Materials & Techniques

Chinese Porcelain

An excerpt of the essay from the exhibition catalogue for the March 12 - April 9, 1961 Dallas Museum of Fine Arts exhibition "Chinese Pottery and Porcelain."

The outstanding Chinese contribution to the ceramic art is the invention of porcelain. The Western and Chinese definitions of porcelain are different. We regard translucency and high vitrification in that it cannot be scratched with a knife, as the guiding factors. To the Chinese, the most important characteristic is the musical sound when tapped with the fingernail. It is now certain that a hard, shell-like porcellaneous stoneware with an almost white body, translucent in thin places, and which would fulfill the requirements of both definitions, was being made in China by the 8th Century. It was not until a thousand years later that the secret of porcelain was re-discovered in Europe.

The merits and beauty of porcelain have always been recognized by the Chinese, who have ranked it from the earliest days, with jade, among their precious materials. One of the chief attributes which distinguishes it from other types of pottery is the way that light is reflected from its surface. When a colored enamel is used to decorate the surface of a porcelain object, light reflected by the porcelain brings out the color of enamel in a manner comparable to stained glass. Porcelain is normally seen indoors, but the full beauty of a decorated porcelain may only be seen when examined in sunlight.

Glazes are of two main types, the lead silicate glazes and the feldspathic glazes. It is in the Han dynasty (205 BCE - 220 CE) that we find the use of both glazes for the first time in China. The feldspathic glaze was a uniquely Chinese discovery of the greatest importance and which, combined with their skill in the building of kilns, led to the invention of porcelain. The feldspar used for this early Han glaze must have contained a small quantity of iron which resulted in the greenish color of these first feldspathic "celadon" wares, now generally included under the classification of "yueh."

By the T'ang dynasty (618-906), with the ability to fire wares at higher temperatures, Yueh ware had achieved a clearer and brighter color and a harder body. With the growing popularity of tea, Yueh cups gained fame throughout the East and were in great demand for both export and domestic use. But it is the T'ang lead glazes which are more typical of the period. With a wide range of color, the T'ang potter produced wares of distinctive form in many shapes typical of the "expanding" character of the era.

Considering the fragile nature of pottery, it may appear amazing that so many of these early wares have survived to the present time. This is due to the Chinese custom during early dynasties of placing in the tomb of a deceased person articles that could be useful in the life thereafter. These included pottery models of his retainers and servants, a variety of pottery wares, together with models of household and farm furniture and fittings. The T'ang mortuary pottery has left us with a complete sequence of animal forms, of which horses and camels were the most popular. The former particularly are excellent examples of naturalistic modelling and of great sculptural merit.

With the advent of the Sung dynasty (960-1279), the lead glazes, although still used, were no longer fashionable. The Chinese potter had developed a feldspathic glaze of a quality previously unknown. The Sung Emperors were cultivated scholars with antiquarian tastes, and the new wares were immediately appreciated and collected by the Court. Certain kilns, by tradition those producing Ch'ai, Ting, Ju, Kuan and Ko, were patronized by the Emperors and produced wares solely for the use of the Imperial Palace.

In the Sung dynasty, ceramics were produced on a vast scale for both domestic and export markets. Also associated with this period are the Chun, Northern Celadon and Lung Ch'uan wares. All of the above mentioned wares are monochromes. In contrast, in this dynasty, we also find freehand drawing with a brush used for the first time in the decoration of Chinese pottery. This was initially made at Tz'; Chou, from which it derives its name, and the finest specimens show an admirable freedom in decoration and are of great beauty.

The Ming dynasty (1368-1644) marks the beginning of a new phase in Chinese history with the production in quantity of a thin fine-grained white porcelain, and such wares became fashionable practically to the exclusion of all others. Monochromes no longer held the position they had attained in the Sung dynasty and were superseded in Imperial favor by two types of ware with painted decoration. The earlier of these was the famous underglaze blue and white porcelains. The other was called "tou ts'ai" in which the porcelain was first decorated in outline in underglaze blue. After having been fired, the blue outlines were filled with enamel glazes and then re-fired in a muffle kiln. These enamel colors were also applied directly to the biscuit and are called "San tsi" or three color ware, although the three basic colors are often supplemented by a number of other enamel colors.

In the Ming dynasty, a wide range of colored glazes and enamels became available to the Chinese potter, and with his ingenuity in methods of decoration, it becomes nearly impossible to describe the many combinations of colors and techniques used in both monochrome and polychrome decoration of the Ming wares.

The Ch'ing dynasty of the Manchus replaced the Ming in 1644 and ruled China until the Republic in 1912. A succession of three able Emperors-K'anghsi (1662-1722), Yung-cheng (1723-1735), and Chlien-lung (1736-1795)-encouraged the development of the ceramic art with an unusual amount of Imperial patronage. Throughout their reigns, new glazes and new techniques were continually being discovered and developed, and it became possible to produce porcelain which had the appearance of other materials and even metals. In addition to developing many new types, the Ch'ing Emperors had great

admiration for both the early Ming and more ancient Sung wares, and reproductions of many of these were made by Imperial order.

The Ch'ing monochromes are among the finest achievements of the Chinese potter, not only for the beauty of their glazes but also for their fine and graceful shapes. The tradition of the Ming overglazed enamelled porcelains was also continued, but with variations in the dominant colors, the two main types of which have been named "famille verte" and "famille rose." Although vast quantities of Chinese porcelain were exported, it is only in recent years that we have become acquainted with the Imperial enamelled porcelains of the early Ch'ing Emperors. These are remarkable for their beautifully executed paintings which show an admirable sense of proportion and use of space. Only a comparatively few of these Imperial porcelains have ever been available to the West. They are indeed some of the finest examples of the art of the Chinese potter and are among the most treasured objects in the great ceramic collections of the world.

Excerpt from

Arthur Rothwell, Chinese Pottery and Porcelain (exh. cat.) (Dallas: Dallas Museum of Fine Arts, 1961), n.p.