In the context of Chinese ceramics the term porcelain lacks a universally accepted definition. This in turn has led to confusion about when the first Chinese porcelain was made. Claims have been made for the late Eastern Han period (100 to 200 AD), the Three Kingdoms period (220 to 280 AD), the Six Dynasties period (220 to 589 AD), and the Tang Dynasty (618 to 906 AD).
Fragments of pottery vessels dating from around the year 9000 BC found at the Xianrendong (Spirit Cave) site, Wannian County, in the province of Jiangxi represent some of the earliest known Chinese ceramics. The wares were handmade by coiling and fired in bonfires. Decorations include impressed cord marks, and features produced by stamping and piercing.
The Xianrendong site was occupied from about 9000 BC to about 4000 BC. During this period two types of pottery were made. The first consisted of coarse-bodied wares possibly intended for everyday use. The second being finer, thinner-bodied wares possibly intended for ritual use or special occasions. There is archaeological evidence suggesting that at some point both types of wares were produced at the same time.
Some experts believe the first true porcelain was made in the province of Zhejiang during the Eastern Han period. Chinese experts emphasize the presence of a significant proportion of porcelain-building minerals (china clay, porcelain stone or a combination of both) as an important factor in defining porcelain. Shards recovered from archaeological Eastern Han kiln sites estimated firing temperature ranged from 1260 to 1300°C. As far back as 1000 BC, the so-called "Porcelaneous wares" or "proto-porcelain wares" were made using at least some kaolin fired at high temperatures. The dividing the line between the two and true porcelain wares is not a clear one.
Sui and Tang dynasty
Over the following centuries innumerable new ceramic technologies and styles were developed. One of the most famous is the three-colored ware of the Tang dynasty (618-907 AD), named after the bright yellow, green, and white glazes which were applied to the earthenware body. They were made not only in such traditional forms as bowls and vases, but also in the more exotic guises of camels and Central Asian travelers, testifying to the cultural influence of the Silk Road. Another type of ware to gain the favor of the Tang court was the qingci, known in the West as celadon. These have a subtle bluish-green glaze and are characterized by their simple and elegant shapes. They were so popular that production continued at various kiln centers throughout China well into the succeeding dynasties, and were shipped as far as Egypt, Southeast Asia, Korea, and Japan.
Yuan and Ming dynasty
Blue and white porcelain was first produced under the Yuan dynasty (1279-1368 AD). Baked at an extremely high temperature, porcelain is characterized by the purity of its kaolin clay body. Potters of the subsequent Ming dynasty (1368-1644) perfected these blue and white wares so that they soon came to represent the virtuosity of the Chinese potter. Jingedezhen, in Jiangxi province, became the center of a porcelain industry that not only produced vast quantities of imperial wares, but also exported products to as far away as Turkey. While styles of decorative motif and vessel shape changed with the ascension to the throne of each new Ming emperor, the quality of Ming blue and whites are indisputably superior to that of any other time period.
During the Qing dynasty (1644-1911), porcelain was enriched with the innovation of five-colored wares. Applying a variety of under-glaze pigments to decorative schemes of flower, landscape, and figurative scenes, these wares have gained greatest renown in the West. In almost every major European museum, you will find either a five-colored ware or a monochromatic ware (in blue, red, yellow or pink) from this period.
The quality of Chinese porcelain began to decline from the end of the Qing dynasty as political instability took its inevitable toll on the arts. However, the production of porcelain is being revived as Chinese culture gains greater recognition both at home and abroad. In addition to modern interpretations, numerous kiln centers have been established to reproduce the more traditional styles.
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