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

8. Ceramic Development in China

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When later Emperors began drinking tea from these delicate white teacups and bowls, the new custom was imitated everywhere and Chien blackware went out of fashion in China. The Sung Ch’ing-pai wares were the predecessors of the vast output of fine white Jingdezhen porcelain that dominated the Chinese pottery industry during the Yuan, Ming and Qing Dynasties. There were 136 kilns around Jingdezhen that made Ch’ing-pai, exporting it to 20 countries including S E Asia, Korea, Japan, S Asia, Africa (including Egypt) and the Near East.

In the Sung period the traditional practice of burying grave goods with their dead continued.

Large Yunnan storage jar decorated as grain store, two guardians, door, beams and roof - courtesy R&G McPherson Antiques

Large Yunnan storage jar decorated as
grain store, two guardians, door, beams
and roof - courtesy R&G McPherson

It was not until cremation became common in the Ming period that ceramic grave goods were superseded with sacrificial goods made from paper. Even today paper replicas are sometimes burnt besides graves for the sustenance of the souls of the dead.

8.30 The Mongols

Further north in Mongolia, the Mongols were also vassals of the Chin, but after much inter-tribal bloodshed they collected together as a confederation of Mongolian Tribes under Genghis Khan, a tribal leader who was born in 1163 AD. Between 1200 and 1225 AD, the Mongols broke the power of the Chin in the North of China. They crossed the Gobi desert, did not make a frontal attack on the Great Wall but went round its east end, and battled their way to the Chin Capital. A wall 40 ft. high and 10 miles long protected the city. At the time the population of the city was about 350,000. In 1215 AD, after a siege of many months in which thousands of Chinese starved, the Mongols stormed the city and killed most of the inhabitants. The Mongols, however, respected the Chinese achievements and were avid learners of Chinese technology in medicine, writing, history and warfare (gunpowder). They also made a huge move from living in tents to building a new Mongol Capital city, Karakorum.

Genghis Khan had also sent peaceful emissaries westwards but in 1218 the head of his ambassador was sent back from Persia. A furious Genghis Khan sent an army of 200,000 soldiers to Persia that is reckoned to have killed over 1 million people. His army kept going west “to see how far it could go” and met little resistance, eventually reaching Russia. At this time their army was four times the size of Alexander the Great’s and the Mongol Empire was twice the size of the Roman Empire.

This activity distracted the Mongols from making an intensive invasion of China, although Genghis Khan died in 1226 AD making a further push into China. So, for some years the Chin were not completely subjugated and the Sung further south were not attacked at all. In the meanwhile Genghis Khan’s son Ogidei had become Khan and continued the push west, until the rest of Russia, Poland and Hungary had been taken. His sons doubled the size of the Empire. The army was approaching Vienna when Ogidei died in 1242. In accordance with Mongol law all tribal leaders had to return to their Capital to elect a new Khan – this caused a hiatus in the push west that caused it to lose its momentum and Europe was saved. Ogidei’s successor was Kublai Khan, Genghis’ grandson.

However, in China, history repeated itself, as the Sung helped the Mongols conquer their more immediate enemy, the Chin. By 1234 AD the Mongols had brutally destroyed the Chin and reached their southern border with the Sung. In about 1250 AD Kublai Khan swept south, battling the Chinese army for over 20 years finally defeating the Sung and capturing their capital Hangzhou in 1276 AD, uniting all of China again. A loyal Minister drowned himself and the young Sung Emperor in 1279 to end their remarkable Dynasty. Practically nothing survives today of the magnificent Southern Sung Capital Hangzhou, described by the Venetian traveller Marco Polo, who reportedly spent much of his time between 1276 and 1292 AD in the city, as the “greatest city in the world”. Its grandeur can only be imagined from surviving paintings. 

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