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

8. Ceramic Development in China

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Northern stoneware jar, 6<sup>th</sup> century AD, incised lotus petals and glazed - courtesy R&G

Northern stoneware jar, 6th century AD,
incised lotus petals and glazed
- courtesy R&G McPherson Antiques

These were produced extensively in Hebei and Henan provinces. Again their decoration is alien to previous Chinese traditions, being based on ones from the Near East. The body is much whiter now and reduction much better controlled, indicating radical improvements to kiln design and firing control. Saggers were also likely to have been used extensively, significantly reducing accidents in the kiln.

8.18  Southern China

 Buddhism was also fairly deeply rooted in the south and on the coasts in the 3rd and 4th Centuries AD. Although Buddhist iconography influenced Northern Chinese designs more than Southern, perhaps surprisingly, the fine arts flourished under the Buddhist influence in South China and Nanjing became the cultural centre where art forms developed and influenced the arts of the whole of China, including the occupied North. Also such sciences as map-making and botany began. Again this disruptive era gave rise to a spirit of inquiry and introspection, and various cultural activities developed significantly. For example, there was a long passionate poem written in 300 AD on artistic creation. The Chinese were keen to formalise all forms of creative, artistic endeavour. In the Southeast the Song, Qi, Liang and Chen Dynasties followed the Eastern Jin, prior to the unification under the Sui Dynasty in 581 AD. During this period of Royal family feuds, those outside the courts had a measure of peace and prosperity.

In the earlier part of the period (3rd century) ceramic development flourished in the South, especially in Zhejiang. To the south of the Yangtze from Te-ching through Hangzhou and Shao-hsing towards Ning-po on the East Coast a large group of kilns were established. These brought to perfection the firing of stoneware pottery called “green glazed ware”. From the Tang Dynasty these wares were also referred to as “old Yueh” after the ancient kingdom in this region. The kilns have been lost, but are presumed to be a development of the Shang downdraught design. Most wares were similar, but Te-ching also used a black glaze. Vessels were thin-walled and wheel-made unless they were so eccentric they had to be moulded. The clay used was pale grey, almost white, turning light reddish-brown when fired. The glaze on the earliest pieces had variable thickness, colour and surface gloss. It was based on iron oxide and varied in colour from brownish-yellow to grey-green, showing a lack of control of the reduction cycle.

Yueh celadon ware, bird in bowl, bird feeder with cage handles and jar - courtesy R&G McPherson Antiques

Yueh celadon ware, bird in bowl, bird feeder
with cage handles and jar - courtesy
R&G McPherson Antiques

They have been found in 3rd and 4th Century graves in the Nanjing region, along with vessels having a black glossy glaze. The black glaze was more consistent as the higher iron content made it less sensitive to firing variations. Both glazes were applied by dipping, inside and outside, but not always reaching the base. Vessels were fired on lumps of sandy fire clay or heavy stands that left patch marks on the base.

Within the tombs the decoration of the bricks was less “rugged” than in the north and had a softer more dreamy quality. Rather than dashing animals, swirling clouds and marching and dancing figures, they were typically the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove seated on mats drinking and music-making among trees. Technical execution was also different, with the South having a sinuous, fluent and elegant style. A whole picture was made up of a multiplicity of bricks, like a jigsaw, covering a large section of wall. Each brick was numbered on its end to aid construction. In a late 4th century tomb in His-shan Chiao, Nanjing, panels were 240mm by 80mm. The whole design probably started as a painting, transferred to carved wooden blocks and the clay then pressed on to them. Technically this needs considerable skill, mastering shrinkage, as each brick has to be dried and fired to ensure even shrinking or the overall visual effect would be ruined.

Period of Disunity celadon, incense burner with bird inside, ram and serving dish - courtesy Glade Antiques

Period of Disunity celadon, incense burner with
bird inside, ram and serving dish - courtesy
Glade Antiques

It was probably at this time that the custom developed of placing in Tombs urns with “multi-storey” sculptural ornamentation depicting figures and animals on their lids. They symbolised wealth and abundance and could be expected to provide the same good things in the next world. Some other shapes were a bulbous ewer with cocks-head spout (sometimes false – clearly for use in tombs) and tall ovoid vases surmounted with neatly modelled buildings with figures. Decoration included scenes of Taoist paradise with immortals; symbols derived from indigenous mythology (Buddhist figures were less common) or from 3rd to 4th century popular literature subjects. Although most items were for Tombs, there were some water droppers and candlesticks, some modelled as animals, and made for domestic use.

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