Book: Ceramics - Art or Science? Author: Dr. Stan Jones

8. Ceramic Development in China

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8.21 Porcelain Development

Porcelain resulted from the Chinese potters’ persistent search for a pure white body, so it was an amalgam of technological improvements in clay composition from white wares and kiln control from stoneware that achieved the goal. However, insufficient evidence to identify and date kilns and wares make it impossible to put an exact date on the final step to produce porcelain. Some Chinese authors give a date as early as the 1st Millennium BC for the invention of “porcelain”, or rather proto-celadon (a kind of stoneware). The Chinese did not put as much emphasis on the difference between high-fired stoneware and porcelain as did Europeans, so much so there is no separate word in Chinese for porcelain, but also the precise definition of porcelain differs from text to text, as it is a rather complex and variable material to define specifically. Some Chinese are said to consider any pot that “rings” when tapped to be porcelain. Generally Western experts recognise Dingware of the Tang Dynasty as the first genuine porcelain and date it to 7th or 8th century AD, and ascribe it to the legendary inventor Tao-Yue (608-676 AD).

As in previous developments, that of porcelain followed two courses in China – one in the North and one in the South.

In the north, firing of the clay vessels took place in a vaulted kiln with a single firing chamber with little draft and a high flame using charcoal fuel. It took a long time for the pots to cool and it was difficult to control reduction. Northern craftsmen had been searching for a pure white body for centuries, and efforts accelerated in the 6th century, concentrating on purer forms of kaolin-based clays, and in the second half of the 6th century, they achieved their aim. A find from an Anyang tomb complex dated to 575 AD is regarded as the first porcelaneous “white ware”. It also had a faintly greenish glaze. It is arguable that their producers had created porcelain.

The northern potters continued to concentrate on material composition, increasing the aluminium and magnesium content of their clays.  One of the earliest white “porcelain” wares that started in the late Northern Dynasties and was perfected early in the 7th Century is called Hsing (Xing) ware, because of a later reference to it originating from Hsing-Chou in Hebei Province (although no kilns have yet been found there). This translucent, very thin and delicate white ware was produced through the Sui Dynasty and peaked in popularity during the Tang Dynasty, but continued through the Sung and Chin Dynasties. In a 9th Century essay by Lu-Yu, the “Ch’a Ching” or Tea Classic, the suitability of Hsing ware was particularly mentioned.

Tang to Northern Sung white Hsing ware - courtesy R&G McPherson Antiques

Tang to Northern Sung white Hsing ware -
courtesy R&G McPherson Antiques

During the Tang Dynasty, kilns near Ting-Chou, also in Hebei Province, were already producing a fine white porcelain, the precursor of the famous Ding ware of the late Tang that was made famous by the Northern Sung. It was very white and translucent with a high degree of vitrification. Items were “slipped” inside and outside and covered with a colourless glaze which, when fired, was slightly blue or ivory. The feldspathic glaze matched the body well, with little crazing. The differentiation between Hsing and Ding is not always easy. Northern Chinese kilns in Shaanxi Province also produced stoneware with a rich black glaze, and a type of celadon was made north of Xian.

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