Chinese Pottery

Written by Sally Guo Updated Jan. 20, 2022

The history of Chinese ceramic production is very long, starting about 7,000 to 8,000 years ago in the Neolithic Age by humanity’s ancestors who started the craft of making and using pottery. Among other accomplishments, porcelain is one of the most significant inventions from ancient China. The people made primitive porcelain early in the Shang Dynasty (1600 BC-1046 BC), and real porcelain was first made in the Eastern Han Dynasty (25–220). Porcelain manufacturing in China then gradually developed from the early Wei, Jin, and North and South dynasties to the most recent Ming and Qing dynasties. Ceramic, as well, was one of the 3 greatest specialties from the Western Han Dynasty (206 BC - 9 AD) and its products have become internationally known. The town of Jingdezhen in the Jiangxi Province is regarded as China’s "Porcelain Capital."

Pottery is the process of cooking, forming, and drying clay or a mixture of clay, feldspar, and quartz. Ceramics, as a derivative, represent the artistic features of the cooking and farming techniques, as well as the color of the glaze and the piece’s decorative features. Finally, porcelain is a ceramic created by firing pure clay and then glazing it with various colored materials as designs.

The basic premise of making pottery is straightforward, but the craft took thousands of years to perfect and improve. Simply put, pottery is made by cooking clay. After humans learned how to start a fire and use it to cook, they first began experimenting with many different methods of cooking hunted animals and plants and then storing the remaining food and water. After a long period of attempts, they finally also learned to make pottery by cooking clay mixed with water.

With a history stretching to the beginnings of humankind, pottery is the oldest handicraft in China. As early as the Neolithic Age, roughly styled and artless grey, red, white, colored, and black pottery existed. More developed glazed and hand-glazed pottery with primitive porcelain characteristics first appeared during the Shang Dynasty. Porcelain was first made in the Eastern Han Dynasty, its manufacturing blossomed and reached its peak during the Song Dynasty (420 - 479), and the production techniques became highly advanced level during the Tang Dynasty (618 - 907). From a blank body to decorating and glazing to firing, techniques from the Qing Dynasty certainly exceeded those of previous periods. Today, there are many famous kilns on display that take visitors back to the origins of Chinese pottery.

In China, violet sand earthenware of Yixing in the Jiangsu Province, Nixing pottery of Qinzhou in the Guangxi Province, water pottery of Jianshui in the Yunnan Province, and Rongchang pottery of the Sichuan Province are crowned as the 4 most famous Chinese potteries.

Yixing Violet Sand Earthenware

Yixing violet sand earthenware is the most famous pottery made using violet-colored sand, a local material with a hard and fine texture, dark colors, and used for exquisite workmanship. Different mixing techniques and cooking temperatures result in works of a variety of colors such as azure, chestnut, dark red, pear yellow, vermillion purple, crabapple red, light grey, greenish-black, and more.

Yixing Violet Sand Earthenware
Yixing Violet Sand Earthenware

This most iconic Chinese pottery boasts varied shapes and delicate combinations of lines and planes. Two major designs exist, including imitations of certain natural objects such as fruits or flowers. Major products include tea sets, flower pots, and others, with tea sets being the most famous. The earthenware is fantastic for maintaining the scent of the tea while infusing, and the color of the liquid during storage. On hot days, tea does not spoil if sitting in a violet sand tea set, and the material allows such that it holds heat but does not burn the hands. Of them all, the violet sand tea set was named the king of tea sets around the world.

Yixing violet sand pottery first appeared in the Song Dynasty and rapidly grew during the Ming and Qing Dynasties. It was particularly during the reign of Emperor Zhengde and Emperor Jiajing in the Ming Dynasty that art made with violet sand became more popular. At this time, violet sand craftsmen first made their presence known. Since then, the industry has produced a host of masters. A Yixing violet sand potter won the gold medal in the Chicago International Exposition in 1926, and the silver medal in the Belgium exposition in 1930. After the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, Yixing violet sand handicraft developed even further, with new technical creations such as new colors (greenish-blue), new craftwork (tinsel inlay), and traditional techniques like engraving, bass-relief, printing, appliqués, and others. Yixing violet sand pottery won a National Golden Award in 1983 and another gold award during the Leipzig, Germany exhibition.

Purchasing: Yixing violet sand works can be found in handicraft markets in all large and medium-sized cities in China, as well as online.

Luoyang Tang Tricolor Pottery

Tang tricolor pottery is a style typically painted with 3 colors of glaze such as yellow, green, and white or yellow, green, and blue. Luoyang, where this style originated, is located in the northern province of Henan and is known as the Eastern Capital of the Tang Dynasty. The finest quality Tang tricolor potteries unearthed so far are mainly from Luoyang. Vivid and finely made, these works have been specifically named Luoyang Tang tricolor pottery.

