Ceramics are objects shaped from earthen
materials and fired in a kiln to make them water-proof
and durable to a certain extent. The basic materials for
ceramics are mineral-rich clay, containing kaolinite (Al2[Si2O5][OH]4),
silica and feldspar. The crystal structure of these
minerals allows a plastic forming of the clay, making it
possible to create every thinkable shape that does not
decay during the firing process. Feldspars are
aluminosilicates containing sodium (Na), potassium (K) or
calcium (Ca), fluxing agents, that reduce the melting
temperatures of the silicates that harden the object.
After blending of raw materials according to special
recipes, the vessel is formed upon a rotating wheel, if
the vessel shall be round. In the kiln, the ready made
earthenware objects are gradually heated from room
temperature through a hot zone, and back to room
temperature to achieve some measure of bonding of the
silica particles, consolidation of the object's shape and
reduction in porosity. Refinement of the earthenware can
either be reached by vitrification of by glazing.
Vitrification can be reached through a change of the
silicate's crystal structure into an amorphous glass
structure, and it happens at very high firing
temperatures between 1,500 and 1,800°C (2,900 and 3,200°F)
that can be lowered by fluxing agents. Glazing is made by
dipping the fired object into - or painting it with - a
glazing slurry and firing it again at a somewhat lower
temperature than the main firing. By the addition of
special metallic oxides, the vessels are given colors of
a relatively small range.
Earthenware and ceramics were produced by the human race
as long as it exists. The oldest examples of Chinese
ceramics serve, as in the other parts of the world, to
identify the different cultures. Depictings of human
beings especially came up during the Warring States
period 戰國 and were very popular under the Qin 秦 and Han 漢 dynasties
that created whole armies of clay statues. Tomb offering
clay figurines serve as important archeological objects
to reproduce architecture and clothing of ancient China.
From the Jin
Dynasty 晉 on, vessels and objects are glazed, mostly
with yellow, green and brown colors (produced by ferrous
oxides, ferric oxides, lead and vegetable charcoal
combined with soda-lime). Typical for Tang Dynasty 唐
ceramics are the three colors (sancai 三彩)
white of the vessel itself, therfore called whiteware,
dark green and brownish yellow. Song Dynasty 宋 ceramics are
only one-colored, either with a soft green or glazed
white. But during this period, porcelain develops as an
important ceramic product, and the taste of colors also
changes to the worldwide known typical blue-white ceramic
chinaware, which fully developed during the Yuan Dynasty 元.
Clay was not only the raw material for vessels either
daily use vessels or art objects, but also the ground
material for statues of
deities in Confucian, Daoist and Buddhist temples.
Historical periods: [Qin-Han pottery][Jin pottery][Tang pottery][Song pottery]
|Typical for the Dawenkou culture 大汶口 (5000-3000 BC) located in Shandong are the red colored vessels painted with geometrical patterns. The vessels are sometimes shaped as animals, but we also find tripods among the Dawenkou vessels.
|Longshan culture 龍山 (3000-2000 BC) was the follower of the Dawenkou culture. Its pottery is a refined style of the latter. The eastern type of Longshan pottery is black colored and already shows the typical vessel types that are casted into bronze vessels during the Shang period 商, like the tripod ding
鼎 vessel to the left.
|This Longshan tripod called gui 鬹 by
archeologists does not even represent a prototype of the
typical three legged li vessel type of the Shang and Zhou 周
dynasties, but also shows the begin of the nipple-nail (ruding
乳釘) pattern of the later bronze vessels. But the
whole composition with twisted handle and curved spout
was not copied by the Shang artists.
|Majiabang culture 馬家濱 (5000-3500 BC) was
located in the lower Yangtze valley. Its ceramics are
mostly brown and show non-geometrical, more spontaneous
patterns, sometimes realistic motifs like birds or fish.
Right picture: Banshan culture 半山, a western branch
of Yangshao culture 仰韶 (5000-3000 BC) was located in
the northwest (modern Gansu) and is - like the Majiabang
culture - caracterized by wide-bellied cooking pottery,
but it is painted with more geometrical patterns than the
|While the stone-age pottery has either been painted
or decoreated with cords, Shang pottery decoration is
much more refined and shows very new patterns, like the
flower and labyrinth motifs on the left vessel of the
type dou ¨§.
vessels are worldwide known, but metal objects were
only affordable by the upper class. Ceramics were, of
course, much cheaper and easier to produce, and at the
same time shows the same styles concerning shape and
decoration as the bronze vessel. The left pot is a Shang
period vessel called lei 罍.
|Looking very modern, this wine pot of the type hu
壺 is a product of artists from the Spring and
Autumn period 春秋 that shows the typical features of
Chinese vessels: three feet and the cloud-dragon-labyrinth
|Even during the Warring States period, vessels were
not only cast of bronze, but also made from clay, like
the left ding 鼎 tripod, having at least the same
smoothness and beauty of its bronze counterparts.
|Another example of a Warring States pot, a vessel
type called zun 尊. Late Zhou artists created
vessels with phantastic shapes and patterns, exhausting
all possiblities they had. This vessel is shaped like a
bird and has no similar counterpart among bronze vessels.
|Among the most famous Chinese earthenware is the clay
army, unburied from 1974 on near the tomb of the First Emperor of China,
Qin Shihuangdi 秦始皇帝 (r. 246/221-209 BC). It
consists of several thousand statues of soldiers, mainly
infantry, generals and chariot drivers. All figures are a
little bit less than lifesize. While during the Shang
Dynasty, human sacrifices after the death of a ruler were
very common, the trend to humanization during Zhou time
made it possible to replace real guardians for the dead
ruler by clay statues.
|The whole body of the statues is sculptured
realistic, and not even two soldiers have the same face.
