Porcelain is vitrified pottery with a white, fine-grained body that is usually translucent, as distinguished from earthenware, which is porous, opaque, and coarser. The distinction between porcelain and stoneware, the other class of vitrified pottery material, is less clear. In China, porcelain is defined as pottery that is resonant when struck. In the West, it is a material that is translucent when held to the light. Neither definition is totally satisfactory: some heavily potted porcelains are opaque, while some thinly potted stonewares are somewhat translucent. The word porcelain is derived from porcellana, used by Marco Polo to describe the pottery he saw in China.
Porcelain has a binary composition made of kaolin clay and porcelain stone. Kaolin clay takes its name from the village Gaoling, close to the city of Jingdezhen in today’s Jiangxi Province, located in southeastern China. Kaolin clay is very fine and stable mineral rock rich in silica and aluminum. It can be found in several locations in the world including Vietnam, Iran and the United States, but its fame is tied to Jingdezhen and its longstanding imperial kilns. Porcelain stone, also called petuntse, is a type of dense, white mineral rock rich in mica and aluminum. A combination of these two ingredients gives porcelain its trademark impermeability and durability. The grade and price of the porcelain vary according the ratio of kaolin clay to petuntse.
Jingdezhen is a town entirely devoted to its imperial kilns. Each artisan is trained to perfect one of the seventy-two procedures required to make one piece of good chinaware. It ranges from shaping the vessel on a hand-powered potter’s wheel, scraping a dried unfired vessel to attain desired thickness to painting the perfect single blue cobalt line on the rim. One should never overstep.
Most importantly, what marks porcelain’s difference from other types of ceramics is its high firing temperature. True porcelain is high fired, meaning that a piece is usually fired in a kiln at around 1200/1300 degrees Celsius (2200/2300 degrees Fahrenheit). The kiln master is the highest paid of all craftsmen and can tell the temperature of the kiln, often burning continuously for a dozen hours, from the color of a drop of water instantly vaporizing in the heat. After all, if he fails, one can expect a fully packed kiln of useless cracked pieces.
Even though there are no defined date as to when the first porcelain piece was made, porcelain became a prevalent type of ware used by the Chinese from the 8th century and on, during the Tang dynasty (618 – 907 AD). Many different types of porcelain ware flourished throughout the successive dynasties and became imitated internationally.
Blue and white decorated vessels are the image appearing in one’s mind when you think about Chinese porcelain. However, blue and white porcelain works are quite the newcomer to the family. As an artistically distinctive category, they only came about in maturity during the Yuan dynasty (1271-1368 AD), which is definitely a later period by Chinese historical standards. The David Vases now housed in the British Museum in London are the ones with the earliest date recorded on the vessels. Decorated with patterns of elephants, vegetation, and mythical beasts, they were made in the year 1351 AD, the 11th year of the Zhizheng reign, as votive offerings to a Taoist temple by Mr. Zhang.
The quintessential decorations on a piece of blue and white porcelain are the motifs painted in blue under a layer of transparent glaze. This color comes from the element cobalt. It is first imported to China from faraway Persia, adding to the preciousness of early blue and white porcelain pieces. Gradually, Chinese cobalt mined from different areas of the empire became used. Depending on the blueness of the motifs, veering purple for the Persian stock and a smooth sky blue from that mined from Zhejiang, popular during the early Qing dynasty (1688 – 1911 AD), an expert can often tell by the fired color of cobalt when the piece was made. Blue and white porcelain works are extremely popular both at home and for export. They exist in all styles and shapes from the tiniest rouge pot to enormous dragon vases.
Famille rose porcelain is a popular later development that became perfected in the 18th century. It is the result of combining two different techniques. By then, Chinese potters had mastered the skills of making porcelain and glaze. Western enamel colors also became popular at court.
Famille rose pieces are fired twice, first at a higher temperature – around 1200 degrees Celsius (2200 degrees Fahrenheit) – to gain a stable shape and smooth glazed surface on which patterns drawn with various bright and bold enamel colors are added, and a second time at a lower temperature, around 700/800 degrees Celsius (about 1300/1400 degrees Fahrenheit), to fix the enamel additions. The final result boasts more colorful and detailed motifs standing out in slight relief. This lavish courtly style is very different from the monochrome pieces and incidentally coincidences with the rise of the Rococo style in Europe. It shows one of the many possibilities experimented with Chinese porcelain.
