, though porcelain production was severely diminished, the Yue pieces produced in Zhejiang continued to evolve, and decorations began to become more pronounced, created using thinly incised or etched lines. Popular motifs included human figures, birds, dragons, flowers and other organic designs, and some are so fine, they might be mistaken for a painting. Of course, during this period, one of the steady markets for those potters with connections was for the royal family, and many pieces produced in the late 10th century used brown designs. (Kerr, “Science”, 157-159).
Other techniques also continued development through the short Five Dynasties period. For instance, Ting wares were highly regarded during this time with royalty and in monasteries, even giving rise to a Porcelain tax, and a concomitant Office for Porcelain Tax Affairs. (Kerr, “Science”, 159). These Ting vessels were produced with higher temperature kilns, using coal, giving Ting wares a “warm ivory tone”. (Kerr Id.)
The Song Dynasty, lasting a little over three hundred years starting in 960 AD, was a time of greater commercial freedom and dramatic expansion in exporting ceramic goods. Part of the reason for this was the huge tax revenues collected by the Royal Court. During the Song period, there were many changes in the economy and society as well. Towards the later part of this period, harkening back to Confucianism, bureaucracy was increased, cities grew, even technology (such as it was) developed, and there was a substantial increase in commerce and in trade across the seas. During this time, many kilns were set up in the Fujian and Guangdong regions to manufacture porcelain for trade to Southeast Asian markets. (Kerr, “Science”; Kerr, “Song Dynasty”, 9-11).
One of the most significant developments in pottery making during the Song Dynasty came from the continuing perfection of white ware porcelain produced in the Dehua area in Fujian province. This qingbai porcelain, produced in these Dehua kilns was characterized by a whiter look, and in fact were likely precursors to possibly one of the most famous Chinese porcelains, blanc de Chine, itself not perfected until several hundred years later. In Kerr’s Song Dynasty book, John Ayers observes, after examining a piece called the “Polo Jar”, that while it may have been produced during the Ming Dynasty, such pieces could have been fired in the Dehua kilns during the late Song period. (Kerr, “Song Dynasty”, 22-25).
Song Dynasty techniques
Some techniques used during the time of the Song Dynasty had not produced the smoothness characteristic of blanc de Chine, and the pieces were softer and less refined, the glaze almost yellowish. Ayers postulates that rather than an abrupt development, the creation of blanc de Chine itself was the end of a long process of experimentation and development passed down through many generations, as was often the case in Chinese porcelain making. (Kerr, “Science”, Kerr, “Song Dynasty”, 20-22).
Also during the Song Dynasty period, other porcelain types were improved and gained fame. One example is Yaozhou greenware, an important center of production of Celadon at that time. This greenware was typified by a curved smooth green surface, with impressed designs which became increasingly ornate and complex as time progressed. These designs included phoenix, dragons, fish, fairies, babies, and flowers.
Another famous brand was Ding ware, produced in Jiancicun. While production began during the Tang Dynasty, it gradually perfected an ivory white glaze with complicated motifs and uniquely curved shapes. The pieces were famous, and so much in demand, they became important tributes at court during the latter part of the Song Dynasty. Qingbai (a kind of bluish white) ware was also created during the Northern Song period. Complex incised motifs were also used, and these pieces also became so popular they became one of the most significant export products in the latter part of the Song Dynasty and early Yuan period. (Kerr “Song Dynasty” Id.)
A dynasty that lasted around ninety years, ending in 1368, the Yuan Dynasty resulted from the conquests of the Mongol empire. Beijing became the capital, and life in China changed dramatically for many. China became a part of the larger Mongol empire, and in China under Mongol rule, the Southern Chinese were no longer favored. Also, the civil service exams were stopped, a somewhat basic integral part of the system ;and the exams did not return until 1315, and even then not to the extent before. There had arisen other means now to join official Yuan bureaucracy.
One significant difference under Mongol rule was perhaps the different perception of artisans, who were mostly not given high social status during the Bronze Age. Kublai Khan was said to have implemented certain policies that favored artisans, among them porcelain producers. Consequently, some view this era as having created a new pinnacle for certain arts.
In Mongols in History, Chinese artisans are said to have gained “freedom from corvée (unpaid) labor, tax remissions, and higher social status.” (“Mongols” Par. 2).
It was also during the time Kublai Khan ruled the Yuan Dynasty that Marco Polo and his brother stayed for 17 years at court, returning home to Venice in 1295. Marco Polo wrote of his surprise as the level of commerce in China, and of life in the big cities, as for instance this excerpt from a chapter about Suzhou in his book:
“Suju is a very great and noble city. The people are Idolators, subjects of the Great Kaan, and have paper money. They possess silk in great quantities, from which they make gold brocade and other stuffs and they live by their manufactures and trade.
