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

8. Ceramic Development in China

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In the South the emphasis was more on the kiln. The southern potters developed the “dragon kiln” which, instead of standing isolated, was built on a slope with a series of interconnected chambers (often 10-12) each a step higher up the hillside to considerable height, producing a good draft. It could be reheated easily using charcoal fuel. The firebox and main stoke hole were at the foot of the slope, with additional stoke holes and peepholes at intervals up the slope. Kilns were fired from the lowest level first with the uppermost finishing last. A well-controlled air supply enabled reduction to be controlled, and heating and cooling were rapid.

Dragon kiln - source web K. Pauli

Dragon kiln - source web K. Pauli

In Kiangsi (present Jiangxi Province), near Jao-Chou and Chi-Chou, a good quality white ware was being produced. The locality had an abundant supply of kaolin with very low iron, together with feldspathic China Stone. This is the area some experts believe porcelain was first discovered, but proving it is elusive. During the Tang period the kilns at Yueh were reputed to have manufactured a secret kind of porcelain called “miseci” and in 1988 some 19 ceramic objects thought to be miseci were discovered under the Famen pagoda in Shaanxi Province. They had dense, strongly bonded bodies and a polished blue celadon glaze. They were donated to the monastery in 874 AD, and had been walled up ever since. The new porcelain body with well-fitting glaze was to have far reaching effects in China and throughout the world.

8.22 Earthenware and Stoneware

Other great technological steps in the art of ceramics took place in the late 7th and 8th centuries, particularly during the Kaiyuan era (713-741 AD) under Emperor Hsuan-Tsung. (The translation of Chinese names into English does not lead to a unique form of spelling, so this Emperor is also known as Xuanzong, but pronounced the same). In particular more attention was now paid to surface detail. It is from this period that the famous three-colour “Sancai” decoration dates, notably from kilns near Chang-an and in Henan Province. Sancai pottery had lead silicate glazes, usually in a combination of the three colours green, yellow and brown/beige (although sometimes blue occurred too). It was in the Tang period that craftsmen really mastered this type of glaze and provided so many grave goods with sancai decoration that have been discovered subsequently.

Tang lead glazed pots, sancai stem dish and early brown glazed pilgrim flask - courtesy R&G McPherson Antiques

Tang lead glazed pots, sancai stem dish
and early brown glazed pilgrim flask -
courtesy R&G McPherson Antiques

At this time great quantities of splendid polychrome glazed wares were produced. To control the glazes better some potters fired the pots in two stages. The basic ceramic model was first fired at 1150 degrees C, then the glaze was applied and a second firing was carried out to oxidise the glaze at 950 degrees C.  The pigment in the glaze was found to cling to the body better once it had been fired. There was some colour run, but this produced attractive patterns, which some consider to be the finest decoration in the history of Chinese pottery.

Sancai decorated camels - courtesy Glade Antiques

Sancai decorated camels - courtesy Glade

When it was necessary to reduce the colour running, especially on larger vessels, wax or grease resist was sometimes used between colours, which the coloured glaze would not stick to, but would burn off when fired. Some items were also covered in white slip to reduce the chance of iron in the body causing discolouration. This also added colour and brilliance to the Sancai wares.

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