Celadon is a western word used originally to describe the green glaze of Ceramics from Longquan in China. The glaze is made of clay mixed with wood ash and is 2-5% iron, and must be fired in an oxygen reduced atmosphere.
The Celadon method began to be used in the 7th century in China. By the time of the Song dynasty (960-1280), the skills of the potters had advanced to a high degree that fine vessels had a jade-like appearance and texture. By the 14th century, motifs such as lotus flowers and stylized chrysanthemums were incised for decoration.
Celadon production in Thailand seems to have started in the later part of the 14th century - around the time of the 'Ming ban' of 1371 when emperor Hongwu decided to prohibit his subjects from trading with all other people. It is thought that Chinese migrants were responsible for development of early Celadon production in Thailand.
This was a great period in the development of Chinese pottery. Although a white porcelain perfected early in the 7th century is called Xing yao (Xing “ware”) because of a reference to the white porcelain of Xingzhou in the 9th-century essay “Cha Jing” (“Tea Classic”) by Lu Yu, as yet no kilns have been found there. Kilns near Dingzhou in Hebei, however, were at this time already producing a fine white porcelain, which was the ancestor of the famous Ding ware of the Northern Song. In the late 7th and the 8th century, ceramists in northern China, working primarily at kilns at Tongchuan near Chang’an and at Gongxian in Henan province, also developed “three-colour” (sancai) pottery wares and figurines that were slipped and covered with a low-fired lead glaze tinted with copper or ferrous oxide in green, yellow, brown, and sometimes blue; the bright colours were allowed to mix or run naturally over the robust contour of these vessels, which are among the finest in the history of Chinese pottery. Northern Chinese kilns in Shaanxi also produced a stoneware with a rich black glaze, and a type of celadon was made north of Xi’an, in Shaanxi. The northern Chinese potters borrowed shapes and motifs from western Asia even more freely than had their 6th-century predecessors: foreign shapes included the amphora, bird-headed ewer, and rhyton, and foreign motifs included hunting reliefs, floral medallions, boys with garlands or swags of vines, and Buddhist symbols adapted and applied with characteristic Tang confidence. Some forms were also borrowed from metalwork or glassware.
Tomb figurines were produced in such enormous quantities that attempts were made through sumptuary laws to limit their number and size; such efforts met with little success. The figurines were made, generally in molds, of earthenware covered with slip and painted or glazed or both. Among the human figures are servants and actors, female dancers, and musicians of exquisite grace. The 7th-century figurines are slender and high-waisted, while those of the 8th century are increasingly rotund and round-faced, reflecting a change in fashion. There are also many figurines of Central Asian grooms and Semitic merchants with caricatured features such as deep-set eyes and jutting noses. Of the camels and horses, the most remarkable are glazed camels bearing on their backs a group of four or five singers and musicians. After the middle of the 8th century, there was a sharp decline both in the quantity and in the quality of tomb wares and figurines in northern China.
The great southward movement of population in the Tang dynasty stimulated the development of many new kilns. Celadons were now made in Jionglai (Sichuan), Changsha (Hunan), and several areas of Guangdong and Fujian. A kiln producing whitewares was active at Jizhou in Jiangxi, and at Jingdezhen in the same province two kilns were producing celadons and whitewares. From these humble beginnings, Jingdezhen was destined to become, in the Ming (1368–1644) and Qing (1644–1911/12) dynasties, the largest pottery factory in the world. In Lu Yu’s essay the “Cha Jing,” the celadons of Yuezhou in Zhejiang are ranked for their jadelike quality first among the wares suitable for tea drinking, followed by the silvery Xing ware. Yue celadons from kilns at Yuyao and a number of other sites in Zhejiang were also exported, and quantities of fine Yue ware have been found at Al-Fusṭāṭ in Egypt and at Sāmarrāʾ in Iraq, the luxurious summer residence of the ʿAbbāsid caliphs—notably al-Muʿtaṣim (son of Hārūn al-Rashīd)—between 836 and 883. Tang wares, consisting chiefly of celadons from southern Chinese kilns, have also been found in Indonesia and the Philippines, marking the beginning of a vast export trade in Chinese pottery that has continued almost without interruption into modern times.