The city is passing great, and has a circuit of some 60 miles; it hath merchants of great wealth and an incalculable number of people. Indeed, if the men of this city and the rest of the Manzi had but the spirit of soldiers they would conquer the world; but they are no soldiers at all, only accomplished traders and most skillful craftsman.” (“Marco Polo” Ch. LXXV: 1-2)
Chinese porcelain not always about the blue
Possibly the most important improvement during the Yuan Dynasty in porcelain production was the development of Yuan blue and white ware, which eventually were to replace the iron-brown decoration as the mainstream product. Even today, many people the world over when thinking of Chinese porcelain, think of ceramics with blue and white design. At this same time, Longquan greenware also achieved the peak of its popularity. Large bowls and vessels were produced, and also jars and vases.
It is also likely that around 1300 or shortly thereafter, shu fu glazed wares were produced in Jianxi province. It is called “shu fu” because on many pieces these two words appear, which mean “Privy Council”. This porcelain is characterized by a thick, goose-egg colored glaze, sometimes even going to a white tone. (Kerr “Song Dynasty”) and were used for religious reasons at rites at court. Later, the glaze was improved, the glaze growing ever whiter, and became known as Tianbai, or sweet white. The white grew in importance and Marco Polo is said to have taken at least some white pieces of porcelain back with him. (Kerr “Song Dynasty” 21)
The Ming Dynasty reverted to the inward looking perception and went so far as to ban private foreign trade, which actually benefited other countries, such as Vietnam and Thailand which prodigiously copied the Chinese product, grabbed a large portion of China’s manufacturing. It was not until Emperor Longqing lifted the ban in 1567 that China was able to reemerge as the leader in overseas marketing of porcelain. Prior to this, the official palace kiln monopolized porcelain production and kept for itself the best raw materials and artisans to produce porcelain for the court. Blue and white porcelain were quite popular. (Kerr “Science”)
When the ban on exports had been imposed in the early Ming Dynasty, many producers of Longquan greenwares suffered, and the style even declined. When the ban was lifted, the Longquan greenware never recovered its popularity. In addition to the burgeoning demand for blue and white porcelain, blanc de Chine, which had been going through a long period of development and perfection, also achieved great demand and fame. As mentioned, blanc de Chine, produced mostly in Dehua, were characterized by an ivory white shade with translucence. Much improvement had been made since the Dehua production in the Song and Yuan Dynasties, which had a more yellow tinge. Although during the early Ming Dynasty most
As mentioned, blanc de Chine, produced mostly in Dehua, were characterized by an ivory white shade with translucence. Much improvement had been made since the Dehua production in the Song and Yuan Dynasties, which had a more yellow tinge. Although during the early Ming Dynasty most demand for blanc de Chine came from Southeast Asia, beginning in the 17th Century, a great deal of blanc de Chine produced in Dehua was sold to Europe, becoming almost a rage among royalty and nobles there.
As Valenstein said about the Ming Dynasty porcelain:
“Porcelains that were produced in that period, however, are some of the most beautiful and exciting wares in all of China’s history.” (Valenstein 151)
Valentine is equally effusive about the blue and white porcelain produced at Xuande during this same period:
“Connoisseurs are unanimous in their praise of Xuande blue-and-white porcelains, which in many respects represent this decorative technique at its apogee. They combine the freedom and energy of a newly ripened art form with the sophistication of concept and mastery of execution that come with maturity. The very model of a bristling Xuande dragon on the large guan-shaped jar.
In every respect is representative of the highest traditions of early fifteenth-century brushwork. His dorsal fins are like the teeth of a buzz saw; his claws have an underlying bone structure that is worthy of Michelangelo; he moves around the jar with total power, yet consummate grace.” (Valenstein 164-165)
In fact, acclaim for porcelain produced during the Ming Dynasty has become so ubiquitous, that even the mere mention of “Ming” connotes incredible delicacy, beauty, and value.
Concluding remarks on Chinese porcelain production
Looking at 1,000 years of ceramics development in China involves merely a peek at a process of evolution that likely covers more than 9,000 years from beginning to now. It is likely true that in almost every corner of the earth there are samples of Chinese pottery ranging probably from its most simple form to its most exotic and exquisite form. As China transitioned dramatically from the Tang Dynasty through to the Ming Dynasty, so too the nature and perfection of Chinese porcelain also changed, and matured, even so much as to render the word “Ming” synonymous the world over with great value and incomparable beauty.
Benn, Charles. “China’s Golden Age: Everyday Life in the Tang Dynasty.” 2002, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Kerr, Rose. Wood, Nigel. “Science and Civilisation in China, Vol. V:12.” 2004, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Kerr, Rose. “Song Dynasty Ceramics.” 2004,Victoria and Albert Museum.
Polo, Marco. “The Book of Ser Marco Polo: The Venetian Concerning Kingdoms and Marvels of the East, Chapter LXXV: Of the noble city of Suju”, Asia for Educators, Columbia University (http://afe.easia.columbia.edu/ps/china/polo_suzhou.pdf)
The Mongols in World History: The Mongols in China. 2004, (http://afe.easia.columbia.edu/mongols/china/china3_b.htm)
Valenstein, Suzanne G. “A Handbook of Chinese Ceramics.” 1988, Metropolitan Museum of Art