The Art of Chinese Pottery and Porcelain

The origins of Chinese pottery and porcelain go back to distant antiquity. 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. 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, in Southeast of China, 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 product of the official kilns of the Ming and Ch’ing dynasties were made.

Modern porcelain makers would today be hard 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-garde 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.

– Liu Chin

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