Chinese ceramic ware is an art form that has been developing since the neolithic period. There are two primary categories of Chinese ceramics, low-temperature-fired pottery or táo (陶, about 950–1200 ℃) and high-temperature-fired porcelain or cí (瓷, about 1250–1400 ℃). The history of Chinese ceramics began some eight thousand years ago with the crafting of hand-molded earthenware vessels. Soon after, in the late neolithic period, the potter’s wheel was invented facilitating the production of more uniform vessels. The sophistication of these early Chinese potters is best exemplified by the legion of terracotta warriors found in the tomb of the First Qin Emperor (r. 221–210 BC).
Over the following centuries innumerable new ceramic technologies and styles were developed. One of the most famous is the three-colored ware of the Tang dynasty (618–907), named after the most common yellow, green and white glazes which were applied to the earthenware body, although other colors, such as blue, brown, purple, etc., were also used. They were made not only in such traditional forms as bowls and vases, but also in the more exotic guises of camels and Central Asian travelers, testifying to the cultural influence of the Silk Road. Another type of ware to gain the favor of the Tang court was the qingci (青瓷), known in the West as celadon. These have a subtle bluish-green glaze and are characterized by their simple and elegant shapes. They were so popular that production continued at various kiln centers throughout China well into the succeeding dynasties, and were shipped to Korea, Japan, Southeast Asia, and as far as Egypt.
During the Song dynasty (960–1279), the firing of porcelain was widespread. Famous porcelain wares were named after the locations at which they were produced. Various kilns (yao, 窯) in different places came to establish their own independent styles of forms and glazes. Porcelain of this period featured plain but elegant glazes as well as simple and archaic forms. Many of the decorative patterns were inspired by daily life and nature.
Blue and white (qinghua, 青花) porcelain was first mass produced under the Yuan dynasty (1279–1368). Baked at a high temperature, porcelain is characterized by the purity of its kaolin clay body. Potters of the subsequent Ming dynasty (1368–1644) perfected these blue and white wares so that they soon came to represent the virtuosity of the Chinese potter. Jingdezhen (景德鎮), in Jiangxi Province, became the center of a porcelain industry that not only produced vast quantities of imperial wares, but also exported products as far afield as Turkey. While styles of decorative motif and vessel shape changed with the ascension to the throne of each new Ming emperor, the quality of Ming blue and whites are indisputably superior to that of any other time period.
During the late Ming to early Qing dynasty (1644–1911), porcelain was enriched with the innovation of five-colored (五彩) wares. Applying a variety of over-glaze pigments to decorative schemes of flower, landscape and figurative scenes, these wares have gained great fame in the West. In the eighteenth century, borrowing from techniques in the decoration of metalware, enamel was painted on porcelain to create vivid colors and stunning patterns, known as painted-enamel or yangcai (洋彩).
The quality of Chinese porcelain began to decline from the end of the Qing dynasty as political instability took its inevitable toll on the arts. However, the production of porcelain is being revived as Chinese culture gains greater recognition both at home and abroad. In addition to modern interpretations, numerous kiln centers have been established to reproduce the more traditional styles.
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