The making of Tang tricolor pottery is complex First, the base is placed into the kiln and heated to around 1100°C. It is then removed, colored, and heated again to around 900°C. The major ingredient of tricolor glaze is an aluminum silicate, and the color generation toner consists of various metallic oxides such as Ferrum or antimony for light yellow, Ferrum for ocher yellow, bronze for green, copper, cobalt for blue, and manganese for purple.

This style of pottery was the artistic essence of the Tang Dynasty, and the works are a reflection of many merits of art such as Chinese paintings, stone carvings, sculptures, and others. The pottery adopts ornamental patterns created by printing, laying, and carving. It is characterized by boldness in color and shape, details and softness in its form, simplicity in its carving style, and smoothness in its lines. With a unique artistic style and distinct ethnic features, Tang tricolor pottery fully demonstrates the social structure and high artistic standards of the glorious Tang Dynasty. There is a very wide range of Tang tricolor pottery products, the most popular being pottery figures and household items for decoration.

Due to their popularity, reproductions and imitations of Tang tricolor pottery have been found in Luoyang for nearly a century. After the founding of the People’s Republic of China, the Luoyang Artistic Ceramics Factory was established, with a specialized department set up to study and develop the craftsmanship of its area’s most prized art form. This has taken the pottery’s artistic techniques and standards to ever-higher levels. Today, Tang tricolor pottery remains a traditional export item from China to more than 50 regions and countries around the world.

Purchasing: Tang tricolor pottery can be found in handicraft markets in all large and medium-sized cities in China, as well as online.

Luoyang Tang Tricolor Pottery
Luoyang Tang Tricolor Pottery

Xingzhou Nixing Pottery

Nixing pottery of Qinzhou in the Guangxi Province, one of the 4 famous types of pottery in China, is hailed as the most unique art. It is a specialty of Qinzhou and made from peculiar red clay. Nixing pottery has a history of over 1,000 years, and the oldest pieces found were produced around 618 AD. In recent years, this type of earthenware became popular again and has increased in popularity among collectors and consumers both domestically and abroad.

Through the unique quality of the clay and its delicate craftsmanship, Qinzhou Nixing pottery appears archaic, with a bronze or dark reddish-brown color. It usually includes a flambé glaze and turns azure after being fired in high temperatures. Moreover, its surfaces become surprisingly smooth after polishing. The variety of typical Nixing pottery items is over 600, with the majority being tea sets, stationery, tableware, vases, coffee utensils, incense tripods, and antique imitations.

Nixing pottery is also popular because of its unique functions. It can withstand strong acids and bases, keeps things fresh against dampness, and is non-toxic. The pieces also maintain the taste and color of tea for days, and even in hot weather, tea stored in the pottery does not spoil. This also applies to food. Moreover, a tea scent lingers in the pot after it has been used for a long time, and the fragrant herbal scent continues to exist, even without tea, by pouring hot water into the pot.

Nixing pottery is popularly sold in more than 30 regions and countries including Japan, the USA, Great Britain, Germany, and throughout Southeast Asia. Precious items have been sent to be shown in many foreign and international expositions, and the pottery has won many honors including more than 40 gold and silver awards in shows such as the ceramics fair during the 100th anniversary of Belgium. Overall, Nixing pottery is among the best choices for your collection as decoration and as a utility item.

Purchasing: Qinzhou Nixing pottery is available at the Qinbaozhai pottery gallery in Qinzhou of the Guangxi Province, as well as in all large and medium-sized cities in China.

Xingzhou Nixing Pottery
Xingzhou Nixing Pottery

Jianshui Pottery

Jianshui pottery is short for Jianshui artistic pottery, a wonderful style of Chinese artistic earthenware with a history of more than 200 years.

Producing artistic pottery takes a combination of high-quality materials and well-developed techniques, each complementary and indispensable to the other. Jianshui pottery is just the kind of high-quality pottery to results from such a perfect combination. Around Wanyao Village in the suburb of the town of Jianshui, the abundant clay contained in the surrounding area is of excellent quality and suitable for making high-grade pottery due to its fineness, glossiness, and good viscosity. Families of pottery craftsmen have been making Jianshui pottery for generations. Various types of these works are made with 5-color clay through delicate processes like body blank, painting, carving, scraping, clinkering, and polishing. They are beautifully shaped with elegant and antique vintage patterns, and their outsides are fine and glossy. The brightly colored surfaces are shiny and, when you knock on them, the sound is like knocking on bronze and stone tablets. All of these features reflect the strong ancient ethnic flavor of China.

