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China Pottery History

China, a country with one of the most ancient civilizations in the world, has a time-honored history of producing pottery.  Pottery wares dating back more than 10,000 years have been discovered at NanZhuangTou in XuShui County, HeBei Province.

The charm of Chinese ceramics culture not only lies in its wide range of expressions on social life, nature, culture, customs, philosophy, and various notions, but also in the way of its expression, which is a demonstration of Chinese culture from many angles.

As part of Chinese culture, the history of Chinese ceramics culture is a vivid and vital part of the nation’s cultural history.

In the history of Chinese cultures, pottery is a unique and important vehicle.  Thanks to its solid quality and stable functions, a large number of pottery wares have been well preserved for thousands of years, preserving various types of information concerning production, everyday life, science and technology, and art from ancient times.  Ancient pottery is highly prized by archeologists, as through the shapes, patterns and glaze of pottery of different periods, we can define the age of an archaeological site, thus helping us to study the society, economy and cultural level of a certain era.

In the New Stone Age, about 8,000 years ago, a large number of red, gray, white and painted pottery wares were developed, of which painted pottery has drawn the most attention.  Pottery wares produced in the New Stone Age were bold and solid, and the patterns on pottery wares were free and graceful.  Painted pottery containers of the YangShao and MaJaiYao cultures commonly found in ShaAnXi, GanSu and Qinghai Provinces include basins, jars, bowls and urns.  All of them are rich in the flavor of life.

The terra-cotta warriors and horses in Xi’an of Northwest China’s Shaanxi Province reflect the people’s philosophy at that time, and vividly record the history in a unique way.

The courageous, strict, and serious generals; the cavaliers awaiting their orders; the infantry wearing their armors and holding their weapons; the archers holding their bows and looking straight at the enemies; as well as the brave horses all constituted a magnificent force, emitting a sense of masculinity, bravery, and power.

Gazing at the spectacular pottery troops of more than two thousand years ago, modern visitors are brought back to wars and flames at the end of the Warring States Period (475-221BC), and are much impressed by the invincible Qin troop that virtually made a clean sweep of their enemies, even if the troop is just made of pottery.

By the Han Dynasty (206BC-220AD), the social economy had recovered from the wounds of long-time wars, and the society had also experienced substantial developments in many  aspects, which also contributed to cultural characteristics different from those of the Qin Dynasty (221-207BC). The content and artistic styles of the pottery works were also in turn different from that of the Qin Dynasty.

Whether the pottery works featured humans or animals, the emphasis of the works was no longer as realistic as in the Qin Dynasty. Instead of attaching great importance to lifelikeness and details, the pottery and porcelain works during the Han Dynasty paid more attention to grasping the spiritual content of the works, and emphasized the use of gestures and facial expressions. The bold, unconstrained, flowing, and flexible style also echoed the aesthetic taste of the Han Dynasty.

The “Tang Tri-color pottery,” with its excited, high-spirited, magnificent, and intense-colored style, resembled the time spirit of the Tang Dynasty (618-907), when China was the leading and most open civilization in the world.

The principal porcelain factory in China was the imperial plant at Jingdezhen in Jiangxi Province. The Jesuit missionary Pere d'Entrecolles described the city and the art of porcelain making in two letters written in China in 1712 and 1722. These brought to Europe for the first time a detailed account of Chinese porcelain manufacture. He described the great porcelain-making center of Jingdezhen as holding approximately a million people and some 3,000 kilns for ceramics.

The glazes and decorations made at the imperial factory were intended to reproduce natural colors. Some of the best-known glazes are celadon; peach bloom, like the skin of a ripening peach, apple green, oxblood, and a pale gray blue. The decoration called cracked ice is said to have been inspired by the reflection of a sunny blue sky in the ice of a stream cracking with the first spring thaw.

The rice-grain decoration was achieved by cutting out the decoration from the porcelain body before glazing. The glaze then filled the cutout portions, which remained transparent after firing. Rose or soft pink, green and black were the dominant colors.

The pretty and handsome ceramics of the Song Dynasty (960-1279) embodied the aesthetic standards and philosophical notions of the time.

The multicolored, soft, delicate, and exquisite porcelains of the Ming and Qing dynasties (1368-1911) were the results of changing social lives and aesthetic notions.

Some fine white porcelain was made at Dehua in the province of Fujian in South China from the 1400s to the 1700s. Some of this ware was brought to Europe by early traders, where it was known as Blanc de chine. It provided many models for the early European porcelain makers. were noted for boldness in form and decoration, with great variations in design. They include the blue and white ware, huge vessels for the imperial temples, and delicate white eggshell porcelain.

Since the implementation of the Reform and Open-up policy by the People’s Republic of China (1949-) in 1978, the bold and unrestrained style of the pottery and porcelain works have reflected the changes in the politics, notions, and lives of the society.

The Differences between Pottery and Porcelain
Generally speaking, pottery is made from pottery clay, and porcelain is made from porcelain clay, while their main differences are from the following five points:

First, firing temperature for pottery is 800˚ - 1,100˚ Centigrade (1472˚ – 2,012˚ F), and for porcelain it is 1,200˚ - 1,400˚ Centigrade (2,192˚ – 2,552˚ F).

Second, the body of pottery is not as hard as porcelain, and pottery will be scratched more easily than porcelain. Also, porcelain sounds clearer than pottery when knocked.

Third, the material of pottery is common clay, but porcelain needs special materials with rich mineral elements like kaolin.

Fourth, the body of porcelain is semi-translucent, while pottery is not. Fifth, the glaze of pottery can be fused at a low temperature, while the glaze of porcelain has to be fired at high temperature at the same time as the body, or it can also be fired at a lower temperature after the body has been fired first.

The China Road
'China Road' was proposed in the1960s by Professor Mikami Tsugio, a well-known Japanese scholar who specialized in ceramics. Opened in the middle and late Tang Dynasty, it was the main artery on the sea for communication between China and foreign countries. Because of its different characteristics from silk, porcelain can be transported by water. This route started from the southeast coast of China, along the East Sea and South Sea, through the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea, finally reaching the east coast of Africa. Or it went through the Red Sea and the Mediterranean Sea to reach Egypt, or starting from the southeast coast of China directly to Japan and Korea. In ancient times, porcelain products spread along this route were like bright pearls lightening the whole land of Southeast Asia, Africa and Arabia. The Silk Road brought the Chinese knowledge of religions, while the China Road brought huge business and material wealth.

At present, porcelain objects made in China can be found in many foreign countries of the world, including Japan, North Korea, India, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Philippine, Malaysia, Egypt, Iran, Indonesia, Pakistan, Iraq, and many Arab States. They are the historic witness of the China Road.

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