Materials & Techniques

Ceramic Art of China

Chinese ceramic art has a long history covering thousands of years, and the quality of the works is among the finest in the world. Experimentation with clays and techniques characterized Chinese ceramics throughout history, resulting in continuing improvements and new technologies. Refinement of shape and decorative finish emerged as an ongoing standard of production, leading to elaborate factory systems of specialized labor.

Colorful finishes appeared even on early earthenware, which were painted or burnished. During the Shang dynasty (mid-2nd millennium–11th century BCE), these soft pottery wares were joined by high-fired stoneware that exhibited accidental glazing resulting from extremely high temperature made possible by new methods of kiln construction. Thereafter, stoneware became the main ceramic type for many centuries. The accidental glazing caused by ash floating in the kiln led potters to intentional glazing that was later manipulated for decorative purposes.

During the Tang dynasty (618–907 CE), the high-temperature technology that produced stonewares combined with particular clays to make possible a revolutionary new ware that fused glaze and body into a single mass and emitted a ringing tone when tapped. This ware is called porcelain. Potters were eventually able to make porcelain vessels of translucent thinness.

During the post-Tang eras, porcelain technology led to the advent of classic cream-colored Ding wares. Emphasis was also placed on the northern white stoneware called Cizhou, which incorporated a variety of decorative techniques, including clear glaze over white slip, underglaze painting in iron-brown on white slip, and carving designs through slip. Colorful Jun wares are porcelaneous stoneware vessels with bright glazes of blue, purple, and green. The green-glazed Yaozhou wares of western China perfected underglaze-incised decoration, uniquely mating vessel shape and decorative motif.

By the 12th century, during the Northern Song dynasty (960-1127), a brilliant bluish white porcelain ware known as Qingbai ("blue white") appeared from the kilns at Jingdezhen in the south of China. Demand for luxury wares grew during the Southern Song dynasty (1127–1279), following the move of the capital to Hangzhou south of the Yangzi River in 1127. This move particularly energized ceramic production among the kilns at Jingdezhen and Longquan.

Foreign influences on ceramics had their most dramatic impact during the Mongol domination of the Yuan dynasty (1279–1392), when Near Eastern traders established connections through ports in southern China. In response to export demands, Chinese potters achieved a technological breakthrough: the white porcelain body and clear feldspathic glaze of Qingbai ware was united with underglaze decoration in blue pigment made from cobalt imported from the Near East. Large quantities of these blue-and-white wares, some of enormous dimension with decorations inspired by Near Eastern taste, were produced for overseas customers.

The native Ming dynasty (1392–1644) tamed the crowded foreign design elements of these export wares into imperial blue-and-white porcelains that were decorated in the Chinese taste and resembled ink paintings on silk. As the dynasty came to a close, the commercialization of private kilns resulted in a broader-based taste focusing on themes drawn from popular literature and drama.

Mastery of overglaze enamel decoration during the Ming dynasty marked the last major stage in ceramic development. This technique offered a previously unknown panorama of colorful patterns and narrative design that enriched ancient ceramic traditions and gave new life to artistic forms.

Excerpt from

  • Anne Bromberg, Label text, 2018.