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

8. Ceramic Development in China

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Another development was a technique similar to sgraffito. The pale grey stoneware body was covered with a thick black glaze and while still damp the glaze was cut away to produce the required, often bold, decoration. When fired the viscous glaze did not run so it shows up in contrast to the pale body exposed. This technique was often used on large pieces such as wine jars from the latter part of the 12th to the end of the Yuan Dynasty in the 14th century.

Both the Liao and the Chin furnished their tombs with fine objects as well as everyday utensils. The Northern Sung, Liao and Chin made large pottery sculptures several metres high, often of Buddhist gods such as Bodhisattva. These were very detailed and carefully painted.

8.29 Southern Sung Dynasty (1127-1279 AD)

The remnants of the Sung Court fled to the south in 1127 AD and after several years of wandering set up their Capital at the beautiful city of Hangzhou.

The Southern Sung never really tried to regain the North, and again had to agree to pay tribute to the Chin. Geographically the Sung Empire now was much smaller than during the Han and Tang Dynasties. However, the Southern Sung enjoyed the prosperity and beauty of their new home, and the arts continued to flourish in an atmosphere of humanity and tolerance. New heights were reached in science and technology, particularly in porcelain manufacture, metallurgy, shipbuilding and compass-guided navigation (as previous land routes were no longer available). The atmosphere in Hangzhou under the Southern Sung Dynasty was very refined and civilised, but the loss of the North caused some introspection that was reflected in their art – instead of power and confidence it exhibited more sensitivity and romanticism.

In the 10th century, during the period of the Northern Sung, many new kilns were built in the South and existing ones were improved, although progress was slower than the North due to lack of patronage. Kilns in Kiangsi and Fujian all catered for the domestic market in South China and some overseas trade to South East Asia. After the Sung capital was re-established at Hangzhou, there was a shift in what ceramics were considered most sought after. Substitutes were sought for varieties no longer available, so that the finest of these could be supplied to the Imperial Court. The Yueh Kilns were prolific and high quality, and this requirement stimulated the potters in Zhejiang to manufacture comparable wares. Support for Southern kilns increased greatly in the late 12th and early 13th centuries, as Hangzhou became wealthy and patronage extended to wealthy Chinese as well as foreign clients. The Government encouraged trade to fund resistance to the ever-present Northern threat. At this time the volume of Chinese ceramics produced far surpassed those produced elsewhere.

The Southern Guan (Kuan) wares were the Official Imperial Pottery of the Southern Sung Dynasty and were produced close to the Palace. Later, kilns were established near the altar for sacrifices to heaven and earth, at Chiao-t’an, outside the South Gate of the city. Guan ware was inspired by the Sung Court’s desire for a substitute for the high quality Ju ware from Ling-ju Hsein, which was no longer available to them. It appeared about the middle of the 12th century and was closely related to the Southern Longquan ware. In fact it had nothing in common with Northern wares except for the iron content of the glaze – it was quite novel. Guan had a thin dark, almost black, opaque body and beautiful bluish-grey layered glaze. A carefully formed wide crackle using shrinking glaze is the only ornamentation on this exquisite ware. The degree (density) of crackle and colour of glaze depends on the firing cycle. Crackle is usually avoided as it weakens the body, but having discovered it accidentally the Chinese potters found ways of exploiting it for its aesthetic effect. It is induced by using multiple layers of glaze before firing - 4 to 5 typically. In the best quality specimens the total thickness of the glaze could be more than the body – a thin slice of clay between two thick glassy walls. It must have been very difficult to fire successfully. As with Longquan, simple shapes were thrown on the wheel with few decorative additions. Copies of Shang and Zhou archaic bronzes were also very popular. Southern Guan was the finest of the family of celadons produced in an increasing number of kilns in South Eastern China, and the potters at Longquan imitated it often indistinguishably.

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