Among so many style variations of Jianshui pottery, the ones with white patterns embedded on the dark black surface are especially precious; beautiful white flowers carved into the shiny black exterior render a sharp but harmonious color contrast that gives the pottery a very precious and distinctive style.

Jianshui pottery comes in a wide variety of articles including jars, kettles, basins, tea sets, vases, boilers, and many more. The pieces are acid- and damp-proof, and they hold heat yet are permeable by air. With Jianhiu pottery, tea can be preserved for a long time inside the teapots, flowers live long in the vases, and food remains fresher longer in dishware. Of so many styles of the product, the Jianshui pottery boiler is the most famous. Food boiled using one of this boiler and water vapor is especially delicious, and the nutrition is retained. The original version of the famous Yunnan dish, boiled chicken with panax notoginseng, is only cooked in a Jianshui pottery boiler.

Purchasing: Jianshui artistic pottery can be found at the Jianshui Pottery Tea House in the Yunnan Province. It is located at No 111, Jianzhong Road, Jianshui County, Yunnan Province; opposite the Confucian Temple; telephone 0871-2882121.

Rongchang Pottery

Sichuan Rongchang pottery mainly consists of commodities such as kettles, jars, pots, vases, and so on, with the most famous being the Rongchang pickle jar. The very popular pickle jar is suitable and useful for making pickles due to its shape, structure, and proportions all in harmony with each other, creating a beautiful appearance. There are 2 kinds of clay in Rongchang; one is red and the other is white. Craftsmen delicately create various decorations on the pottery with both colors of clay. For example, a pottery body made with red clay can be decorated with white appliqué or a golden mixture of the 2 colors. The surface of the pottery can also be beautifully scratched and picked with smooth lines, most of which are single-lined patterns. The earthenware becomes a working model for the combination of function and beauty, with sharp visual contrasts and simple and natural ornamental patterns.

Over the past centuries, with its unique local craftsmanship and artistic style, Rongchang pottery has enjoyed reputations such as “as thin as paper, as bright as glass, and as resonant as chime stone.” To be certain, it has added an indispensable page to the histories of Chinese ceramics and Chinese arts and crafts.

Purchasing: Rongchang pottery is available in all major shops in Rongchang County and the city of Chengdu.

Zibo Artistic Pottery

Zibo pottery boasts a long history and a reputed reputation in artistic ceramics for its high standard in shaping and decoration. Eggshell pottery from the Neolithic Age unearthed in Zibo, as well as the Rain Drop Glaze and Tea-Rice Glaze made in the Song Dynasty in the same area, are considered prized treasures of China.

The precious Rain Drop Glaze, also known as Oil Drop Glaze, is made with evenly imprinting silvery white dots on a black glaze surface. The dots are as small as rice, making the surface shine like gilded spots when containing tea, glitter with silvery lights when holding wine, and glimmer brilliantly under the sun. In Japan, the RainDrop Glaze is called Temmoku Glaze, and tea sets made with this porcelain are considered top grade in Japanese tea ceremonies.

Tea-Flake Glaze, on the other hand, is a kind of matte glaze containing crystalline minerals. Stationeries, vases, and kettles made with Tea-Flake Glaze all have a pure glaze color and vintage and refined appearance.

Throughout history, standout developments have been made in pottery paintings, which have then broadened the dimensions of ceramic decorations, especially with a special painting method. This method solves the age-old problem of the inability to decorate golden-black glaze pottery with colored paintings. Works such as “Song of the Birds,” “Song of Spring,” and “Miss Peacock”  are all favorably viewed by the art circle for their dramatic colors and distinctive styles.

Beautifully carved Zibo porcelain is known both at home and abroad, especially in the form of portrait hanging dishes made with gorgeous workmanship and vivid pictures. The hanging dishes made by the master craftsman Mr. Ma Lin, titled “Premier Zhou Enlai & President Kim Il Sung” and “King Bhumibol Adulyadej & The Queen Sirikit of Thailand,” were respectively gifted to the Democratic People's Republic of Korea and Thailand when Vice Chairwoman Deng Yingchao visited those countries in

As well, porcelain sculptures made in Zibo enjoy a profound reputation in artistic achievement. Various figures and animals carved in porcelain are charming for their different postures and shapes, as well as their delicate and pleasing appearances.

Zibo archaistic porcelain is highly praised for its exquisite workmanship, antique qualities, and vivid shapes. Zibo garden porcelain, on the other hand, is new and fresh in design, having added greater charm to the art of Chinese gardening. Every time porcelain craftsmen from Zibo are invited to demonstrate their skills in overseas performances and shows, they never fail to take away the audience's breath wherever they go.

Purchasing: Zibo porcelain can be found in the ceramic and glaze market of the Boshan District, Shantou Zhen, Zibo City.

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