Brief History of Chinese Ceramics+ 12 Styles

Translated by Nick R

The history of ceramics around the globe is so vast and fascinating that a single blog would be insufficient to recount it.

That is why today we are going to retell the history of ceramics, precisely, in one of the most relevant countries in this field, indeed; we talk about China.

China is well-known worldwide for manufacturing all styles of ceramics since immemorial times. It was also the first place to implement color in glazing and enameling techniques, as well as using kilns for ceramics and commercializing ceramics. There is a lot to be said about this subject, and here, we will tell you more about it.

Beginnings of ceramics in China  

Pottery was first seen in China 20,000 years ago, born out of the necessity of Chinese ancestors to prepare, transport, and pack their food. Back then, in order to feed themselves, people used to open large holes in the ground, fill them with water and pour raw food into them to finally set fire to large stones to throw into the water so that it would heat up and cook the food.

Another method that ancestors used to cook, little known and for many weird or disgusting, consisted of opening a hole in the ground and putting stones heated with fire as well. But there, they would take out the entrails of the hunted animals and fill them with heated stones, and then these animals would be thrown into the hole where the meat was cooked by the heat of the rocks.

By the Neolithic, people began to make ceramic pieces such as bowls in all sizes for cooking or transporting their food. This was achieved by mixing earth and water, which they molded and decorated using different decoration techniques to finish by drying it in the sun.

From that moment on, many more modeling techniques were developed, thus allowing people to make the pieces faster and improve them more and more.

Besides, more natural materials such as leaves, sticks, and stones were found and employed to elaborate the dough used to manufacture ceramic items.

Evolution of Chinese ceramics by Dynasties  

Pottery underwent several changes and advances over the years, and in this the Dynasties that ruled during the Chinese history are involved.

Here we will describe the history of ceramics in each Dynasty.

Han Dynasty 206 BC – 220 AD 

Although it has not been confirmed, studies show that the first porcelain was made during this dynasty in the province of Zhejiang.

The type of piece elaborated at that time consisted of whole sets of celadon porcelain. Among the items produced are recognized vases, boxes, bells, bottles, pots, and instruments (“chunyu”- for example).

The main difference between celadon porcelain and other types of porcelain or ceramics is its color, as the pieces are light gray, celadon green, yellowish-green, and brownish-black. All these colors are translucent, that is, light can pass through them.

This dynasty also promoted the development of pottery, as many of the pieces we mentioned before were commercialized. Pretty great, right?

But you may be wondering: how come they made enough pieces to commercialize them? Well, the potter’s wheel and the pottery kiln, called Yue Kiln, were also first used in this period, which undoubtedly accelerated and improved the pottery production process.

Such kilns were built on hills, where they placed brick walls and a platform in between these two walls. The ceramic pieces would be placed on this base with a fire in the lower part that cooked the works perfectly.

Tang Dynasty 618-960 A.D. 

In this dynasty, various types of ceramics were manufactured, such as Sancai porcelains characterized by being tricolor pieces, that is, they are decorated with three colors, among which green, brown, yellow, and white stand out.

It is essential to understand that during this dynasty China adopted Buddhism, which enabled it to trade and negotiate with various countries in the world, such as India, Japan, Iran, the Pacific Islands, and Mesopotamia while respecting cultural differences.

Commercialization during this dynasty led to the appearance of lead glazing, as perfected lead was brought in from different countries ready to be applied to the pieces.

Remember that lead is a metal known for its bluish-gray color. This material has been used to manufacture weapons, tools, and other artistic objects. Particularly, for ceramics, for making lead glazes, people used to grind it to powder and then mix it with other materials such as copper oxide, iron, and magnesium. Once they were mixed, potters would sprinkle this mixture onto the pieces, thus getting a layer of lead that added a nice and shiny glaze to the items.

Therefore, this glaze made it possible to obtain lighter and brighter colors, a brightness that many of the works preserved since then have not lost. Speaking a bit about the pieces, what were they and what were they like? The pieces that were made during the Tang dynasty were tableware characterized by their broad, swollen bodies and thin, narrow necks.

All these creations were decorated manually using various techniques such as incision, printing, or painting. Typically, the pieces were painted with dots, lines, and chevrons, meaning a pattern of black arrows pointing in the same direction.

The pieces were also decorated with birds, foliage, and flower drawings, all painted in the above-mentioned colors.

