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Development of Chinese Porcelain

Porcelain, also called 'fine china', featuring its delicate texture, pleasing color, and refined sculpture, has been one of the earliest artworks introduced to the western world through the Silk Road. The earliest porcelain ware was found made of Kaolin in the Shang Dynasty (16th - 11th century BC), and possessed the common aspects of the smoothness and impervious quality of hard enamel, though pottery wares were more widely used among most of the ordinary people. Anyway it was the beginning of porcelain, which afterwards in the succeeding dynasties and due to its durability and luster, rapidly became a necessity of daily life, especially in the middle and upper classes. They were made in the form of all kinds of items, such as bowls, cups, tea sets, vases, jewel cases, incense burners, musical instruments and boxes for stationary and chess, as well as pillows for traditional doctors to use to feel one's pulse.

ANCIENT TRADING: An exhibition of China's porcelain ware produced for export during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) is held in Beijing in February 2010 (LUO XIAOGUANG)

PORCELAIN TREASURES: A green glazed porcelain vase of the Song Dynasty (960-1279) (CFP)

Proto-celadon, predecessor of porcelain and the transition state from pottery to porcelain, appeared during the Shang and Western Zhou dynasties (1600-771 B.C.), and porcelain production started no later than the Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220).

Since the 1970s, a number of celadon shards featuring delicate textures and glossy glazes were unearthed from the Han Dynasty (202 B.C.-A.D. 220) kiln sites in south China. Porcelain ware in varied shapes was also found in tombs of that period, showing high-firing glazed pottery had developed into porcelain by that time.

During the 300-odd years following the Han Dynasty, in comparison with the war-ridden north China, the area of the lower reaches of the Yangtze River was much more stable, favoring the development of porcelain making.

Great numbers of kilns were built in Shaoxing, Yuhang and Wuxing—all in today's Zhejiang Province—where similar types of porcelain were produced, which helped to form the style of the Yue Kiln. Kilns in this area mostly produced celadon and black porcelain. In the late Western Jin Dynasty (265-316), green glazed porcelain decorated with brown spots was also produced there.

The porcelain of this style featured hard and fine roughcast and was light grey in color. The types of products expanded too, including bowls, trays, saucers, platters, jars, pots, incense burners and candlesticks.

When Buddhism prevailed in the Southern Dynasties (420-589), porcelain products were typically decorated with lotus flowers.

Besides the Yue Kiln, other noted porcelain kilns in the south of the country included the Deqing Kiln (Zhejiang Province), Wuzhou Kiln (Zhejiang Province), Xiangyin Kiln (Hunan Province) and Fengcheng Kiln (Jiangxi Province).

Compared to the south, porcelain production started a little later in the north. As a result of low iron content in kaolin in the north, mostly white porcelain was produced there. Four green glazed porcelain vessels with lotus patterns unearthed from a tomb in today's Hebei Province are rated as representative works of north China's porcelain produced in that period and show fine art in their making.

The ceramic industry in China reached a new stage during the Sui and Tang dynasties and the period of Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms, which lasted from 518 to 960.

Kilns in the south, with the Yue Kiln as their centerpiece, enjoyed a reputation for celadon porcelain production, while kilns in the north, with Xing Kiln (Hebei Province) as a representative, became known for their white porcelain.

The two types of products featured distinct regional flavor, attained a high degree of technical perfection, and represented the country's highest level of porcelain making at that time. Both the north and the south witnessed an ever-growing trend toward thinner roughcast, smoother glaze, and more exquisite and ingenious shapes.

Porcelain production continued to boom in the Liao, Song, Western Xia and Jin dynasties, a period from 916 to 1234. Well-known kilns spread all over the country, leading to the forming of eight major kiln styles—the Ding (Hebei Province), Jun (Henan Province), Yaozhou (Shaanxi Province) and Cizhou (Hebei Province) kilns in the north, and the Jingdezhen (Jiangxi Province), Longquan (Zhejiang Province), Jian (Fujian Province) and Yue (Zhejiang Province) kilns in the south.

Further, five celebrated kilns during the Song Dynasty (960-1279), which were Guan (imperial kiln), Ge, Ru, Ding and Jun kilns, became well-known for the production of fine porcelain, leading to a peak of China's porcelain production.

In the Yuan Dynasty (1206-1368), the country's porcelain-making techniques reached a higher level. In 1278, an imperial kiln was set up in Jingdezhen, Jiangxi Province. From then on Jingdezhen gradually developed into a porcelain production center for the country. With the invention of blue and white porcelain and underglaze red porcelain of kilns there, a new chapter of China's porcelain history started.

A blue and white porcelain jar of the Yuan Dynasty (1206-1368) (XINHUA)

An export-oriented porcelain product of Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) (CFP)

Blue and white porcelain was made by heating clay roughcast painted with blue pigment, generally cobalt oxide, under the glaze to a temperature of 1,300 degrees centigrade or so. Featuring strong Chinese national styles, this type of porcelain has been the dominant product for hundreds of years. Once invented, this blue and white porcelain was favored overseas and sold well. It remained in great demand for a long time, and became the embodiment of Chinese porcelain. (See P.41)

The country's porcelain making had its heyday during the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1636-1911) dynasties. Enjoying fame as "Porcelain Capital" for over 500 years, Jingdezhen produced a great variety of porcelain items in different colors and shapes, including numerous priceless porcelain works. The products of Jingdezhen not only served for the imperial families, but also enjoyed good sales both in and out of the country.

