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

8. Ceramic Development in China

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8.24 Ten Kingdoms (902-978 AD).

The ten independent Kingdoms that ruled various parts of predominantly South China, though no more enduring, offered more enlightened patronage to the arts. As the south had a beneficial climate and plenty of water, it enabled agriculture, trades and craft to flourish, and the population increased significantly. The Kingdoms of “Former Shu” (Ch’ien) with its capital at Ch’eng-du, the “Nan” (Southern Tang), capital Nanjing and the “Wu-Yueh” (capital Hangzhou) were centres of peace and prosperity. The last ruler of the Southern Tang (Li Yu) was a poet and a patron of the arts that flourished under his rule more brilliantly than any time since the middle of the 8th Century.

A large complex of kilns that had been established around Shang Lin lake, in the kingdom of Wu-Yueh, (in present day Zhejiang Province), sent its finest celadons to the court of Li-Yu, until it fell to the Sung in 978 AD. Afterwards it was sent as tribute to the Sung Court at its capital, Kaifeng. The finest pieces, with decoration carved into the clay and covered in pale olive green glaze, were extremely good imitations of carved jade, as was intended according to contemporary writers.

Five Dynasties or Northern Sung celadon box with lotus flower decoration, Yueh - courtesy R&G McPherson Antiques

Five Dynasties or Northern Sung celadon
box with lotus flower decoration, Yueh -
courtesy R&G McPherson Antiques

While ceramic and tomb designs leant heavily on the previous Tang Dynasty, during this period some strange ceramic grave goods have been found, consisting of anthropomorphic models – some as human bodies with heads of cows and monkeys, and others as doves, fish and snakes with human heads. Also pigs with wings! These all may have some mythical connotations. A possible comparison could be made to the roof-ridge ornaments thought to avert ill luck – particularly heads of cattle or animal signs of the zodiac.

8.25 The Barbarians

Barbarian is not a Chinese word but Greek and was coined as a derogatory term because the Greeks thought that anyone speaking other than Greek sounded as though they were continually saying “bar-bar-bar”! However the Chinese had the same view of the Tribes outside China that they viewed as uncivilised, even when they were not.

There was an ever-present threat along China’s extensive North Western, Northern and North Eastern frontiers from the semi-nomadic tribes who continually coveted the treasures of the successful Chinese people, especially the silk, gold and silver.

From the Tang Dynasty onwards there were constant border raids by the “barbarians”, which went on for the next 300 years. One, mentioned earlier, led to the destruction of the Tang Capital Chang’an in the late 8th Century AD, when Tibetan aggressors reached the city. Neither the leaders of the Five Dynasties or the stronger Sung Dynasty, described later, were able to quell the ambitions of these “Northern” Tribes.

8.26 Liao Dynasty (916-1125 AD)

In 916 AD the Khitan Tribe, the rulers in the Northeast, founded a Dynasty called “Liao”. They invaded China in 947 AD and gained control of the region north of modern Beijing. They set up a Capital Yanjing, west of present Beijing, that was strategically well placed to secure North China. It was also the first “Chinese” Capital to be located so far north. The Khitan were a semi-nomadic shepherd tribe, but were not by any means barbarians. They had a highly developed culture and had richly furnished tombs for their leaders. They were the forerunners of Genghis Khan.  By 1004 AD the horsemen of the Liao had reached central Henan Province, almost on the banks of the Yellow River (Huang he). The Sung had to sue for peace and signed a humiliating treaty to pay Tribute (200,000 rolls of silk and 100,000 ounces of silver) to agree a new border. During the Liao period the two Dynasties went their separate ways culturally, but there was lively trade and cultural interchange, such as the painting given to the Sung ruler Renzong (1023 –1063 AD) by the Liao ruler Xingzong (1031-1054 AD). The indigenous Chinese people in the north under Liao rule kept themselves separate, with the Chinese being most proficient in ceramics and the Liao in metalwork (which is more suited to a nomadic culture - bending rather than breaking!). Metalwork in gold and silver particularly illustrates the links they had with the Middle East, especially Persia. The decoration derives both from Buddhist and Sassanid (Persian) motifs, but with shapes modelled on objects of Islamic art. This cultural contact caused a useful degree of cross-fertilisation of designs and skills.

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