Friday, December 22, 2006

Pottery-East Asia


The leading pottery centers in East Asian history were China, Korea, and Japan. See Japanese Art and Architecture; Chinese Art and Architecture; Korean Art and Architecture.


Neolithic Chinese Jar This jar from Gansu in north central China is dated about 2500 bc. It is a very early wheel-thrown piece and features geometric designs in black and reddish-brown on a buff-colored body. This piece may have been used as a burial urn.Bridgeman Art Library, London/New York

In Neolithic China, pottery was made by coil building and then beating the shapes with a paddle; toward the end of the period (2nd millennium bc) vessels were begun using the handbuilt technique, then finished on a wheel. At Gansu, in northwestern China, vessels from the Pan-shan culture, made from finely textured clay and fired to buff or reddish-brown, were brush painted with mineral pigments in designs of strong S-shaped lines converging on circles. They date from 2600 bc. The early Chinese kiln was the simple updraft type; the fire was made below the ware, and vents in the floor allowed the flames and heat to rise. Lung-shan pottery, from the central plains, was wheel made. Chinese Neolithic vessels include a wide variety of shapes—tripods, ewers, urns, cups, amphorae, and deep goblets.

The Shang Period

The Neolithic prototypes became the basis for bronze vessels during the Shang period (1570?-1045? bc), and Shang ceramic molds for bronze casting, made of high-quality clay, have been found. Shang pottery had four basic types, most of them found at the capital at Anyang, in present-day Henan (Ho-nan) Province. The first continued the Neolithic functional tradition in coarse gray clay, decorated with impressed cords or incised geometric patterns; the second consisted of dark gray imitations of bronze vessels; the third, white pottery with finely carved decoration resembling bronze designs; the last, glazed stoneware.

Zhou Period Through the Six Dynasties

Soldiers of the Imperial Bodyguard These life-sized terra-cotta figures are a small part of the more than 6000 figures and horses that were made for the tomb of Emperor Qin Shihuangdi of the Chinese Qin dynasty in 210 bc. They were originally painted in bright colors. The burial mound, in the northern province of Shaanxi, was discovered in 1974.

Except for the white pottery, all the Shang types continued in the Zhou period (1045?-256 bc). Coarse red earthenware with lead glazes was introduced in the Warring States era (403-221 bc); this ware also resembled bronzes. In the south, stoneware with a pale brown glaze was fashioned into sophisticated shapes.

The discovery in 1974 of the terra-cotta army of Shihuangdi (Shih-huang-ti), the first emperor of the Qin (Ch’in) dynasty (221-206 bc)—an imperial legion of more than 6000 life-size soldiers and horses buried in military formation—added new dimensions to modern knowledge of the art of the ancient Chinese potters. These handsome idealized portraits, each with different details of dress, were modeled from coarse gray clay, with heads and hands fired separately at high earthenware temperatures and attached later. Afterward, the assembled, fired figures were painted with bright mineral pigments (a procedure called cold decoration), most of which have now flaked.

Tomb figures and objects with molded and painted decoration continued to be made in the Han dynasty (206 bc-ad 220); these included houses, human figures, and even stoves. Bricks sometimes were decorated with scenes of everyday animal and human activity. Gray stoneware with a thick green glaze and reddish earthenware were also produced.

During the Six Dynasties period (ad 220-589), celadon-glazed stoneware, a precursor of later porcelain celadons, began to appear. (Celadons are transparent iron-pigmented glazes fired in a reducing kiln that yield gray, pale blue or green, or brownish-olive.) Called Yüeh (or green) ware, they were less influenced than earlier pottery by the shapes of cast bronzes. Jars, ewers, and dishes became more delicate of line and classical in contour, and some had simple incised or molded ornamentation.

Tang (T’ang) and Song Dynasties

Tang Pottery Camel This standing camel was made during the Tang dynasty (618-906) in China. It is probably a tomb figurine, many of which were made at that time. The glazes were made of lead, and the colors were originally vivid. Tang potters took advantage of properties inherent in the medium of clay. Up to that time sculptors working in clay tended merely to imitate existing bronze pieces.

