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

8. Ceramic Development in China

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8.2 Inland China

Early painted pottery related to the Peiligang Culture (7,000 to 5,000 BC) was found in the Central Yellow River Region of the inland provinces of Shensi (present Shaanxi) and Henan, dated about 6,500 BC. These were low-fired sand-tempered pots, mainly red-bodied with three stubby feet (so they would always be stable when placed in a fire) or with a ring foot. Some also had three lugs or handles so they could be suspended over a fire. Bands were often painted round the pots, which may have been the start of the “Painted Pottery Culture”. This early inland pottery (6,500-5,500 BC) is referred to as proto-Yangshao. The Tz’u-shan potters in southern Hopeh (present Hebei) Province from about 6,000 BC used more cord marking and made a greater variety of forms, including basins, cups, serving stands and pot supports. There are also reports of pottery models of silkworm chrysalides and shuttle-like objects, indicating silk production at this early date in Hebei Province.

Banpo Amphora 4,500 BC - courtesy R&G McPherson Antiques

Banpo Amphora 4,500 BC
- courtesy R&G
McPherson Antiques

Although there appears to have been a rather crude coarse grey earthenware for ordinary household purposes, the most well-known Yangshao earthenware is a superior ware, light red, fine grained and lightly burnished. The decoration was slip-painted with a primitive brush predominantly in black, (using oxides of iron and manganese) but also in red, brown, and further east white, which is why it is called the “Painted Pottery Culture”(as opposed to the “Black Pottery Culture” of the East and Southeast). The clay was carefully chosen and well-prepared having a fine particle size and little if any temper. The reddish colour of the body was due to the iron content and oxidising atmosphere at firing temperatures around 1000 degrees C. The vessels were built up from long ropes of clay, coiled and well smoothed to conceal this manufacturing method, and to assist the final stages it was set on a piece of matting that could be turned – an early example of a turntable. Firing was carried out in a simple kiln chamber cut into the ground with the fire a little to one side and lower than the platform or shelf containing the wares. There were a few holes in the platform for the passage of flames and over the top a lightly constructed dome, with a central flue to discharge gases, flame and smoke.

Early Yangshao pottery has been found in the Neolithic village called Banpo (Pan-p’o), near Xian, that was likely to have been inhabited around 6-7,000 BC and its inhabitants were already making large pots such as cord-marked amphorae and bowls between 5,000 and 4,000 BC. The amphorae were used to fetch water from the river, floating horizontally but when full becoming vertical. The village was made up of several round houses 10-20 feet in diameter, along with a larger one, possibly a meeting or ritual building 40 feet in diameter. Storage pits were also found, probably for grains, mainly millet. Near the large building was a potter’s district with several simple updraught kilns. There was also a graveyard near the village and pottery jars, tools and jewellery were found in the graves. Dead babies and children were buried directly in the ground in pottery urns, with small bowls as lids. The Neolithic inhabitants of Banpo produced painted ceramics typical of their Yangshao culture. Their red ceramic vessels have black painted designs of animals such as fish, frogs, stags and birds, but the potters also made use of a large number of geometric patterns such as lattices, complex swirls and triangles.

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