Perhaps the most important single development was the use of coloured glazes—as monochromes or splashed and dappled. The Tang wares commonest in Western collections are those with either monochrome or dappled glazes covering a highly absorbent, buff, earthenware body. The dappled glazes were usually applied with a sponge, and they include blue, dark blue, green, yellow, orange, straw, and brown colours. These glazes normally exhibit a fine crackle and often fall short of the base in an uneven wavy line, the unglazed surface area varying from about one-third to two-thirds of the vessel.
Dappled glazes are also found on the magnificent series of tomb figures with which this period is particularly associated. Similar figures were made in unglazed earthenware and were sometimes decorated with cold pigment. Although the unglazed specimen or those covered only with the straw-coloured glaze are occasionally modeled superbly, many are crude and apparently made for the tombs of the less affluent and influential. Most of the glazed figures are much better in quality and occasionally reach a large size; figures of the Bactrian camel, for instance, are particularly impressive, some being nearly three feet high. The Bactrian pony, introduced into China about 138 BCE, is to be found in many spirited poses. This fashion for tomb figures fell into disuse at the beginning of the Song dynasty (960–1279 CE) but was revived for a short while during the Ming period (1368–1644), when Tang influence is noticeable.
Marbled wares are seen occasionally. The effect was achieved either by combing slips of contrasting colours (i.e., mingling the slips after they had been put on the pot, by means of a comb) or by mingling differently coloured clays. Another type of Tang ware (probably from Henan) had a stoneware body with a dark brown glaze streaked by pale blue. Most vessels stand on a flat base; although later Tang wares sometimes were given a foot ring, for the most part this can be regarded as evidence in favour of a Song dating.
Pottery production in the south of China was chiefly centred on Jingdezhen, an ideal site because of the abundance of minerals used for porcelain manufacture—kaolin (china clay) and petuntse (china stone)—ample wood fuel, and good communications by water. Most of the celadon, however, was still produced in Zhejiang, notably at Longchuan and Chuzhou, whose Ming products are more heavily potted than those of the Song and Yuan and are decorated with incised and molded designs under a sea-green glaze. Celadon dishes, some of large size, were an important item in China’s trade with the Middle East, whose rulers, it was said, believed that the glaze would crack or change colour if poison touched it.
At Jingdezhen the relatively coarse-bodied shufu ware was developed into a hard white porcelain that no longer reveals the touch of the potter’s hand. The practically invisible designs sometimes carved in the translucent body are known as anhua (“secret decoration”). In the Yongle period (1402–24) the practice began of putting the reign mark on the base (see below marks and decoration in Chinese pottery). This was first applied to the finest white porcelain and to monochrome ware decorated with copper red under a transparent glaze. As aforementioned, a white porcelain with ivory glaze was also made at Dehua in Fujian.
In the early decades of the Ming, the repertoire of designs on Yuan blue-and-white was continued and refined. At first, this ware evidently was considered too vulgar for court use, and none bears the imperial reign mark until the Xuande period (1425–35). By this time the often crowded Yuan patterns had given way chiefly to dragons or floral motifs of great clarity and grace, vigorously applied in a thick, deep-blue pigment to dishes, vases, stem cups, and flattened pilgrim jars. Sometimes a richer effect was achieved by painting dragons in underglaze red on a blue ground or vice versa. In the Chenghua period (1464–87), the blue-and-white designs became somewhat tenuous and overrefined, and the characteristic wares made for the Zhengde emperor (1505–21) and his Muslim eunuchs often bear Arabic inscriptions. In the Jiajing (1521–67) and Wanli (1572–1620) periods, the imperial kilns were badly mismanaged, and their products were often of poor quality. Private factories, however, turned out lively wares until the end of the dynasty.
