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Chinese Arts - Handicrafts
Stoneware, Earthenware, Pottery 陶器文物

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 Yangtse 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 former.
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 ¨§.
Shang bronze 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 pattern.
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 generations.
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 time.
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 dragons.
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 playing around.
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.

  © 2000 ff · Ulrich Theobald · Mail