But, in the late period of the Qing Dynasty, China was hit by domestic social instability and foreign invasion. Given the unstable social environment, the country's ceramic industry waned rapidly.

As early as the Western Han Dynasty (206 B.C.-A.D. 25), Zhang Qian, an envoy of the court of Han, was sent on diplomatic missions to kingdoms in the Western region (referring to areas west of Yumen Pass, including China's Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region and parts of Central Asia), thus opening up the overland Silk Road, the famous trade route connecting the East and the West.

The exporting of Chinese porcelain started in the end of the eighth century. With the prosperity of the maritime Silk Road during the Tang and Song dynasties (618-1279), Chinese porcelain, such as white porcelain of the Xing Kiln, celadon ware of the Yue Kiln and the colorful painted porcelain of kilns in Changsha, Hunan Province, began to be sold abroad in large quantities.

Painted porcelain vessels produced by the kilns in Changsha have been unearthed from 73 sites in 13 countries in Asia and Africa. These findings were mostly decorated in exotic styles such as Arabic words.

Song, Yuan and early Ming dynasties witnessed the second peak of China's porcelain export. Products exported were mainly celadon ware from the Longquan Kiln and blue and white porcelain and underglaze red porcelain from the Jingdezhen Kiln. Chinese porcelain found a huge market in many countries in Asia and Africa at that time. Correspondingly, more than one sea route was established, leading to Northeastern and Southeastern Asia and the Persian Gulf in Western Asia.

In the early Ming Dynasty, the court issued a ban on unofficial maritime trade. But smuggling still became a new channel for ceramic exports during the middle period of the dynasty. During that time, European merchants, missionaries and diplomats began to set foot in China, and Portugal, the Netherlands and Britain established their own East India Companies one after another to engage in business. Chinese porcelain became so popular among royalty and nobility in Europe that statistics from Fu Zhenlun (1906-99), a well-known Chinese historian, show the Dutch East India Company alone, which came to the fore in fierce porcelain trade competition, transported 16 million pieces of Chinese porcelain to Europe from 1602 to 1682.

Despite the war during the last years of the Ming Dynasty and the ban on maritime trade re-imposed by the court of the Qing Dynasty, exports of porcelain continued in an underground form along the extended coastline of southeast China.

The 200-odd years from the middle and late Ming Dynasty to the early Qing Dynasty were a golden period for exports of Chinese porcelain. Typically, China's export porcelain was designed and decorated in Western style. Some were even painted with badges of families, companies or cities to meet specific demand of foreign buyers, which became known as "Armorial Porcelain." Chinese porcelain was exported in large quantities, even more than 1 million pieces each year.

A painted porcelain utensil of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) (CFP)
A porcelain bowl of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) (CFP)

During the reigns of emperors Kangxi, Yongzheng and Qianlong of the Qing Dynasty, porcelain exports hit an unprecedented record, as the maritime porcelain trade ban was finally lifted in 1684, triggering a new wave of exports. Statistics show in 1734, about 400,000 porcelain products were exported to the Netherlands, the same quantity of porcelain was transported to Britain in 1774, and from 1750 to 1781, the number of porcelain pieces exported to Sweden reached 1.1 million in total.

Archaeological findings in several sunken ancient merchant ships loaded with porcelain, found in recent years, have testified to the prosperity of porcelain export trade by sea in ancient China. At the same time, vast private and museum collections of Ming and Qing dynasties' porcelain in Europe provide corroborative evidence for booming porcelain exports in ancient China.

After the mid-Qing Dynasty, European countries drastically reduced imports of Chinese porcelain, because of the rapid growth of their own ceramic industries. Furthermore, since the Opium War in 1840, both Europe and Japan poured machine-made porcelain products into China, putting an end to the history of Chinese porcelain exporting.

Four objective factors influenced the beginnings and development of Chinese pottery and porcelain: clay, fuel, river systems, and markets. Heavy clay and large quantities of fuel are required for pottery and porcelain making. Prohibitively high shipping costs made pottery production economically impractical in areas without these basic prerequisites. So a locale with plentiful supplies of both clay and lumber as fuel had the best potential for setting up a ceramics kiln.

Once a large kiln has been set up, it often continues to produce for hundreds of years. The arts of preparing clay, glazing, and firing are often passed down from generation to generation; so each area will tend to develop its own individual glazes, clays, and decorating techniques, resulting in unique styles and designs. These special characteristics provide much of the basis of modern appraisal of ancient pottery and porcelain pieces: from the particular features of a piece, one can usually pinpoint definitively when and where it was made. Beginning with the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.-220 A.D.), and into the T'ang (618-907 A.D.), Sung (960-1279 A.D.), Yuan (1279-1368 A.D.), and Ming (1368-1644 A.D.) dynasties, large quantities of pottery and porcelain were exported from China to Korea, Japan, the Ryukyu Islands, the Southeast Asian Peninsula, the Philippines, Indonesia, India, the Middle East, the Eastern Coast of Africa, Continental Europe, Great Britain, and the United States. Pottery and porcelain pieces exported during these periods are an excellent source of research materials on the history of China's communications, trade, and economic relations with other countries.