We also want to highlight that, in this period, some earthenware items were made, which allowed them to refine the white pottery or better known as kaolin. Of the pieces made of this type of clay, we find lidded vases, bowls, cups, bottles, goblets, cosmetic boxes, offering plates, and spittoons. Such creations all had light colors such as white or gray.

In addition to tableware pieces, human and animal figures (horses and camels) were also made under this dynasty. Without a doubt, in this era, many techniques were perfected, and the production of ceramics increased.

Taken from AliExpress

Song Dynasty 960-1279 A.D. 

To the misfortune of the artists, potters, and ceramists in this dynasty, the country suffered many ups and downs as invaders who wanted to take over China appeared. That affected them as they had to move from one place to another to avoid war.

However, not everything was bad here, thanks to these invasions, artists could spend most of their time indoors working on their creations and perfecting their techniques.

That is why they managed to create pieces similar to those of the Tang Dynasty, and besides them, they also made pieces with simpler shapes, such as plates. Such objects were made from the most expensive materials.

Thanks to the materials they worked with, most of the pieces of the potters were collected by the court. Several of these objects had light colors, such as white and gray, as well as more vivid colors, which added a touch of sophistication to the piece, like blue.

To conclude with this dynasty, we want to point out that their pieces and decoration imitated bronze and jade very well. Remember that jade is an ornamental, translucent stone of bright green considered in Chinese culture as the “Gem of Heaven” since it was associated with immortality and the power to establish a bridge between heaven and earth.

Yuan Dynasty 1280-1367 A.D. 

The evolution and development of ceramics in this dynasty were complex, yet unremarkable. This was because of the dynasty’s instability, which collapsed along with the country’s economy; therefore, many fields were negatively affected, and ceramics was not an exception.

During this period, a new type of pottery called Shu-fu emerged. This continued to comprise fine pieces of white porcelain; only these were of an opaque and light bluish-green color.

The pieces that were made all were decorated with flower and phoenix patterns, a Greek mythological bird characterized by being large and having the ability to regenerate from the ashes of its predecessor, i.e., it is on fire.

The artifacts were also decorated in bas-relief, that is, their figures were made in such a way that gentle subsidence was generated on the surface of the pieces.

Ming Dynasty 1368-1644 A.D. 

When the Ming dynasty rose to power, China’s economy recovered, and with it, ceramics and other artistic disciplines re-emerged with new techniques and innovations.

During this dynasty, ceramics made several significant advances. The first innovation consisted in making white porcelain to which the color was added by glazing, thus monochrome glaze was abandoned, that is, the application of varnish to the piece right before firing it.

The production of vessels increased, all decorated with engravings, moldings, and engravings of different figures from the Chinese tradition.

In this dynasty, besides white porcelains, cobalt-based blue and white ceramics emerged. Cobalt is a hard metal that resists oxidation and is characterized by its bluish-white color, beautiful to the naked eye. You should know that this material was brought from Persia, and all the pieces were admired by the Chinese.

Pieces of different sizes were made to compose a dinnerware set, however, wine goblets were one of those pieces that stood out. All of these pieces excelled for featuring decorations of plants, flowers, fruits, and animals like chicks, as well as geometric shapes such as fringes and panels that divided or separated the drawings on the pieces.

Another advance of this dynasty was the inclusion of human shapes of children playing, for example, as part of the decoration of many works. In addition, the representative blue color was changed to purple.

A new decoration technique called “tou-ts’ai”, which translates as “contrasting colors”, also emerged. It consisted of using dyes of apple green, red, eggplant and lemon, all accompanied by the classic blue characteristic of this era.  

Another new way of decorating involved outlining the figures or drawings with dull red or black colors. Colors like red tomato, yellow, green, dark blue, eggplant, and black were used. This new form of decoration was called “wu-ts’ai” which translates as “five colors”, the number of colors used.

To finish with the Ming Dynasty, we would like to point out that, it was in this period that the expansion of the ceramic market increased positively, since, as a result of these advances, China began to export its products all over the world.

Qing Dynasty 1644-1912 A.D. 

During this same time, Europe was also producing ceramics with simpler designs compared to Chinese ones, which is why the country was forced to adapt and implement similar styles for its pieces.

However, China also implemented new decorations, including traditional Chinese designs such as plum trees, lotuses, peonies, chrysanthemums, and historical depictions.

