Chinese pottery is one of the items that has defined the culture and traditions of this magnificent country. One of the oldest civilizations on the planet, the Chinese were also amongst the most advanced. As a result, it was quite natural that these technologically savvy people would find pottery a great way to express their creativity. That the Chinese found a whole new way of converting heated and hardened clay into invaluable works of art is a testimony to their attitude towards everything in life.
To understand the world of Chinese pottery, you need to dwell into its origins and a topic that expansive can fill out reams of pages in any book. Here's a brief look at the development of pottery in China and the way the style defined the eras that were a part of it.
Formative Period of Chinese Pottery (up until 1600 BC)
The first evidence of art coming into the Chinese culture came from shards of crude pottery, as well as intact pieces, that contained cord-markings. During the Neolithic period, there were many changes as the Yangshao or painted pottery culture came into prominence. Most of the wares were made by coiling or ring methods wherein the decorations were limited to the upper halves. Most of the patterns popular made were geometric designs while things like sawtooth-patterns also became quite popular, especially in red and black colours.
During the period around 4500 BC, animals, birds and fish made an appearance on pots, while plant designs also took off with a bang. Most of the designs were related to the way people lived in those times, hunting and gathering food. There was always a logical pattern to the styles being employed by potters and even at such an early stage, Chinese pottery was highly evolved. By 1700 BC, the pottery wares were completely black in colour,
The best pieces would come with a dark grey or a black body that had a metallic appearance without being painted on. Pottery was also part of the grave offerings that the people used at the time.
Dynasties of Chinese Pottery
Between 1600 and 1046 BC, the Shang dynasty prevailed over China and this saw a lot of improvements as far as technology was concerned. Stoneware came into the scene, as did pottery glazes, wherein a small amount of stoneware was used to create a thin glaze to coat the pottery wares. The Chinese also started developing the soft & fine white stoneware form, which became the trademark of the era.
From 1046 to 256 BC, the Zhou dynasty called the shots in China and this was the time for bronze to come into the picture. While the soft white pottery of the Shang dynasty faded out, the main concepts remained the same with only the technical quality dropping below the Shang dynasty standards. Hard stoneware became a common way for potters to work and the glaze became their saving grace when it came to looks. As the population grew, pottery was becoming more important and there were even attempts at experimenting with a bejewelled metal-look.
The Zhou dynasty would see significant progress towards better pottery wares in the second half of their reign, bringing in low-fired pottery, some of which were covered by a slip or liquid clay before being painted. Porcelain, or something similar, was also being worked upon although the level of refinement was still missing in these higher-grade materials. Stamping was also practiced for the first time wherein repeated motifs were stamped onto the surface of the pot before it was sent for firing.
The Han Dynasty (206 BC to 220 CE) has the most number of surviving pieces that have been, mostly, excavated from graves. The common forms include the "hu", which was a baluster-like vase that had the same shape as the bronze works of those times. The hill jar was also quite common and came with a cover that represented the "Isles of the Blest". Low-fired pottery was used as grave offerings while high-fired stoneware was still being used to create impressive shapes and designs.
The Song dynasty was known for its technical excellence in the field of pottery, and is considered to be the best period in the history of Chinese pottery. Refinement and spontaneity seemed to be at its peak as the purity of colour and glaze shone through the meaningless pieces that were known to kept in palaces before this time. There was more character in each piece and the work of the potter, the skill and the love came through each creation.
Chinese Pottery after the Mongols
The Mongol occupation almost came through as a breath of fresh air because once the Chinese got control back, there was a sense of freedom from the traditions that had ruled the times before. Shapes began to change and patterns became bolder too. The techniques that had already taken root in the earlier times, now found a strong foothold and led the way into the famous Ming dynasty.
The Ming Dynasty became the reason why Chinese pottery gained popularity all over the world. Kaolin and Petuntse forms of clay were becoming quite popular and the ample supply of wood and water meant that production and style, both were in full-swing. These wares were always heavily potted and given designs & patterns under a sea-green glaze. This is also the time when reign marks came into being, with the first ever mark being made on a white porcelain ware with copper red, and then layered with a transparent glaze.
After the Ming dynasty, pottery suffered greatly and its prominence came down to the point where it became a regular item in daily life, used for utility rather glamour or as a symbol of opulence.
Symbols and Patterns on Chinese Pottery
Throughout the history of Chinese pottery, wares and items have been named after the empire or the dynasty in which they were created. As a result, everything that was created was, in a way, a property of the emperor. These labels, however, cannot be used to define the styles of a particular period in time because many of these styles overlapped dynasties even.
However, one thing that has remained common throughout the history of Chinese pottery is that the decorations are, in almost all cases, quite symbolic. For e.g. the word "fu" means "bat", in Chinese but also means "happiness". So if there were five bats on a vase, it indicated five blessings for a long, rich, peaceful, virtuous life and an easy death!
There are plenty of traditional symbols that, even today, are used in Chinese pottery. Things like storks or pine trees or even a tortoise are used to indicate a long and happy life. The peach, when combined with the bat, means a happy and long life while the Buddha's hand is an indication of wealth. Months and seasons are represented by a flower and a plant, most likely to be something that naturally grows in that month.
Then there's the famous yin-yang symbol that represents the female-male principle of life. This symbol has been spread to other cultures and is also considered as a symbol of balance in nature and life in general.
Chinese pottery isn't just an art form, it is a technique that has given the world a view into the life and ways of the people in different times throughout the country's history. There are symbols and figures that have changed the way we look at life while contributing immensely to the world of pottery with its techniques and patterns. Today, Chinese pottery is still amongst the most expensive in the world, and that raises the level of intrigue generated by their brilliant application of this fine art form.