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

8. Ceramic Development in China

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8.16 Period of Disunity or “Northern and Southern” Dynasties (220 to 581 AD)

Map of three kingdoms - source Steph M

Map of three kingdoms - source Steph M

During the disruptive period between the Han Dynasty and the next Dynasty to unify China, the Sui, the dissolution of Imperial Rule and the continuing shift of power and boundaries caused China to be divided into various individual States. Complex political, social and economic factors dominated progress and led to periods of instability and others of calm with economic growth first in one region then another. The periods of economic growth were more extended and widespread south of the Yangtze, which is reflected in its ceramics development. The South was to lay the foundation for the most persistent and richest tradition in China, celadon ware. Celadon was a character in French plays always wearing green and green monochrome ware was named after him.

After the fall of the Han Dynasty in 220 AD, and for the next 60 years, China was divided into three concurrent native Dynasties, usually referred to as the “Three Kingdoms”. In the North was the Wei (220-265 AD), in the Southeast the Wu (222-280 AD) and in the West the Shu-Han (221-263 AD). The Wei formed the Western Jin Dynasty (265-316 AD), overcame the other two States, and in 280 AD China was briefly reunited. However, in 311 AD Luoyang and in 316 AD Chang-an fell to the invading Hsiung-nu from the Mongolian Region in the Northwest. The Eastern Jin Dynasty continued in the south from 317-420 AD, centred on Nanking (now Nanjing).

The idea of life after death remained a focus for artistic activity. In accordance with religious beliefs, companion figures of ceramics, stone and metal were still placed in the tomb with the dead. Ceramic vessels were filled with provisions for them in the next world. The favourite items of personal use were also buried with them. For the Chinese it was very important to care for the souls of the dead and ensure they were protected. As a result, some interesting ceramics date from the years of division between North and South. In particular this period is noted for its vigorous modelling of figures, particularly of animals.

8.17 Northern China

Before long, non-Chinese “barbarian tribes” occupied the whole of Northern China and they set up one kingdom after another until in 439 AD, a Turkish tribe from Central Asia, the Toba, brought the region under their control as the Pei (Northern Wei Dynasty (439-534 AD)).

Map of Northern and Southern Dynasties - courtesy Thomas Lessman,

Map of Northern and Southern Dynasties -
courtesy Thomas Lessman,

Northern Wei soldiers - courtesy Glade Antiques

Northern Wei soldiers - courtesy Glade

The Toba established a capital, Pingcheng, in what is now Shanxi Province and populated it by forced immigration of tens of thousands of native Chinese people. They were keen to adopt Buddhism as State policy, as it gave them some justification to rule native Chinese people. The suffering Northern Chinese were also keen to adopt it as it was a consoling force, as at this time the Confucian system was in ruins, so Buddhism reached the common people in the 4th Century AD. Gradually the Chinese reassumed control, and in 495 AD the capital was moved again to Luoyang, in the heart of ancient Chinese Civilisation, where the last vestiges of Turkish influence disappeared.

Compared with many countries China already had a long history of civilisation and a conviction that it was the only truly civilised society in the world. So when Buddhism arrived the Chinese were able to assimilate and adapt it to conform to their own culture. Similarly, when conquering foreign cultures such as the Toba (Northern Wei), and later the Liao, Jin, Mongol (Yuan) as well as the Manchu arrived, they adapted to the culture of the conquered Chinese, until their own had been entirely swallowed up.

The Northern rulers were too busy with intrigues to have time to support cultural activities, so there was no great palace or city building programme for some 180 years after the fall of the Western Jin until the rebuilding of Luoyang was started in 495 AD. However, this city was sacked in 534 AD with the fall of the Northern Wei. There was, though, construction of Temples and Monasteries, and these are the main remaining monuments of the 4th and 5th Centuries AD in China. Each Buddhist Temple had a pagoda as a memorial. The earlier Han timber tower was further developed into a brick and masonry tower up to 12 storeys tall. Because of their construction they have remained while the wooden temples have often disappeared. There were also cave temples cut into rock faces, copying some styles from India. In all some 50 delegations of Chinese monks were sent to India from the 3rd to the 7th century AD bringing back religious texts to China. The iconography of Buddhism, which they also brought back, added new themes for Chinese artists.

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