The production of the whole army must have consumed many
time and manpower, and archeologists are not able to
reproduce a soldier because of special blending and
firing techniques that have not been handed down to later
|The statue of an archer from the tomb of the First
Emperor, on the right his head, showing armament,
clothing and hair style in detail. Originally, the
soldiers were all painted and equipped with wooden
weapons that are already rotten in the earth.
|Very typical for Han Dynasty 漢 ceramics are grave furnishings. Similar to Egypt, rulers and members of the aristocracy had added things needed for daily life to their tomb. Mirrors, drinking and eating vessels, or even models of their domain or farmstead accompanied the nobles in the neither world.
|The court life of Han Dynasty was filled with music,
dance and other entertainments. Among the most beautiful
pieces of Han art are the figurines of dancing girls,
showing us the type of clothing they wore and how women
pinned up their hair. From the rest of coloration, we
must assume that red was a very popular color during Han
|Although the vessel shapes of Han Dynasty pottery are
still very similar to the ancient types, the decoration
had changed. Scenes of daily life of the aristocracy,
like the hunting scene on the left vessel, became
prevalent instead of the old geometrical clouds and
|Han Dynasty pottery was not yet glazed, but painted
with two main colors, red and black. The middle part of
this 50 cm tall water container shows tigers among flower
tendrils. The ceramics of southern China during the Han
Dynasty used much more dark colors, like gray, white and
black, and had patterns full of verve, depicting birds,
flames, clouds and souls of deceased persons, as many
vessels have been discovered in Han time tombs.
|The technic of glazing was invented during the 2nd
century AD. Later Han ceramics, pottery as well as other
objects like candle holders, are regularly glazed by
yellowish brown, green-gray, black or translucent slurry.
The left vessel (50 cm tall) shows that even new types of
vessels came up. Western Jin Dynasty 西晉 pots are typically
covered with the picture of a fortress, sometimes with a
flock of doves sitting on the roofs and wild animals
|Jin Dynasty pottery is tending to be more round than the traditional vessel types from Shang to Han dynasties. The left vessel is covered with a dark glaze, into that flower patterns are scratched.
|The new vessel types are often straight necked over a
wide belly. The black glazed pottery is typical for
Eastern Jin times.
|Not every pottery of the time of division followed the new stream of types and shapes. We still find traditional three legged pots like the left yellow glazed pot from the Six Dynasties time 六朝. The composition of this object is not traditional, especially the hollow handle to pour out the wine inside that could be heated by a small fire between the three legs.
|Like during Han times, the nobility of the time of
division had still made figurines of persons to enrich
either their palace rooms or their tomb. While the more
civil oriented dynasties of the south favored civil
persons like officials and court women, the warrior
dynasties in the north preferred depictings of soldiers (from
the left: a ceramic figurine from Eastern Jin; from the
Southern Dynasties; and from Northern Wei 北魏).
|A stoneware pot from Sui Dynasty 隋. Although very short-lived, the Sui Dynasty developed its own style for jars, characterized by a long neck and a dragon head-handle with the dragon head partially hidden in the spout.
|Three color glazing (sancai 三彩) was very popular during Tang Dynasty 唐. The three legged ball shaped vessel to the left is totally glazed with brown color, only added with green coloured leafs giving the vessel the appearance of a pumpkin.
|Tang popular art gives us clear details of the
intrusion of Non-Chinese peoples into China. Camels
traveled along the silk road to Inner Asia, bringing with
them mercantiles and musicians from the West. Horses were
an immensurable part of the military society of Tang, and
figurines of horses are found everywhere. The example of
the horse to the left is not glazed, but only painted.
|Tomb offerings are already highly important
archeological findings to reconstruct social life of Han
dynasty. Equally, the life of the ruling class is well
represented by these three coloured figurines of court
ladies, dancers and eunuchs or officials.
|Engraved with petals, this beautiful transparently glazed Five Dynasties 五代 box is shaped like a pumpkin or an apple.
|Song period 宋 earthenware is mostly glazed with blue flux, like the bowl to the left. The shapes of Song time vessels are entirely new and cut off their binding to the traditional pre-Han forms.
|A rose red glazed dish with three feet from Song
Dynasty. Although most Song ceramics and porcelain is
glazed with soft blue or green, fresh colours like in
this example, or even black glazings are often seen.
|While the ground material clay is still formable, the
patterns of peony flowers were cut into the body of this
20 cm tall Song time vase, before it is glazed to be dark
green after the furnace process.
|East Asians do not use pillows like in the West. This
tiger shaped head rest is one of the oldest examples of
Chinese furniture, dating from Jurchen Jin Dynasty 金.
|Without any glazing, this 30 cm tall Yuan Dynasty 元 jar has the appearance of greek ceramics. Wave patterns at rim and bottom, the picture in the middle shows a scholar reading a book while he is sitting in a boat.