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

8. Ceramic Development in China

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8.1 Pre-history

A study of the historical reduction in tooth size suggests the part of the world that humans first regularly ate cooked food could well have been South China. Certainly, on the present evidence, the first humans to eat food cooked using pottery lived in China, south of the Yangtze River. Trying to find a timeline from their first pottery over 20,000 years ago to the present day in China is pretty well impossible, as there is so little evidence yet available.

Map of Present China - source CIA Maps

Map of Present China - source CIA Maps

There was not a unique Chinese Neolithic, or at the time one Chinese race, but a mosaic of regional peoples and cultures, as China is such a large and diverse country. This led to pottery styles and technologies being different not only in time but also in place. In Jiangxi and Guangxi provinces, from 12,000 to 9,000 years ago (10,000 to 7,000 BC), many low-fired cord-marked sherds have been found from vessels used for cooking and storage, some having incised decoration. Very early pottery has also been found in discarded shell heaps in South China. It is also possible that this South Coastal culture had very early links with the Bac-Son culture in Vietnam and maybe further south.

There were also rock paintings in China, but not from such an early date as the cave paintings in Europe. In the North of China paintings of elephants and ostriches have been dated to 10,000 BC, even though these animals were already extinct in this area. Other rock paintings depicted abstract motifs such as zigzag lines, circles and spirals. There was very likely to have been a crossover of the themes of the rock paintings to the decoration on ceramics, where these themes would be developed further, as Neolithic potters became the artists of their age. Rock painting continued for thousands of years, continually evolving so that subjects included more “modern” hunters from 8,000 to 4,000 BC and shepherds and cowherds from 3,500 to 2,000 BC.

Much of the reasonably complete pottery that has been discovered has been found in Tombs. This is because having been buried rather than used it has a much better chance of surviving whole. Also because of the reverence paid to the dead, a lot of the grave goods (also known as Mingqi) were the “best” quality pieces that we are fortunate to be able to appreciate. Such items were not only placed as gifts for the dead, but were also to do with sacrificial rites connected with the worship of ancestor’s spirits.

Until quite recently it was thought there were only two great cultural groups in early China, Yangshao and Longshan, one following the other, but this is now considered too simplistic. As usual the various cultures were named after the locations of the most important discoveries – usually ceramics. In these two cases Yangshao is a village in Honan (present Henan Province) discovered in 1922 and Lung Shan is a hill near to the settlement of Cheng-tzu-yai, Shantung (present Shandong Province) discovered in 1931. Different types of pottery vessel and decorative patterns were developed by these diverse cultures which were not only in those areas usually thought to be the cradle of early Chinese development, such as around present Xian and Nanking but also beyond them on all sides.

Map of China in Neolithic Period

Map of China in Neolithic Period

There was overlap, and at various times there appears to have been cross-fertilisation of some ideas as similarities also appear.

Although there are two broad areas into which the majority of local cultures can be grouped, the “Inland” cultures and those of the “East Coast”, there are distinct variations. For example, there are important early discoveries in the Northeast (Liaoning Province) from 5,500 BC.

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