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Largely regarded as the home of the art of porcelain, China has been making great contributions to the development and evolution of porcelains in the world for centuries. So much so, in fact, that porcelain is also interchangeably called “china” in English. Considered one of the most significant gems of ancient Chinese art, the original material is made primarily by combining kaolin, feldspar, and quartz, which is then coated with glass glazes in different colored patterns on the surface. The porcelain itself is formed by baking the mixture in a kiln at temperatures as high as 1,280°C-1,400°C, during which the glaze colors change with the temperature. Before this process was perfected, there existed the predecessor of porcelain which was called celadon, the transitional product from primitive ancient pottery to porcelain. These celadon items that took the form of many different styles were once widely distributed from the Yellow River area to the Yangtze River Delta and then to South China.
It is understood that the ancient Chinese ancestors invented and made use of pottery as early as the Neolithic Age (about 8,000 years ago), and that primitive porcelains began to develop on the basis of pottery in the Shang Dynasty (1600 B.C.-1046 B.C.). Through the continuous improvement of pottery-making techniques, celadon was developed around 200 B.C.
The first authentic porcelains were made in the Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220), initially emerging from the kilns of Shangyu County of the Zhejiang Province. Yue porcelain kilns in the Zhejiang Province led the way to porcelain production in the Western and Eastern Jin Dynasties (265-420), with many independent kilns established in Shaoxing, Yuhang and Wuxing. Initially, they mainly produced celadon and black porcelains in the forms of bowls, saucers, jars, basins, and candleholders. As well, famous types of kilns such as the Wuzhou Kiln and Xiangyin Kiln were available in South China at that time. It wasn’t until 100 years later that porcelain spread to North China where they mainly took the shape of cups, bottles, kettles, and boxes.
Great progress was made in celadon in South China and white wares in North China in the Tang Dynasty (618-907), and later the porcelain industry stepped into a new stage in the Song Dynasty (960- 1279). At this time, 5 famous kilns appeared simultaneously in China, namely Ding Kiln, Ru Kiln, Guan Kiln, Ge Kiln, and Jun Kiln. The Yuan Dynasty (1206-1368) was the transitional period for porcelain production and led to the establishment the Fuliang Porcelain Bureau in Jingdezhen of the Jiangxi Province under the imperial order. Many innovations were made in the porcelain-making process, among which the greatest breakthrough was the appearance of blue and white porcelain wares. Production reached its peak in the Ming (1368-1644) and the Qing Dynasties (1616-1911) at which point it excelled in both quality and quantity, with Jingdezhen as the “Porcelain Capital”.
Categories of Porcelain
Generally speaking, porcelains can be divided into 2 categories: unglazed, and painted. Before the Ming Dynasty, most Chinese porcelains were unglazed (without any decorative patterns); however, painted porcelains became very fashionable after the Ming Dynasty.
Unglazed porcelains can be further subdivided into 4 types: celadon, black porcelains, white wares, and bluish-white porcelains. As the earliest form of porcelain, celadon products feature glazes that contain ferric oxide. In particular, celadon from the Dragon-Spring Kiln was very famous in the Song Dynasty. Black porcelain contains even more ferric oxides than in celadon, and the most well-known black porcelain kilns are the Jian Kiln and Deqing Kiln. The content of ferric oxide in white wares is quite lower, features transparent glaze, and the most representative relics came from the Ding Kiln and Xing Kiln. Finally, the color of bluish-white porcelains is between that of celadon and white ware.
When it comes to painted porcelain, the highlights lie in its shape and colorful designs. They can be subdivided into 2 categories: over-glaze, and under-glaze. Of these, the most representative painted porcelains are Tangsancai and blue and white porcelains. Tangsancai is actually a kind of pottery that prevailed in the Tang Dynasty and features green, yellow, and white as the basic colors. The items were used as burial wares for the dead in ancient times, and they held different shapes such as camels, bulls, and horses, featuring rough lines and decorative patterns. Blue and white porcelain, which reached its peak period in the Qing Dynasty, feature a transparent glaze with the decoration patterns painted onto the body of the porcelain before glazing.
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