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Chinese Pottery – An Introduction

Just like the culture and history of China itself, the story of Chinese ceramics, the most famous of all oriental pottery, is a richly fascinating tale that dates back millennia. Often the two are intertwined, in that the history of a nation can be learned by the pottery unearthed by archaeologists and analysed, interpreted and decoded by anthropologists.

For thousands of years, Asian porcelain and especially Chinese pottery has beguiled all those who see it and appreciate it for its intricacy, detail, artwork and quite extraordinary technical expertise. Perhaps most importantly for its deference and connection to Chinese culture, history and philosophy.

Chinese pottery – as with most artforms – varies dramatically. The variations are according to dynastic style and preference, available materials, technology & skills of the age and for whom it was made. These reasons, amongst many others, are why Chinese ceramics and all types of oriental pottery are so highly prized by discerning collectors all over the world.

The phrases ‘Chinese pottery’ and ‘Chinese ceramics’ cover a very wide range of products. From bricks and tiles used for construction to the first crude, handmade vessels all the way up to the magnificent blue and white vases of the Ming dynasty and the stunning Asian porcelain made for both the imperial court and the huge export market.

There’s no other place in the world where pottery assumes such importance as in China and the influence of Chinese pottery and Chinese ceramics on European pottery has been profoundly important.

The Different Types of Chinese Pottery

There are many different types of Chinese pottery and each type can be further categorised by factors including age, geographical location, kiln firing temperature and geological makeup.

In terms of a broad timeline, earthenware, a porous material fired at low temperatures usually below 1200°C is generally recognised as the earliest form of Chinese pottery and was developed in Neolithic times. Stoneware, a non-porous material fired at around 1300°C requires a specific type of clay and was developed after earthenware and porcelain, fired at temperatures up to 1400°C came later, around 2,000 years ago.

Porcelain is the dominant and most prestigious type of antique Chinese pottery and is sought after for its delicacy, strength and variety of colour.

Geographically and geologically speaking, Chinese pottery can be divided into two overarching categories – northern and southern – and the differences are fascinating. China is in fact made up of two land masses, each of which is geologically different to the other and they came together millions of years ago by the continental drift. The two land masses formed a junction that sits between the Yellow and Yangtze rivers (known as the Nanshan-Qinling divide) and the contrasting geology means that Chinese ceramics from the north can differ quite dramatically from Chinese pottery from the south.

The north lacks petunse, the stone needed for high quality porcelain so it became the centre for earthenware. The south has high concentrations of silica, potassium oxide and low alumina (the reverse of the north) which made it suitable for high quality porcelain.

In addition, northern kilns predominantly used coal whereas southern kilns used different types of wood.

It’s also worth noting that Chinese ceramics can be further categorised as guanyao, Asian porcelain made in the imperial kilns for the royal court, and minyao, commercially-made Chinese pottery made for the people.

Chinese Pottery Marks – What Are They and How To Read Them

When discussing Chinese pottery, one of the most interesting topics is that of the Chinese pottery marks. Known as ‘reign marks’, they became popular from the early Ming dynasty (around the start of the 15th century) all the way through to the end of the Qing dynasty just before World War I. Theoretically, the mark denotes in which dynasty the piece was made and during the reign of which emperor. However in practice, these Chinese pottery marks are just one of a number of pieces of specific information needed to properly authenticate the provenance and value of Asian porcelain.

The position of the mark depends on the piece on which it is adorned and Chinese pottery marks will usually be found on the base. The earliest reign marks attributed to Ming Emperors Yongle, Xuande and Chenghua were inscribed on the inside of vessels but later marks are usually found on the underside.

These reign marks on Chinese ceramics comprise of four or six characters and are written vertically in columns in one of two very different styles – kaishu or regular script, and zhuanshu, seal-form script. They all follow a pre-set format:

The first two characters refer to the dynasty. Da Ming, ‘Great Ming’ means the piece is from the Ming dynasty (1368 – 1644) and Da Qing, ‘Great Qing’ means the piece is from the Qing dynasty (1644 – 1911).

The second two characters refer to the name of the emperor in whose reign the piece was manufactured and the third set of two characters read ‘nian zhi’, or ‘made for.’

For example, the Chinese pottery mark that reads Da Ming Xuande Nian Zhi, means ‘Made in the great Ming dynasty during the reign of the Emperor Xuande.

Interestingly, there was short period during the reign of Qing dynasty emperor Kangxi where he forbade the use of his reign mark on all but the very finest pieces for the imperial court in case the Chinese ceramics were smashed or discarded. To counter this, the potters either left the double blue circles in which the marks were usually found empty or used auspicious symbols in underglaze blue such as rabbits, artemisia leaves, ruyi sceptres or the lingzhi mushroom.