Tomb figures and stoneware continued to be made during the Tang dynasty (618-907) and display stylistic influences from Central Asia. Bowls and basins with carved decoration were exported to India, Southeast Asia, and the Muslim Empire. Two important ceramic types characterized this period. One was a fine white earthenware covered with a lead glaze of glowing yellow and green tints, often in mottled patterns. The other, the most significant innovation of the Tang potters, was porcelain—made into thin, delicate bowls and vases with clear, bluish or greenish glazes.

Porcelain was further refined in the Song dynasty (960-1279), the age in which all art flourished, and the greatest era of Chinese pottery. Potters became adept at controlling glazes, a trend that began in the Tang period. Vessels were elegantly shaped. Decoration—molded, carved, or painted—included dragons, fish, lotuses, and peonies. These were scholarly subjects of the court painters and each represented a virtue. Kilns were established throughout China, each kiln site having its own style.

In the Northern Song, three outstanding styles emerged: Ting, Ju, and Chün. Ting ware was decorated with the previously mentioned motifs and covered with a smooth ivory glaze. It was admired by courtly patrons but was also used as everyday pottery. Ju was a coarse stoneware covered with a celadonlike light bluish-gray glaze with a subtle crackle. Chün glazes, thickly applied, ranged from blue to lavender, with added splashes of copper red or purple. Later, in the 12th century, Northern Song celadons reached their height, with a gray stoneware body covered in transparent olive or light brown. Tz'u-chou, a popular stoneware used by all social classes, combined transparent glazes with bold slip painting, sgraffito, carving, incising, impressing, and molding, as well as polychrome overglaze enameling, all in a great variety of motifs. The Lung-ch'üan celadons of the Southern Song—white porcelain with light bluish-green jadelike crackled glazes—were of even higher quality. The shapes were varied, some inspired by ancient bronzes, some by Middle Eastern metalwork and glass. Many were exported. Other famous wares were Chi-chou, white porcelain with a slightly bluish or greenish glaze (similar to the white Ch'ing-pai made later in the Song era), exported to Indonesia, Southeast Asia, and the Philippines; and Chien ware, dark-bodied stoneware with a blackish-brown glaze scattered with metallic blue and black spots.

Yuan and Ming Dynasties

Ming Dynasty Pottery The pottery produced in China during the Ming dynasty is among the finest in the world. The multiple colors used in this vase from the 15th century are unusual for Ming pottery, which is generally blue and white. The imagery is a combination of floral designs and fantastic creatures depicted in classic Chinese style.Bridgeman Art Library, London/New York

The Mongol conquests of the mid-13th century brought new foreign influences. Under the Yuan dynasty (1279-1368) potters adjusted to produce for an expanding export market. The size of vessels increased, and potters experimented with bright enamel overglaze colors. Ch'ing-pai and Lung-ch'üan wares became heavier. White porcelain vases with blue underglaze painting were produced.

Three Ming Vases These three vessels date from the Ming dynasty in China. The two vases with covers are formal in design, while the wine ewer in the shape of a mandarin duck with a baby on its back is more playful but still elegant. All three pieces are porcelain with blue glaze underneath and, in the case of the wine ewer, some additional goldwork. The blue glaze came from a cobalt-oxide medium developed in Iran.

This blue-and-white ware became a major export item in the Ming period (1368-1644). Under its clear glaze the porcelain body was painted with designs of great vigor and freedom of line in cobalt oxide (imported from Iran until a local source was substituted). These pieces became the favorites of 16th-century Europe, although Ming potters also made polychrome stoneware and monochromatic and white wares. New in the Ming era was the delicate Tou-ts'ai ware, a glassy porcelain with overglaze enamel painting. The court provided potters with a wide variety of new designs: scrolls, fruit, flowers, and scenes with people. Pottery was marked with dates of the emperors' reigns; the marks of successful pieces were imitated in later times.

Export to Europe reached its height in the late 17th century, when artistic standards were still high. A new enamel style, introduced from Europe and called famille rose, had as its principal color a delicate opaque pink, the metallic pigment for which was derived from colloidal gold. The famille rose colors could be mixed for shading and allowed miniature precision in drawing.

