Chinese Porcelain

Written by Sally Guo Updated Jun. 1, 2022

Dish of “Kraak type”, with the central decoration of a man fishing from a boat. The rim is divided into ten panels with flower and insect decorations. Crane mark.

The earliest ceramics were pottery objects. Pottery is the material from which the pottery ware is made, of which major types include earthenware, stoneware and porcelain.

Ceramic is an inorganic material that is made from clay by the process of heating and solidifying. Porcelain is also made from clay but at a higher temperature than ceramics. Normally a higher temperature of 2600 degrees Fahrenheit is applied when making porcelain.

Ceramic is opaque whereas porcelain is translucent. Porcelain has a fine and smooth surface, which is said to resemble the smoothness of an eggshell, and the material is thinner than ceramics. Porcelain also has a slightly whiter and more delicate appearance than ceramics.

Porcelain is denser and less prone to moisture and frost than ceramics. It is also superior in resisting staining. In cold weather, there is less chance that porcelain tiles may crack. Ceramic tiles are more porous than porcelain tiles.

Porcelain originated in China. Although proto-porcelain wares exist dating from the Shang Dynasty (1600–1046 BCE), by the Eastern Han Dynasty period (196–220) glazed ceramic wares had developed into porcelain.

Make Procelain
Make Porcelain

During the Three Kingdoms period (AD 220–280), both Jin dynasties (265-420) and South and North dynasties (220-581), the porcelain industry quickly developed.

porcelain manufactured during the Tang Dynasty (618–906) was considered a valuable good and exported abroad playing an important role to broadcast Chinese civilization. These exported Chinese porcelains were held in such great esteem in Europe than in the English language china became a commonly–used synonym for the Franco-Italian term porcelain.

During the Song Dynasty (960–1279), artistry and production had reached new heights. The manufacture of porcelain became highly organised and the kiln sites, those excavated from this period, could fire as many as 25,000 wares.

The production of monochrome porcelains was one of the great achievements of ceramic art during the Ming and Ch’ing periods.

The term monochrome, in fact, covers two types of wares. The first is porcelain with a coloured glaze fired at high temperatures together with the body; examples are the “sacrificial red”, “sacrificial blue” and the various celadons.

The second is produced by using an enamel colour overglazed white porcelain and fired at a lower temperature a second time, such as the aubergine, rouge and various yellow monochrome glazes.

Blue Glaze
Blue Glaze

The former is “monochrome glazes” while the latter may be called “monochrome enamels”

The general glass of high-fired wares known as “celadons” with a surface glaze of grey to olive-green and bluish-green, thin or thick, clear or somewhat opaque, has an ancestry as early as the Shang period in Chinese history.

The glaze colour is due to the presence of ferrous iron in the glaze, the different colours and shading being the result of varying firing conditions, together with the amount of iron present.

The use of other metals to produce other coloured glazes began in the 14th century or earlier when blue and red monochrome glazes came in, using cobalt for the blue and copper for the red.

Advances and refinements in technique using the same metals basically during the Kang-hsi reign of Ch’ing period brought about many newer kinds of red, blue and green finishes.

During this time, three kinds of red glazes were commonly used: sacrificial red, Lang-Yao, and peach-bloom, each with its own characteristic features.

The other class of monochromes, the monochrome enamels, began in the reign of Hsuan-te in the Ming period. Overglaze enamels used included mostly these three colours, yellow, green (both glassy in appearance) and red (which is mat), but the yellow enamel was the main colour for monochromes.

This class of monochromes was greatly developed in the late 17th to early 18th centuries, covering the period from the late Kang-hsi to early Ch’ien-lung reigns in the Ch’ing period.

New colours were used for the first time during this period, such as the famous “rose” colour which was a western imported at the beginning of the 18th century.

The production of high-quality monochromes, like all other classes of porcelains, declined in quality from the time of the late Ch’ien-lung and practically no new colours were invented in the second half of the Ch’ing Dynasty.

black Glaze
Black Glaze

The monochromes of this later period very seldom attained the perfection of the early Ch’ing reigns.

Although glazed pottery has a very long history in China, it was in the Tang Dynasty (618-907) that potters began to take a serious interest in the use of more coloured glazes other than the simple families of greens and browns.

The glazing techniques of many basic colours in porcelain were introduced in the Sung Dynasty (960-1279). Yet the triumph of the potters in the mastery of the widest range of glazing techniques was seen in the coloured wares of the Ming and Ch’ing Dynasties.

Despite red being a favourite colour of the Chinese and is always much used in festivals and on auspicious occasions, the red glaze appeared relatively later than many other glazes.