To muddy the waters a little, it’s not uncommon for Chinese pottery marks to be forged so it’s always worth speaking to experts to be sure. In addition, there was a fashion for potters to copy other markings out of reverence and respect for other artists. For example, you may find a fifteenth-century Ming dynasty reign mark on eighteenth-century Qing dynasty Oriental pottery since during that time the quality of Ming vases was at its zenith.

The History of Chinese Ceramics – From Prehistory to the 10th Century

Pieces of Oriental pottery from 20,000 years ago have been found at the Xianrendong site in China’s Jiangxi province but by the middle to late Neolithic period, (5000 – 1500 BC) many of the early farming cultures such as the Yangshao and Longshan were making highly decorative earthenware vessels. These took the form of (mainly) funerary storage jars decorated with geometric designs, whorls, volutes and sawtooth patterns with sweeping, rhythmic brushwork that defied the primitive age.

The people of the Bronze Age Shang dynasty that followed made ash-glazed Chinese pottery and from the end of the Spring and Autumn period (approximately 771 – 476 BC) to the start of the Warring States period (476 – 221 BC), hard-bodied Chinese ceramics fired at very high temperatures were made. Many of these vessels had traditionally impressed decorations such as pushing fabric cord into the wet clay and then firing them.

Undoubtedly the most famous example of Chinese pottery from around this time is the 8,000+ soldiers of the Terracotta Army (as well as 130 chariots pulled by 520 horses and 150 cavalry horses along with numerous non-military figures such as bureaucrats, musicians, acrobats and strongmen). These figures depicted the legions of Qin Shi Huang, China’s first emperor.

It has been suggested that the first evidence of Chinese pottery production as both an artform and as a skill was found during the second imperial Han dynasty (202 BC – 220 AD). This age saw the development of hunping pottery which translates as ‘soul vase’, a type of elaborately sculpted and highly stylised funerary vessel found in the tombs of Han and Six Dynasties nobility.

But it was during the Tang dynasty (618 – 906) that the production of Chinese ceramics became more sophisticated. The Tang artists experimented with different kiln temperatures as well as new and fascinating dyes and stains which resulted in the three-colour ‘sancai’ style, the high-fired lime-glazed celadon pieces of this beautiful oriental pottery (known as ‘qingci’) and the highly translucent white Asian porcelain, especially from the Hebei and Hunan regions. In fact the celadon pieces proved so popular they were produced well into the succeeding dynasties and were exported to neighbouring Korea and Japan and as far away as Egypt.

In 851, famed Arab traveller Suleiman was one of the first foreigners to mention Chinese pottery in Chain of Chronicles where he wrote, ‘They have in China a very fine clay with which they make vases which are as transparent as glass; water is seen through them.’

The History of Chinese Pottery – From Jingdezhen to Today

During the reign of Song dynasty Emperor Zhenzong (997 – 1022), the eponymous town of Jingdezhen in the north-eastern Jiangxi province became the centre of Chinese ceramics production and remained so for a thousand years. Through the Song and Yuan dynasties, this most beautiful Asian porcelain was mass-produced and many of the decorative patterns adorning the various vessels were elegant descriptions of daily life and the beauty of nature.

First produced under the Mongol-led Yuan dynasty, the world-famous blue and white Chinese pottery reached its zenith during the Ming dynasty and while the style, decoration and shape changed with the ascension of each subsequent Ming emperor to the imperial throne, the quality of Chinese ceramics produced during this time are indisputably (or arguably) superior to that of any other era before or since.

It was during the Ming dynasty that China shifted to a market economy and the kilns at Jingdezhen mass-produced Chinese pottery on an industrial and unprecedented scale both for export and for the imperial court. Indeed one royal order for this most beautiful Asian porcelain was for 450,000 pieces.

As the Ming dynasty made way for the Qing dynasty in the mid-seventeenth century, the manufacture of Chinese ceramics was further enriched with the development of ‘five-colour’ porcelain known as ‘wucai’. This style of Chinese pottery which became incredibly popular in the West was created by applying overglaze pigments of reds, greens, purples, yellows and blues after they had been fired once with a blue underglaze. After the pigments were applied the vessels were fired again.

The tumultuous final years of the Qing – China’s last imperial dynasty – coincided with a downturn in the quality of Chinese ceramics as the resulting political instability took an inevitable toll on the world of arts and culture. However, over the last decades, production is being revived both as modern interpretations and in the traditional styles.