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

8. Ceramic Development in China

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Although human sacrifice had fallen out of favour after Confucius, it appears that the First Emperor, possibly in the later stages of his failing mental health, ordered some 3,000 wives and concubines, together with many trusted subjects who had been involved in the tomb’s construction, to be sealed in his tomb after his funeral rites had been completed. He thought this would enable him to start a new Imperial Family in the afterlife; also he did not want the whereabouts of his Tomb to be known.

The manufacture of domestic and ritual pottery continued with few new developments, although mythical stories of the Taoist belief found visual expression in ceramic decoration.

Cocoon jar and Hu vase (cold painted in red and white) - courtesy Glade Antiques and R&G McPherson Antiques

Cocoon jar and Hu vase (cold painted in
red and white) - courtesy Glade Antiques
and R&G McPherson Antiques

Some pottery developments during the First Empire were rather more mundane, if not more immediately useful. For example water pipes and drainpipes were produced in fired clay, together with floor and roof tiles stamped with bas-relief ornamentation.

8.15 Han Dynasty (206BC to 220 AD)

The Qin Dynasty was followed after a brief civil war by the Han Dynasty from 206 BC to 220 AD. It was formed by a man of humble birth called Liu Pang, who emerged victorious from the fighting after the fall of the Qin. To start with, some members of the Emperor’s family were given parts of the country to rule in a feudal style, but after 100 years China reverted to an effective Centralised Government, to maintain political unity, and a system of local administration. Otherwise most of the Qin methods of Governance were maintained throughout, although the “legalistic” emphasis was softened following the ideals of Confucianism (benevolent rule and good statesmanship). The ruler from 140 to 87 BC, Wu Di, expanded the Chinese Empire by defeating the Hsiung-nu (Huns), a barbarian tribe living along the Northwest Frontier. The Han Empire expanded West as far as Ferghana in Kazakhstan, as they wanted a secure source of the famous Ferghana horses that were invaluable to the Han for their cavalry in battle. The Great Wall was also extended, particularly in the Northwest. In the Han Dynasty the Emperors ruled an Empire stretching from Korea in the North East to Vietnam in the South. It rivalled the Roman Empire in size and wealth. In 2 AD the first Chinese Census took place, indicating the overall population to be 57 million, concentrated in the Yellow River Valley and round the mouth of the Yangtze.

Map of early Han Dynasty, circa 200 BC - courtesy Thomas Lessman,

Map of early Han Dynasty, circa 200 BC -
courtesy Thomas Lessman,

Wu Di encouraged contact and trade outside China and this probably led to the start of contact with the Western World, as silk began to be exported along the “Silk Road” via Western Asia to Antioch on the Mediterranean, part of the Roman Empire. The Silk Road introduced new plants, animals (the donkey), materials and technologies. Because of this some people grew rich and were able to commission artworks. Legations were also sent on visits to Japan, which provide the first written accounts of Japanese society. During the Han and later Tang Dynasties, China became international in scope and rivalled contemporary Mediterranean Powers. Contact with the West also led indirectly to the introduction of Buddhism from India in the first century AD after it had been practised for 500 years in India. It was the Emperor Ming Di (58-75AD) who sent an envoy to the West who returned with word of the new religion in 67 AD. The first Buddhist community was made up of non-Chinese people and was set up by 148 AD. Buddhist ideals continued to be brought in by traders and craftsmen along the Silk Road, which is why most monasteries between 0 and 500 AD lay in a line along its route between Isfahan and its start in Chang-an (north of present Xian). The Bell Tower in present Xian symbolises the start of the Silk Road in China.

Confucianism had become the State Religion in 136 BC. During the Han period Buddhism was still much at odds with Confucian morality. Buddhist ideals of homelessness, the monastic begging life and celibacy were in marked contrast to Confucian family tradition, promoting hierarchical systems of relationships within the family for the good of the State, having the same set of values as the State. Even so, Buddhism became even more popular after about 220 AD.

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