Overglaze painting was applied with delicate care in the Chenghua period, chiefly in the decoration of small wine cups with chicken motifs, much admired by Chinese connoisseurs. These “chicken cups” were already being copied later in the 16th century and again, very expertly, in the 18th. Overglaze painting soon became popular; it was applied in the 16th century in stronger colours brilliantly contrasted against a dead-white background. These vigorous wucai (“five-colour”) wares, which utilized a wide palette, were especially free and bold in the Jiajing and Wanli periods. Crude but lively imitations of these and of the blue-and-white of Jingdezhen were made in kilns in southern China partly for the Southeast Asian market and are known as “Swatow ware,” named after one of the export sites. Among the most impressive of Ming pottery types are the sancai (“three-colour”) wares, chiefly vases and jars decorated with floral motifs in turquoise, purple, yellow, and deep violet blue, the colours separated by raised lines in imitation of the metal strips used in cloisonné work (see below). This robust ware was made in several centres, the best of it between 1450 and 1550.
Beginning in the early 16th century, a new ceramic tradition emerged in the town of Yixing, on the western side of Lake Tai, catering to the tea taste of scholars in the nearby Suzhou area. Individually made, sometimes to order, rather than mass-produced, Yixing wares were often signed or even poetically inscribed by highly reputable master craftsmen, such as Shi Dabin of the Wanli era and Chen Mingyuan of the Qing dynasty Kangxi period. The wares were usually unglazed and derived their striking colours—brown, beige, reddish purple, yellow, black, and blue—after firing from the distinctive clays of the region and were known as “purple-sand” teapots. Pieces alternated between two body types: complex floral shapes and exquisitely simple geometric designs. Produced in relatively small quantities and treasured by Chinese collectors, these vessels attracted little attention outside China until the late 20th century.
The pottery industry suffered severely in the chaotic middle decades of the 17th century, of which the typical products were “transitional wares,” chiefly blue-and-white. The imperial kilns at Jingdezhen were destroyed and were not fully reestablished until 1682, when the Kangxi emperor appointed Cang Yingxuan as director. Under his control, imperial porcelain reached a level of excellence it had not seen for well over a century. The finest pieces include small monochromes, which recaptured the perfection of form and glaze of classic Song wares.
New colours and glaze effects were introduced, such as eel-skin yellow, snakeskin green, turquoise blue, and an exquisite soft red glaze shading to green (known as “peach bloom”) that was used for small vessels made for the scholar’s desk. Also perfected was langyao (“sang-de-boeuf,” or oxblood, ware), which was covered with a rich copper-red glaze. Kangxi period blue-and-white is particularly noted for a new precision in the drawing and the use of cobalt washes of vivid intensity.
Five-colour (wucai) overglaze painted wares of the Kangxi period became known in Europe as famille verte from the predominant green colour in their floral decoration. These wares also included expert imitations of the overglaze painting of the Chenghua emperor’s reign. Another variety has floral decoration painted directly on the biscuit (unglazed pottery body) against a rich black background (famille noire). Toward the end of the Kangxi reign, a rose-pink made from gold chloride was introduced from Europe. It was used with other colours in the decoration of porcelain (famille rose) and in cloisonné and overglaze painting.
Famille rose porcelain reached a climax of perfection at Jingdezhen under the direction of Nian Xiyao (1726–36) and continued with scarcely diminishing delicacy through the Qianlong period. Meanwhile, the skill of the Jingdezhen potters was being increasingly challenged by the demand at court for imitations in porcelain of archaic bronzes, gold, and jade and for such objects as musical instruments and perforated and revolving boxes, which were highly unsuited to manufacture in porcelain. Although fine porcelain was made from time to time in the 19th century, notably in the Daoguang and Guangxu reigns, the quality as a whole greatly declined.
Of course, not everyone can date a piece of Chinese porcelain by a peak of the cobalt’s tone. That’s when reign marks come in handy. Reign marks are usually found on the bottom of imperial made porcelain pieces, bearing the reign name of the emperor ruling when it was made. It became standard practice from the Ming Dynasty (1369-1644 AD) onwards.
Most often, it exists in the format of a six-character underglaze cobalt blue mark in regular or in seal script, sometimes enclosed by a double-ring of blue lines. The six characters, from right to left and from top to bottom according to the Chinese writing system, refer to the dynasty in two characters and the reign name of the emperor in two characters followed by the mentioned “made during the years of”. This tradition continued until the short-lived monarchy of the China’s very last self-styled Hongxian Emperor (reigned 1915-1916 AD).
