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Chinese Ceramics: A History of Shapes and Colors

It’s impossible to talk about Chinese ceramics without taking a very long journey through the dynasties. Porcelain, the finest expression of Chinese ceramics, transcended time and space, and to this day modern people still refer to their beloved porcelain as “china” or “fine china”.

The art of Chinese ceramics started developing during the Neolithic period. In the late Neolithic period the invention of the potter’s wheel allowed for more uniform vessels. This in turn resulted in one of the best examples of the early Chinese potters most magnificent works, the terracotta warriors found in the tomb of the first Qin emperor.

Terracotta Warriors
Terracotta Warriors

Some of the most popular ceramics from the Sui and Tang dynasties (581-907 A. D.) were the famous sancai, or three-color wares, and the celadons, which were glazed in jade green color.

Tang Sancai
Tang Sancai

Porcelain was first introduced to the western world through the Silk Road. One of the earliest mentions of porcelain by a foreigner was included in the Chain of Chronicles by Suleiman, and Arab traveler and merchant in 851 AD during the Tang dynasty, who wrote: “They have in China a very fine clay, which they make vases which are as transparent as glass; water is seen through them. The vases are made of clay”.

During the Song dynasty (960-1279), porcelain was named after the place of its production, and featured subtle yet elegant glazes with graceful shapes, upholding the esthetics of Confucianism, which emphasized simplicity. The under glazed blue wasn’t popular during this period as it was deemed to be too fancy.

Next came the Yuan dynasty (1279-1368) a period when porcelain was mass-produced for the first time. In 2005 a blue and white porcelain jar produced during the Yuan dynasty in Jingdezhen, the “Porcelain Capital”, was sold for 230,000,000 yuan (around 33 million USD) in an auction in the UK.

Yuan dynasty blue and white porcelain jar
Yuan dynasty blue and white porcelain jar

The subsequent Ming dynasty (1368-1644) took porcelain to higher levels, especially during the emperor Xuande period (1426-35), when manganese was introduced to perfect the under glaze decoration. Prior to the use of manganese, the cobalt used for decoration had a tendency to bleed in firing. The Xuande porcelain is considered among the finest of all Ming production.

The Ming dynasty was also responsible for exporting porcelain around the world on an unprecedented scale, after a shift towards market economy.

During the late Ming dynasty to the early Qing dynasty (1644-1911), porcelain became more colorful with the introduction of five-colored wares. These embellishments consisted of flowers, landscapes and other scenes, and became very famous in the West.

The end of the Qing dynasty was a period of political turmoil, which negatively impacted porcelain.

However, many places in China still produce porcelain keeping the traditional elements.

Jade, between heaven and earth

Throughout history, gold and silver never really reached the same status as jade in China. Despite the fact that the Chinese gold market is currently the biggest in the world, jade is an inseparable item of the Chinese culture.

Of all precious stones, jade is considered the most valuable, and is linked to the notions of nobility, perfection, and even immortality. Ancient Chinese believed that jade helped preserve the soul and the body, which is why members of the aristocracy, possibly starting with the Han dynasty, were buried sheathed in jade burial suits, which were extremely expensive to create, and reserved only for the wealthiest individuals. Depending on the aristocrat’s status, the thread used to sow the burial suit together could be silver, copper or silk. Only the emperor’s burial suits were sown with gold thread.

Jade burial suits were considered merely a legend for many years, until 1968, when two complete jade suits were discovered at the resting site of Han emperor Liu Sheng and his wife, Dou Wan.

Jade burial suit
Jade burial suit

The beautiful rock wasn’t only used for burying emperors and high-profile members of the Chinese royalty, as jade also became a favorite material for the crafting of Chinese writing materials, including rests for calligraphy brushes, mouthpieces for some opium pipes, hair ornaments, belt plaques and sculptures depicting different animals, from the mythological dragon and phoenix, deities that were the life-source of family clans, to real animals such as pigs.

One of the most famous pieces of jade is the He Shi Bi, which is the subject of a famous legend. According to the story, a man called Bian He found a piece of jade stone on Mount Chu, and recognizing its value, presented it to the king Li, who asked his jeweler to examine the rock. The jeweler determined that it was just a stone, and king Li punished Bian He by cutting off his left leg. Unmoved Bian He then presented it to king Wu, the son of Li. After king Wu’s jeweler also deemed the jade to be a simple stone, Bian He lost his remaining leg.

However, king Wen, the son of king Wu, had his jeweler cut open the stone, where a large piece of pure jade was hidden. King Wen named the jade He Shi in honor of Bian He. The name of the stone means He’s Jade Disc, and it went on to become the Imperial Seal of China.

The He Shi Bi is said to have been lost between the Tang and Ming dynasties. The disc isn’t the only mystery associated with jade. Some of the most puzzling jade objects are called “bi” and “cong”, and were first produced by the Liangzhu culture, a group of people that lived in the Chinese province of Jiangsu during the third century B.C.E.

The Liangzhu people had incredibly sophisticated ceramics, stone tools and jades. The jade bi were wide discs with proportionately small holes, and may have been an innovation from the Liangzhu culture. Another culture, the Hongshan, used to place jade bi on the bodies of the dead. Sometimes the discs were placed on the chest or the stomach of the deceased, or were aligned with the body.

The jade cong on the other hand, has a square outer section around a circular inner circle and a circular hole. Some tombs were found to have large numbers of bi and cong.

Despite how impressive the jade cong and bi are, their function and meaning are completely unknown, and thus remain an enigma for modern archeologists.

Jade isn’t only the subject of fascinating legends, and the inspiration behind different objects and artifacts. It was also a very popular name for girls. One of the Four Beauties in Chinese history was Yang Yuhuan, the concubine of emperor Xuanzong from the Tang dynasty (618-907). Her given name Yuhuan, means “jade ring”.

The stone’s name also permeates the Chinese language. Many words related to moral include it, and famous sayings reference to it. One of such phrases goes “unpolished jade never shines” to indicate that a person can’t be useful unless they’re educated.

Another of such phrases preaches that “The gentleman’s morals are like jade”, meaning that his behavior should be impeccable as jade was far more valuable than silver and gold.

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