Qing Period

A vast number of fine porcelain vessels were produced in the Qing dynasty (1644-1911), for both domestic and foreign markets, with potters concentrating on the refinement of glazes. Popular polychrome enamel styles were famille verte (green, yellow, and aubergine purple) and its derivatives, famille noir (black ground) and famille jaune (yellow ground). Monochromatic copper red glazes popular in Ming—both oxblood (sang de boeuf) and the paler peach bloom—were revived, as were Song celadons. In the 18th century, European collecting of Chinese porcelain was at its peak. By the end of the century, however, the endless repetitions of old motifs and forms led to sterility, and the Chinese could no longer compete with European mass-produced porcelain.


Korean Pottery, Choson Dynasty This ceramic vase dates from the Choson dynasty (1392-1910) of Korean history. The vase exhibits the blue and white style characteristic of traditional Choson pottery. Noted for its elaborate decoration, Choson pottery ranks as some of the most beautiful in the world.Philadelphia Museum of Art/Continuum Productions Corporation

Chinese pottery and porcelain always exerted a strong influence in Korea, but Korean potters introduced subtle variations on Chinese models. Gray stoneware, found in tombs, was typical of the Silla dynasty (4th to 10th century ad ). Song-influenced celadons characterize pottery of the Koryo dynasty (918-1392). Later work, although less refined, was admired for its straightforward dignity. Koreans, in turn, introduced Korean and Chinese pottery into Japan.


The earliest ceramics of Neolithic Japan, those from the Jomon period (10,000?-300? bc), were shaped by hand, usually by the coil method. Decorated with impressions of cords and mats, they were baked in an open fire at a low temperature. Colors were reddish or ranged from gray to black. Some cult figures and utilitarian vessels were highly burnished or covered with a red iron oxide. The pottery of the Yayoi culture (300? bc-ad 250?), made by a Mongol people who came from Korea to Kyushu, has been found throughout Japan. The Yayoi used the wheel for their yellow and light brown earthenware, the smooth surface of which was at times painted bright red.

Two basic kiln types—both still in use—were employed in Japan by this time. The bank, or climbing, kiln, of Korean origin, is built into the slope of a mountain, with as many as 20 chambers; firing can take up to two weeks. In the updraft, or bottle, kiln, a wood fire at the mouth of a covered trench fires the pots, which are in a circular-walled chamber at the end of the fire trench; the top is covered except for a hole to let the smoke escape.

From the later Kofun, or Tumulus (Grave Mound), period (about ad 300 to 552), pottery was found in the enormous tombs of the Japanese emperors. Called Haji ware, it resembled Yayoi pottery. More truly unique were the haniwa, delightful unglazed reddish earthenware figures that surrounded the tombs—houses, boats, animals, women, hunters, musicians, and warriors. Although the haniwa lack the grandeur of the Qin emperor's army, they compensate for it with their rustic vitality. Sué was another pottery of this period, a gray stoneware fired in a climbing kiln and decorated with a natural ash glaze (formed during the firing as ash from the wood fuel fell on the pots). Originating in Korea, the natural ash glaze became characteristic of later Japanese wares made at Tamba, Tokoname, Bizen, and Shigaraki. Jars, bottles, dishes, and cups were made, some with sculpted figures. Sué ware continued to be made in the Asuka period (552-710), when Chinese cultural and religious influences were just beginning.

Nara Through Kamakura Periods

With the Nara period (710-784), Japan's first historical epoch, the full impact of Tang China ware became obvious in Japan's production of high-fire pottery. Some glazes were monochromatic green or yellowish-brown; some were two-color, green and white; a few had three of these colors on rough grayish bodies. The glaze patterns were streaks and spots, not quite as refined as Tang ceramics. Most examples of this work are preserved at the Shosoin imperial treasury at Nara.

In the early Heian period (794-894), natural ash glazes were further developed, and celadons were introduced to Japan. Then, because of disruptions in relations with China in the late Heian, or Fujiwara, period (894-1185), the quality of the pottery declined. Once contact with Song China was renewed in the Kamakura period (1185-1333), the ceramics industry flourished, this time centered at Seto, near Nagoya. Ki-seto, or yellow Seto—still made today—was influenced by the popular Song celadons; the Japanese equivalents, however, were fired in oxidizing kilns, which gave their glazes yellow and amber hues. Tokoname, a rustic pottery for everyday use, was also made in the Fujiwara period, as were other types that retain their primitive appeal.