Reign marks can also be found on other types of vessels, such as Ming Dynasty bronzes, but far less consistently than on porcelain. Some marks are apocryphal, meaning that later productions were given an earlier mark. This was sometimes done as a tribute to an earlier style or to increase its mercantile value.
Emperors’ reign marks are not the only ones that exist. Sometimes craftsmen or a workshop would also sign their works by using a special icon, such a leaf. It is inherited today by producers of porcelain to stamp or mark their products with company names and/or places of production on the bottom of cups or bowls that you may find in your cupboard.
Chinese potters have copied Chinese ceramics for hundreds of years, both out of reverence for an earlier period and to fool buyers — so beware. There is no quicker way to learn than to handle as many pieces as possible. Large numbers of Chinese ceramics are offered around the world at reputable auction houses, which, unlike museums, allow potential buyers to handle them, so make the most of the opportunity. This creates an understanding of the weight of a piece and the quality of the painting — of how a ceramic should feel in the hand.
Palettes and glazes evolved over the centuries. For example, the wucai (literally ‘five-colour’) palette was used in the Wanli period (1573-1619) and led to the famille verte palette, which was introduced in the 17th century and the Kangxi period (1662-1722). This was a palette of green, predominantly, plus blue, red, yellow and black. The famille rose palette was added to the ceramic painter’s repertoire in the 1720s and featured a prominent rose colour; the enamels were opaque and there was a wider repertoire of colours. In the 18th century, there were many technical advances, and glazes such as copper-red and flambé were introduced.
Ceramics were made all over China and the kilns in the north and south produced different types of wares and glazes. During the Song dynasty (960-1279), for example, beautiful celadon-glazed ceramics were produced in the Longquan area of southwest Zhejiang province, and also by the Yaozhou kilns in the northern Shaanxi province. The celadon glazes differed between these two kilns, with the Longquan glaze often giving a warmer, bluish-green tone, compared with the Yaozhou glazes that were more olive.
The way the base of a vessel was cut, finished and glazed changed from one dynasty to the next, which can help enormously in the dating and authenticating process — especially as forgers don’t always get it right. They may not have an original example to copy, relying instead on photographs in auction catalogues or books, and these don’t always include images of the base.
This decorative element changed a lot over the centuries. A characteristic of 15th-century blue and white porcelain, for example, was the so-called ‘heaped and piled effect’, in which the cobalt-blue underglaze was concentrated in certain areas, bubbling through the surface of the glaze and turning a deep blue-black. This inadvertently gave texture, energy and shading to the design and was highly admired in the 18th century.
Chinese potters subsequently mastered the technique of firing blue and white wares to achieve a more even cobalt-blue tone. But the tone varied from one dynasty to the next. During the Wanli period (1573-1619), for example, blue and white wares often had a greyish-blue tone, while in the Jiajing period (1522-1566), the tone was almost purplish-blue.
The shape of ceramics also evolved. Song dynasty ceramics, for example, were often inspired by nature and foliate in form. Chinese ceramics are also well known for their beautiful proportions. A vase or bowl that looks out of proportion is an indication that a neck or mouth has been ground down.
What makes the condition of a ceramic acceptable or otherwise depends on whether or not it is Imperial-quality and when it was made. For example, on a non-Imperial porcelain vessel made in the 17th century — such as a Kraak ware charger — you would expect to see some kiln grit or kiln dust on the base and perhaps a firing flaw that would have occurred in the kiln. Both would be acceptable.
Reign marks state the dynasty and the name of the emperor for which an item was made, and were used on all ceramics made for the emperor and his imperial household. Do not rely on a reign mark to establish the age of a piece, however. Marks were often copied and can be apocryphal.
Building the knowledge needed to authenticate Chinese ceramics can take many years. Reading reference books can give structure to the field, but pick specialists’ brains and ask as many questions as possible. There is nothing that a specialist with a little time on their hands likes more than to talk about their subject.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, do not necessarily think of buying for investment. If you buy what you like, you will never be disappointed. Try to buy the best quality example your budget will allow.
Please don't hesitate to contact me about anything covered in this guide. I will be pleased to be of assistance.
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