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Pre-Han Ceramics

       The first ceramics produced in China around eight thousand years ago were utilitarian wares and this early role for basic pottery has never diminished. Long before the Bronze Age, sophisticated earthenwares were used as ritual vessels in various Neolithic cultures located along the Yellow and Yangtze river valleys. Some of these regional cultures include Dadiwan (大地灣, 5800–5400 B.C.), Yangshao (仰韶, ca. 5000–3000 B.C.), Hemudu (河姆渡, 5000–4500 B.C.), Majiayao (馬家窯, 3100–2700 B.C.), Longshan (龍山, 3000–2000 B.C.), and Dawenkou (大汶口, 4100–2600 B.C.).

       Mostly hand built, these red, grey, and black wares often reveal a craftsmanship and beauty exceptional for their age. Once the crafting of bronze, lacquer and precious metals were mastered, the ritual status of ceramics declined and ceramic shapes began to imitate those of metal almost as soon as the latter appeared.

       Pottery making during the Bronze Age Shang (商, ca. 1600–1046 B.C.) and Zhou (周, 1046–256 B.C.) Dynasties was a large-scale handicraft industry with a marked division of labor. During Shang, several types of ware were created, which continued the traditions from the Neolithic Period.

       The earliest high-fired glazes were achieved during late Shang. Surviving examples display a glaze with a brownish ash tinge. These are the forerunners of Yue ware, a large family of green wares known as in the West as celadon. Also important was the relationship between the bronze industry and ceramics. Throughout the Shang and Zhou Dynasties, expensive ritual bronze vessels and bells were carefully imitated in less expensive clay. These replica vessels were apparently made for burial only and they reflect a wide variety of bronze shapes and decorative styles. By late Zhou, the use of molds and stamped decoration suggests a clear division of labor and assembly line processes, which are necessary for the quality control in the mass production of ceramics.