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

8. Ceramic Development in China

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8.27 Northern Sung Dynasty (960-1127 AD)

Map of China - Northern Sung Dynasty - courtesy Thomas Lessman, worldhistorymaps.info

Map of China - Northern Sung Dynasty -
courtesy Thomas Lessman,
worldhistorymaps.info

Initially, Central China was reunited by the Sung’s conquest of most of the area covered by the other Kingdoms. The Sung period is split into the Northern Sung Dynasty (960-1127 AD) that covered both North and South Central China, and the Southern Sung Dynasty (1127-1279 AD) that covered only South China.

Using the Imperial Examinations to recruit officials and establishing meritocracy of career bureaucrats, it was ably ruled for well over 100 years by the founder Emperor, T’ai-tzu (960-976 AD), and the next four Sung Emperors. There was rapid economic growth, so much so that they needed to introduce paper currency in 1120 AD. As the Sung rulers wanted peace, they preferred to pay tribute to their stronger Liao neighbours to leave them alone. The treaty gave the Sung Empire a century of peace, equilibrium and prosperity, although they were exposed to constant threat.

The Northern Sung Capital, Kaifeng was a city of palaces, temples and tall pagodas. Buddhism flourished and more monasteries and temples were constructed.

Sung inscribed Buddha tile from Youguosi pagoda and two priests, old and young - courtesy R&G McPherson Antiques and Glade Antiques

Sung inscribed Buddha tile from Youguosi
pagoda and two priests, old and young -
courtesy R&G McPherson Antiques and
Glade Antiques

This was a time of great artistic and literary accomplishment, so much so that the Liao, and subsequently the Chin, absorbed significant aspects of their culture. First and foremost the appreciation of beautiful things led to the production of fine ceramics. The Sung Dynasty marked a high point in the history of Chinese pottery, in which technical mastery and spontaneity of technique were at their most perfectly balanced. The people who were acquainted with the past great Empire, through its literature and the discovery of ancient pottery, wanted to surround themselves with porcelain and other forms of art often based on antiquities. They collected rare ceramics that had survived, as well as old bronzes. Emperor Huizong catalogued the Imperial House collection of old artefacts, and crafts were encouraged in State workshops, including copying antique porcelain pieces. Among the shapes used for Sung celadons were those derived from ancient bronze items, illustrating this antiquarian taste of the Sung Court and gentry.

 Different kilns throughout the Sung Empire rivalled each other in producing sophisticated basic shapes with good properties and simple ornamentation. In China, Sung ceramics, with their shimmering glazes, are considered much superior to the later Ming. However, people in Europe, because they were initially introduced to the latest style of Ming Chinese blue and white ceramics during the 14th Century, tend to consider this to be the ultimate achievement in Chinese ceramic art.

From a ceramics point of view, following the fall of the Tang, the distinction between the North and South of the Sung Dynasty became even clearer. Southern kilns had already become the more economically important in the Tang Dynasty and this grew because of their access to Southeast ports that replaced land routes for export. Also the geopolitical and economic pressure between the Tang and Yuan Dynasties resulted in a shift of major production centres to the South. Conversely, Northern potters were unable to maximise overseas trade because the northern land trade routes were unavailable; also there was a continual threat of invasion. However, the Northern kilns received considerable support in the way of patronage in the first two centuries following the Tang. As a result Northern kilns developed rapidly, technically ahead of Southern kilns for the first time.

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