Tang dynasty pottery was preceded by Chinese ceramics dating back as far as the Palaeolithic age but it wasn’t until the Tang took over from the unifying Sui dynasty in 618 that China flourished. Considered by many to be a golden age of art, culture and discovery, it was also a wonderful period of development and innovation in the world of Tang dynasty ceramics and it is why today, Tang dynasty antiques are so highly prized.
Early Tang dynasty pottery varied dramatically and used high-fire and low-fire techniques but in the 289 years of Tang dynastic rule, the most successful and sought-after pieces were Tang sancai, literally ‘three colour.’ This form of Tang dynasty ceramics is moulded earthenware with colour added in naturalistic places rather than over the entirety of the piece and the process of producing high quality Tang dynasty pottery was relatively complex for seventh and eighth century potters – the moulds are baked in kilns to around 1,100°C, then the glaze is applied and finally the temperature is reduced to 900°C and baked again.
The origins of Tang sancai – polychrome lead-glazed decorated Tang dynasty pottery – were in the northern Chinese cities of Shaanxi and Loyang and for the most part the process used varying shades of yellow, green and white, earning the nickname ‘egg and spinach’ in the west, although other colours were used.
Chinese sancai, three-colour glazed pottery equestrian group, with Central Asian male rider modelled with his hands raised to hold the reins, wearing a green glazed long jacket with chestnut lapels, his face unglazed and heightened in black, white and red pigment, with detailed paint to his hair and Phrygian cap, fu tou, also in black tied at the back, the piebald horse standing with the head turned to the left with ears pricked and green splashes on a cream ground with three-colour saddle cloth and chestnut hoofs, the base unglazed.
Chinese sancai, three-colour glazed pottery standing figure of a court lady wearing long flowing robes, her hands hidden beneath a loose stole covering her shoulders and draped at the front, the green, straw and chestnut glazes well-defined, the unglazed head and face with details heightened in black, pink and white original pigment, her hair tied in three buns at the back and knotted up in a chignon, also heightened with black and white pigment.
A Chinese sancai (three colour) small pottery model of a standing cockerel the head looking forwards, covered with splashed green, chestnut and straw glaze, falling short of the lower section and revealing the buff pottery.
Further information on Tang
Many of these stunning Tang dynasty antiques were used as pieces that were buried with the dead for use in the afterlife, known as mingqui. They mainly took the form of horses, camels, servants and soldiers and even camel drivers from Africa and central Asia depicted by their thick beards and facial features with realistic detail unprecedented in the history of not only Tang dynasty ceramics but in all of Chinese art.
It has been suggested that no other potters of any other dynasty have been as skilful in their stunning representations of horses and consequently Tang dynasty antiques and sancai are collected and admired by collectors from around the world.