All these figures were painted with families of colors, that is, in different shades of the same color. The colors that stood out were green, yellow, eggplant, red and black.

It is also worth mentioning that the clay that underwent firing changed color, and with this, potters sought to imitate materials such as bronze, jade, wood, shells, and lacquer.

Three main groups of ceramics appeared: Swatow, Yi-hsing, and Blanch. Swatow pottery is characterized by its designs with animal and flower figures, as well as human forms performing specific actions.

Likewise, Yi-hsing pottery was based on similar decorations to Swatow. The difference lies in the addition of drawings of Chinese fruits and landmarks in the country to Yi-hsing pottery. Both types of ceramics were white-based, and their figures were painted in the same colors we mentioned before.

Blanch pottery also had similar designs to the other two types of pottery, however, what made it different from the rest was that some of their designs and drawings were made in 3D, so they protruded from the base of each piece. In addition, it used to be entirely white – great, Right!?

Because of these innovations, China became the largest exporter of ceramics, especially to Europe.

12 Types of Chinese ceramics 

Now that you know how ceramics evolved over the years throughout each of the dynasties, it is time to see what were and still are the most emblematic pieces of ceramics in China.

Below, we will show them and explain a little about each one of them. Keep reading!

Tang burials 

These pieces had shapes of horses, camels, or human figures, all painted in three colors that portrayed these typical figures, green, yellow, and white.

As the name says, these figures were used in funeral ceremonies, where they were placed on the tombs and meant that they would be available for the deceased’s service in the afterlife.

Taken from Wikipedia

Greenwares or Celadon 

This one you know a little about. Remember, celadon is a costly and shiny green material. It is one of the most expensive and prestigious materials in China.

The articles that were and still are made of this material are tableware pieces. However, the production of vases, ideal for home decoration, stands out.

Most of these pieces are smooth, although they are also textured, embossed, carved, inscribed, or molded.

Note that these pieces were acquired particularly by the academic and middle or upper classes. Here we show you one of these objects.

Taken from eBay

Jian ware 

Jian Ware pottery was manufactured in the province of Fujian. They made objects of daily tableware, but some elements stood out among all that was manufactured; the elements for tea.

This is because, over time, the elaboration and commercialization of ceramics increased so much that having pottery for drinking tea became important in the country.

The main characteristic of these ceramics is their color. Normally, they are found in dark tones like coffee, black and blue; however, there are also items in which only the exterior of the piece is decorated with these colors while the interior colors are brighter and leave to the imagination an abstract shape.

Jizhou ware 

Jizhou ware creations were made in the province of Jiangxi in southern China.

Items made in this type of pottery were very similar to the Jian ware because, like these, Jizhou ware pottery is characterized by its dark tones, like black or brown.

However, there is a distinctive feature typical of this type of pottery that has to do with the decorative finishing.

The leaves of any type of tree or plant were used to decorate these pieces, which were placed on the inside of the object when the glaze was still fresh and then baked. This process would mark the leaf’s silhouette on the piece as part of the decoration.

Taken from Wikipedia

Ding ware 

Ding ware owes its name to the place where it used to be made, this is a type of pottery produced in Ding County, Hebei Province in northern China.

This type of pottery became very influential as it was mainly purchased by the empire. This was because all the pieces stood out from the others for being white and having sgraffito designs, that is, done on the raw clay with a pointed tool.

This undoubtedly gives them that touch of elegance that attracted the attention of royalty. In addition, its edges were made of gold and silver. Very sophisticated, don’t you think?

Ru ware 

Like Ding ware pottery, Ru ware was used and acquired by the empire. Their likeness is impressive, for the edges of some of these pieces were painted silver and gold as well.

However, if you want to distinguish them, here we tell you how to do it. It is really simple, the main difference is that Ru ware ceramic is totally smooth, it has no design whatsoever. The color can also help guide you since it is not completely white, but its tones are light, and the most common of all is blue or green mixed with white.

It is noteworthy that some of the Ru ware pieces were reddish-brown; however, finding them in the market was not very common.-

Jun ware 

Jun ware was and still is considered one of the most elegant porcelains. It was used and acquired mainly by the Northern Song court.

Its main feature and distinguishing effects are the colors and patterns. All Jun ware pieces are painted with purple and turquoise glazes that seem to be melting onto the golden piece body.