Muromachi and Momoyama Periods

Tea Jar and Vase The tea ceremony became popular in Japan in the Muromachi (1338-1573) and Monoyama (1573-1603) periods. This created the desire for vessels such as this tea jar and vase. Dating from the late 16th century, they are in the Seattle Art Museum in Seattle, Washington.Seattle Art Museum/Corbis

Although the Ashikaga shoguns of the Muromachi period (1338-1573) did not encourage ceramic arts, the Chinese-influenced tradition of the tea ceremony, which began at that time, stimulated the manufacture of the beautiful vessels used in this elaborate ritual. The tea cult spread to the military and merchant classes in the Momoyama period (1573-1603). Its stoneware and porcelain implements reflected the tasteful, subtle beauty and elegance of the ceremony. Each shape had a specific function and name.

One sought-after variety of stoneware tea bowl, related to the Chien ware of China, was temmoku, with a thick purplish-brown glaze that is still popular. Seto kilns produced such fine pottery that the works of other kilns also came to be called Seto ware. Even more famous were the Raku wares, still made today by the 14th generation of the same family. Raku ware—tea-ceremony vessels, other pottery, and tiles—is shaped by hand; its irregular forms follow a prescribed aesthetic of asymmetry. The glaze is brushed on in several thin layers, and the pot is fired at low temperatures. When the glaze is molten, the pot is pulled from the kiln with tongs; it cools quickly, and the glaze crackles under the thermal shock. Raku ware is admired by potters throughout the world for its rugged shapes and soft, somber lead glazes that sometimes drip downward in globs. Also prized for the tea ceremony was Oribe ware, typified by brown iron-oxide painted designs derived from motifs of textile decoration, juxtaposed with an irregular splash of runny, transparent green glaze.

Another Momoyama ware was Karatsu, influenced by Korean Choson ware. In e-Karatsu, or picture Karatsu, freehand geometric patterns, grasses, and wisteria were painted in iron oxide on a whitish slip. Karatsu ware had several other styles, with different kinds of decoration. Bizen ware was at its best in the Momoyama period. Still made, it is a hard stoneware, basically brick red, but subject to irregular changes of color resulting from alternating oxidation and reduction in the firing. It is unglazed except for glaze formed by falling ash or by ash or straw packed around the pots in the kiln.

The Edo Period and After

At the beginning of the Edo period, kaolin was discovered near Arita, in northern Kyushu, which is still a major pottery center. This discovery enabled Japanese potters to make their own hard, pure white porcelain. One type, Imari ware (named for its port of export), was so popular in 17th-century Europe that even the Chinese imitated it. Its bright-colored designs were inspired by ornate lacquerwork, screens, and textiles. By the late Edo period (1800-1867) Imari ware declined. Kakiemon (persimmon) porcelain, made in Arita, was a far more refined, classically shaped ware, even when its motifs were similar to Imari ware. Both wares used overglaze enamels. Nabeshima ware, also of high quality and similar to silk textiles in its designs, was reserved for members of that family and their friends; only in the Meiji era (1868-1912) was it sold commercially and imitated. The designs were first drawn on thin tissue, and then in underglaze blue lines; the enamel colors were added and heat-fused after the glaze firing. In eastern Japan in the Edo period, Kutani was the porcelain center. Kutani vessels were grayish in color because of impurities in the clay, and their designs were bolder than those of Arita and Imari wares. Kyoto, formerly a center for enameled pottery, became famous for its porcelain in the 19th century. In the Edo period, some 10,000 kilns were active in Japan.

Contemporary taste esteems the utilitarian works of folk potters as highly as the export items of earlier centuries. New influences from Europe came with the Meiji pottery, but native folk traditions were still appreciated within the country. Potters at the old centers remain active in the 20th century, working in the same styles as their ancestors, with the same local clays. Japan's most famous 20th-century potter is Hamada Shoji, important not only for his pottery but also as a forceful figure in the revival of folkcraft. Hamada favored iron and ash glazes on stoneware, producing shades of olive green, gray, brown, and black, and did not sign his pots (although he signed their wooden containers). In 1955 the Japanese government declared Hamada an Intangible Treasure of the country.

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