The earliest significant copper red glaze was that found in the Chun wares of the Sung Dynasty. Accomplishment in the much loved copper-red wares did not reach its proper heights until the Yuan Dynasty and was brought to perfection in the early Ming Dynasty.

The aubergine colour, coming from the manganese in the glaze, first appeared in the “San-tsai” wares of the Ming Dynasty. It became popular in monochrome wares of the Ch’ing Dynasty.

Many of the aubergine wares produced in the reign of Kang-hsi are of a very dark lustrous tone while some violet wares of the same period are decorated with very fine incised patterns on the inner and (or) outer walls.

Aubergine wares in various tones with or without incised patterns were produced till the end of the Ch’ing Dynasty.

white glaze
White Glaze

The colour which follows naturally is blue. As early as the Tang Dynasty, cobalt blue was used in the decoration of the famous low fired mortuary wares.

In the Ch’ing Dynasty, sacrificial blue is commonly found among imperial wares. Like the red glazes, the other blue glazes of the Ch’ing Dynasty demonstrate a wide variation of tones. There are the greyish-blue, the powder-blue and the lavender-blue of the K’ang-hsi and Yung-cheng reigns.

Also produced in the K’ang-hsi period was a blue glaze which faded down to a very pale moon-light shade, known to the Chinese as “moon-white” but is better known in the western world as “clair-de-lune”

An interesting development of the blue glaze in the 17th and 18th centuries was the revival of interest in the turquoise and peacock blue glazes whose ancestry can be traced to the Tzu-Chou wares of the Sung Dynasty, applied as an overall medium-fired alkaline copper oxide glaze.

Many Ming and Ch’ing potters were ardent admirers of the monochrome glazes on the Sung wares. This may be seen from the large number of Ch’ing Dynasty wares made in imitation of the monochromes of the Sung Dynasty.

The most widely imitated were the celadons, Kuan, Ko, and Ju wares. These wares were often of very high quality. They demonstrate the mastery of the Ch’ing potters over the use of glazes and potting techniques.

While imitating Sung wares, the Ming and Ch’ing potters also made innovations and improvements to some of the traditional Sung glazes.

K’ang-hsi period produced an improved black glaze.

Whitewares have been produced in China since prior to the Tang Dynasty and have always held an important place in ceramic art.

Probably the very first porcelains produced by the Ming potters for the Imperial Court of the time were the whitewares. The tradition was carried on in the Ch’ing Dynasty with increasing varieties of forms and new techniques including the rice-grain pattern.

An effort to imitate the body clay of Ting wares led to the production of the group of soft-paste wares in the 17th and 18th centuries.

In the late 18th and 19th centuries, some skilful potters produced unglazed porcelain wares bearing finely carved floral patterns or landscape scenes. Such carved porcelain emerged as an important innovation of the Late Ch’ing Dynasty.

Blue-and-white has continuously been the mainstream of Chinese porcelain manufacture since at least the early 11th century. For the present, the earliest date for blue-and-white is still 1551 for the David vases.

Blue and White
Blue and White

Within the last sixty years, or so of the Yuan Dynasty, the large body of known blue-and-white wares divides readily into district groups, with some overlapping between them.

There is a group of large dishes, bowls, jars and mei-p-‘ings, associated stylistically with the dated David vases. There are the yu-hu-ch’un bottles and ewers, round or octagonal in cross-section which are all decorated according to a narrowly defined formula.

And there are the jarlets and other small objects decorated in the “rapid painted style» which have been excavated in such large numbers in the Philippines.

Though so much of the origins of blue-and-white is still obscure, it is on present evidence clear that blue-and-white was not manufactured outside the Ching-te Chen area before the Middle Ming period.

From then on it was made elsewhere in Kiangsi province, e.g. at Chi Chou (there is again unpublished archaeological evidence for this) and in Fukien and Kwangtung provinces. From late Ch’ing times, it was also made in Hunan.

For the time being it is tempting to suppose that rather than an uninterrupted evolution, there was an interregnum in the manufacture of high-grade porcelain at Ching-te Chen because of the social and economic dislocation caused by the civil war and the overthrow of Yuan rule and that this interregnum may have lasted for the whole or most of the Hung-wu reign.

It may be also that for some years after the revival of manufacture at Ching-te Chen under imperial patronage in 1402, the only porcelain of high quality produced was white, both plain and with moulded designs; and that the production of high-quality blue-and-white was not resumed until the last years of the Yung-lo reign, say about 1420.

That is, as yet, no more than a working hypothesis, to be tested against new evidence as it comes out.

Secure evidence of the three Yung-lo marked blue-and-white ya-shou-pei has been exhibited in the Peking Palace Museum.

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