However, not all pieces are decorated this way, they are also painted even and plain in these same two colors, i.e., unicolor. Usually, purple goes on the outside and turquoise on the inside of the object. Here is an example.

Taken from Wikipedia

Ge ware 

The origin of this ceramic has not been confirmed. Whether it is true or not is unknown. What do we refer to? The legend.

This type of pottery has its origin in the legend of two brothers who made Celadon pottery. The eldest brother made a Ge ware, pottery that was really similar to Celadon, only that he made it in his own private kiln.

In addition, there are two types of Ge ware. The first one is a warm yellow rice base type with a pattern of crackles and reddish lines decorating the item. The second has a gray glaze base and crackling.

The crackles are cracks emulated in a piece, and that is what differentiates the Ge ware pieces from others. Such decorations were once done by hand, drawing line by line; however, thanks to technological advances, this decoration is nowadays done with stencils made in design software.

Taken from Amazon

Qingbai wares 

This pottery was made in Jingdezhen in northern China. The word “Qingbai” translates as “light blue white” which is the characteristic color of this type of pottery. This color comes from a glaze used especially for these pieces, when applied on a white base, it gives this beautiful tone.

As part of the decoration, some foliage is found, either smooth, sunken, or in 3D effect on the pieces.

Within the pieces elaborated in this ceramics are plates and vases. Even in the 1300s, one of the last Yuan emperors in China produced and sent a vase to Pope Benedict XII as a gift.

Taken from Pinterest

Guan ware articles 

Guan ware wares are very similar to Ge ware, their distinctive color is gray, and like Gen ware, they also contain crackles; only their walls are very thin and delicate, and the glaze is more viscous compared to the one used in Ge ware pottery.

All these pieces were considered attractive and perfect for the court, which acquired them for a long time. However, it can also be said that dark-colored pieces, such as brown, were also produced, although rarely manufactured.

Taken from AliExpress

Blue and white wares 

It is believed that blue and white ware originated in the Tang dynasty, however, bits of this kind of pieces were discovered in the province of Jiangsu, which appear to date from the 7th or 9th century.

By the 14th century, blue and white porcelain became the main product for pottery production in Jingdezhen, city of Jiangxi province, China. Years later, these objects would become a success, and thus their production spread across the country.

All kinds of tableware pieces began to be produced. But, there was a set of objects that stood out from all the others, these objects were the traditional tea sets.

These famous pieces consisted of little cups and saucers, accompanied by a teapot, a sugar bowl, and a pitcher. Thanks to its success, tea became one of the most significant and famous beverages in the country, especially among the upper classes.  

All these pieces were decorated in white and blue, and white was generally used as the basis of the pieces while blue was used to decorate them.

And speaking of decoration, it went from greenery or fruits to portraying real and beautiful natural landscapes that included lakes and mountains, typical rural scenes of the time.

Thanks to its popularity in the country, plenty of this pottery was exported, especially tea sets to Japan.

Dehua porcelain or Blanc de Chine 

We have already spoken a little about this type of pottery as well. Remember that Blanc de Chine ceramics began to be manufactured in Dehua, Fujian province, during the Ming dynasty, and thanks to its quality and great reception, it is produced still today.

China was the first country to manufacture Blanc de Chine ceramics and export them to other countries. Because of their huge admiration, everyone wanted to have them and that is why in Europe, they began to copy them for their own profit since at the time they were a great success.

This porcelain is characterized by its “ivory white” or “milky white” color. At the beginning, only vases, cups, or teapots were made, but over the years, objects such as boxes, jars, bowls, lamps, flowerpots, cups, brush holders, fish, cup holders, Buddhist and Taoist figures, and other religious figures saw the light and became very famous not only in China but also in the world.

One thing that distinguishes these pieces is their decoration, especially household pieces like bowls or vases that contain drawings of animals or foliage and fruits in 3D, that is, they protrude from the walls of the objects and add a unique touch to each piece.

Taken from Wikipedia

So we end this blog with this last type of Chinese ceramics. We hope you liked it and that, above all, you have learned about Chinese ceramics and its evolution.

If you are interested in learning more about the history of ceramics all over the world, don’t forget that in our blog, you can also find:

We encourage you to discover all the background of this intriguing ancestral artistic practice that, as a respectable lover of ceramics, you have to know.

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