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

8. Ceramic Development in China

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When on the wheel, the clay could be shaved, producing angular vessels not seen before, and ones with very thin walls. Some of these are only 1 to 3 millimetres thick and known as “eggshell pottery”. Asymmetrical and complex shapes could not be made in a single operation but components were made on the wheel and subsequently luted together. Elaborate pieces such as a ringing beaker, whose sound is produced by a tiny ball, built into the stem, testify to the mastery of modelling and firing techniques.

Longshan eggshell blackware ringing goblet 2,500-2,000 BC - courtesy Glade Antiques

Longshan eggshell blackware ringing goblet
2,500-2,000 BC - courtesy Glade Antiques

The vessels have a great variety of forms, such as tripod cooking vessels (ding), cauldrons with short legs (yan), beakers with handles (bei), goblets with long stems (dou) and asymmetrical containers for water with a flattened side to carry easier against the side of the body. There is a preponderance of three legs and handles, for stability. Where the clay was coarser or uneven, hand making prevailed, as it did for some difficult shapes such as the fascinating Kuei (an udder-shaped tripod jug only found in a white or pale yellow body and confined to Shandong).

Shandong Kuei 3,000-2,500 BC

Shandong Kuei 3,000-2,500 BC

These two cultures existed side-by-side for centuries, and doubtless some potters concentrated on the method most suited to their skills.

The Longshan kilns were also improved by having more, smaller heat vents into the kiln chamber, so fewer particles from the fire blew onto the surface of the pots. The heat was also more evenly distributed and easier to control including the reduction cycle essential for the black ware.

Because of the style, type and technology (unpainted, odd shapes and fast wheel) of Longshan pottery, it is most likely to have derived from the East Coast Cultures. By 2,000 BC a Longshan-style of pottery pervaded most of China and it was the last major phase of Neolithic pottery in China.

In this period and area social order was significant, and graves gave a clear indication of the different social levels that were prevalent. Many graves had no offerings at all and a few had small amounts, but one, dated to about 2,300 BC, was clearly for a person of obvious wealth. It contained four tall, black, thin-walled goblets, three cauldrons with long tripod legs, three tripod bowls as well as several other pottery objects.

Thanks to the durability of ceramics as historical records, complex symbols on pots found in Shandong province suggest there was primitive writing in East China around 2,800BC.

Caiyuan incised vessel 2,800-1,900 BC - courtesy R&G McPherson Antiques

Caiyuan incised vessel 2,800-1,900 BC
- courtesy R&G McPherson Antiques

8.6 Caiyuan Culture

China had a number of autonomous cultures in the Neolithic Period, each developing its own style of pottery, but with some crossover. One was the Caiyuan Culture in the North West Province of Ningxia that produced heavily potted, buff/orange vessels with horizontal incised decoration carried out on the leather-hard body.

8.7 Shijiake Culture

Separate from the Longshan culture, about 2,400-2,000 BC, in Hubei Province in Central China at a site called Dengjiawan, the Shijiake culture produced the finest Neolithic pottery animals so far unearthed.  Here over 5,000 items were found in rubbish tips rather than graves. Animals represented included chickens, dogs and game animals including elephants, and also included human figures. It is extremely unlikely these were produced as ornaments or toys, but were part of ritual practices.

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