Clay suitable for pottery and porcelain making is produced in the Peitou and Nanshihchiao areas of Taipei. Beginning in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, pottery and porcelain kilns gradually became concentrated in the Yingke Chen area of Taipei County. Today, Yingke Chen is the main ceramic-producing area of northern Taiwan. Due to the accumulation of ceramic-making experience over the years, and the ceramic masters residing in Yingke Chen who have received their craft from previous generations, modern kiln facilities continue to come to Tingke Chen to set up shop. The pottery and porcelain producing centers of central Taiwan are in Miaoli and Nantou counties. Thanks mainly to the plentiful supplies of stoneware clay and rich forest resources of the Shihtoushan area. kilns have sprung up all over these two counties. Some of the kilns in the Miaoli area have begun using natural gas as a fuel for firing pottery. They also import high-quality porcelain clay, and have brought in modern facilities and technologies to further improve the quality of their products.

  White porcelain was

Yue ware celadon

The key to why ceramic art has been able to develop to such a high level in China lies in the spirit of Chinese craftsmen to strive for excellence. Ceramic and porcelain pieces dating back to various historical periods have demonstrated again and again how Chinese artisans overcame the shortcomings of the materials they used, and how craftsmanship can conquer the difficulties encountered in working with clay. For example, in the late Yuan (1279-1368 A.D.) and early Ming (1368-1644 A.D.) dynasties, the material used to produce porcelain in world-famous Chingte Chen, Kiangsi Province, was porcelain stone mixed with kaolin, a material with relatively poor plasticity. Faced with this difficulty, the porcelain makers of the time came up with the idea of grinding the raw material to an extremely fine consistency, then soaking it in water for several years. This process of hydrolysis increased its stickiness and plasticity. In this way the clay could be stretched and formed on a potter's wheel into beautiful porcelain articles. When half-dry, a special knife was used to shave it until extremely thin; this is how the famous Chinese ``eggshell'' porcelain-a product of the official kilns of the Ming and Ch'ing dynasties-was made. Modern porcelain makers would today be hard put to reproduce this unique process for treating porcelain clay, and the highly developed craftsmanship that accompanied it - even with their state-of-the-art equipment and technologies.

Pottery and porcelain artisans of today have full access to modern technological knowledge, and can freely choose their equipment. But they all still carry on in the traditional belief that man can indeed conquer nature. Some imitate ancient designs, others produce avant-grade pieces. With their minds, their hands, and clay and fire, these potters express the artist's perception of beauty, his professional experience, his sensitivity, and his level of artistic cultivation. A senior potter of Taiwan, Lin Pao-chia , has over the past 40 years come to be known as the ``doctor'' of the Yingke Chen ceramics industry. He can usually come up with an answer to virtually any question or problem regarding ceramics that is brought to him, and he has also helped to cultivate uncounted creative talent in the area of ceramic making. Chiu Huan-tang and Shih Nai-yueh made their contributions by bringing in new ceramic making concepts from the United States, and by creating modern works of ceramic art. These masters have also helped train a new generation of ceramists in their art. Young artists who have distinguished themselves in their field include Lien Pao-chai , Chen Chiu-chi , Yang Wen-ne , Sun Chao , and Feng Sheng-kuang . All have their own richly expressive and creative styles.


In the Republic of China on Taiwan, some ceramists have learned their craft on their own, others through study abroad; but most received their training from the National Taiwan Academy of Arts, the industrial arts department of National Taiwan Normal University, and the ceramics section, chemical engineering department of the Chinese Culture University. Accompanying the rise in the standard of Living in Taiwan, the number of people who enjoy ceramics and themselves like to throw pots is increasing every year. Those who have actually dug into clay with their own hands have the highest appreciation of the masterful creations of the ancient makers of pottery and porcelain. In meeting the challenge of modern art by merging it with traditional culture, Chinese ceramic art looks toward wholly new creative and innovative horizons.

As we know, the features of porcelain lie in texture of basic body, color of glaze, decorative pattern, shape and style, while porcelain at that time had sublimed to be at the most elegant. The famille-rose porcelain was another highlight that appeared during the reign of Emperor Kangxi (1653 - 1722). The finished article appears more stereoscopic, colorful, gentle and clean. Nearly all the refined colored pigments were utilized like ancient purple, magenta, ochre, emerald, and so on.

Through the development of 4,000 years, now it is still a brilliant art that attracts many people's interest. Collect your favorite porcelain article and place it in your room to enjoy the pleasure of it. The Porcelain Capital, Jingdezhen in Jiangxi Province which has been praised for thousands of years, will be certain to satisfy your esthetic appetite

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