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

8. Ceramic Development in China

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8.32 Blue and White

Some grave goods in the Tang period (8th and early 9th Century) were already glazed in deep cobalt blue, and a few examples of pots using it as an underglaze pigment were unearthed in Yangchou. At this early time the cobalt was being imported by camel mainly from Kashan in Persia. The Northern Sung also used it occasionally, but the pioneering achievement of the Yuan Dynasty was to perfect the underglaze cobalt blue decoration. The cobalt pigment was painted on the unglazed body then dipped in bath of clear, fairly viscous, glaze. The porcelain and glaze had basically the same constituents, but in different proportions, so that the glaze melts when the pot is fired at 1280 to 1300 degrees Celsius and merges into the body enclosing the cobalt decoration. This produced a superb blue decoration against a white ground with a faintly blue tinged glaze.

Yuan very early export jar from Jingdezhen kilns, blue and white Yuhuchun-shaped vase with lotus pond decoration and an early bowl - courtesy R&G McPherson Antiques

Yuan very early export jar from Jingdezhen
kilns, blue and white Yuhuchun-shaped vase
with lotus pond decoration and an early
bowl - courtesy R&G McPherson Antiques

A feature of the earliest blue and white underglaze ceramics was the presence of tiny grains from coarsely ground cobalt left behind by the brush. After firing these caused black holes where the cobalt grains broke through the glaze. The experienced Chinese craftsmen soon overcame this problem so that the ceramics of this period could be fantastically well painted. The artist’s inspiration came from subjects in Chinese paintings, decoration on Cizhou and Longquan ware and from the earlier Ch’ing-pai ware from Jingdezhen.  Now there were also designs in the Islamic style.

Yuan qingbai porcelain ewer of Islamic metal form - courtesy R&G McPherson Antiques

Yuan qingbai porcelain ewer of Islamic
metal form - courtesy R&G McPherson
Antiques

So, how did the revolutionary stylistic change in the decoration of ceramics come about? During the Sung period, the Chinese elite preferred monochrome decoration so Longquan and Chun were still being produced for conservative Chinese patrons. However merchants from Persia and the Near East, living amongst middle and upper classes in China wanted to feel at home. They wanted not only carpets and silverware, but also blue and white pottery not that dissimilar to Cizhou ware with its dark brown decoration on a white body. Possibly they did not like the incised and stamped decoration of the Longquan pieces. Certainly demand from the “foreign” market played a part in the development of Chinese porcelain for the first time. Very rapidly the underglaze blue and white ware also became popular with the Chinese elite, and the most popular of all Chinese ceramics for export.

Arabs and Persians carried the bulk of the export trade as Chinese ships only went as far as Indonesia. Persian, Arab and Chinese merchants became very wealthy and the luxury of their houses and contents was famous. They continued to have considerable influence on what wares the ceramic manufacturers made and exported. The motivation of the Mongols for trade was different from the Sung – now it was personal enrichment, so the ceramics industry expanded further.

Jingdezhen became the principal porcelain-manufacturing centre in China following the Yuan Emperor, Chen Tsung (1294-1307), making it the Imperial supplier. To meet the new demands the kilns were transformed from ones privately owned by craftsmen into a series of industrial complexes financed and owned by commercial syndicates. A highly skilled workforce came into existence and processes were split into different workshops. The kilns used were large, efficient, multiple-smoke-stack, downdraft ones, ultimately descended from Shang-type kilns developed in Henan, called “beehive kilns”. They were constructed to standards of size and capacity and equipped for mass production. Kiln Masters using semi-skilled labourers controlled firings. Achieving the extreme thinness of earlier Ch’ing-pai was very labour and skill intensive, therefore costly. The syndicates wanted greater productivity that could be achieved by industrialisation using moulding, highly skilled throwers and the fast wheel and template. This led to incised and carved decoration becoming spontaneous to match the speed of production, but there was also a tendency for heavier less-well-finished wares.

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