Chinese Porcelain


In the West, whiteware ceramics include earthernware, stoneware and porcelain, depending on the composition of the body and the temperature at which it is fired in the kiln.  But in China, only two categories are traditionally recognised, high fired and low fired ceramics.  In the oldest Chinese dictionaries, porcelain is defined as ‘fine, compact pottery’.  In the West, the defining feature of porcelain is usually its translucence, but this is not the case in China. In China, any piece, regardless if it is thick or opaque, would be regarded as porcelain as long as it rang with a reasonably clear note on being struck.

Chinese ceramic wares are also classified as being northern or southern, because the materials used to make ceramic wares greatly differed, especially in the past.  That’s because present day China used to be two separate land masses that came together only during the Continental Drift; the separate masses joined between the Yellow and Yangtze rivers.  In the north, ceramics were made with clays, where in the south, they were made mostly of porcelain stone.  Coal-fueled kilns were used up north to produce the slow, high-temperature firing suitable for clay-rich wares.  In the south, they used wood-fuelled kilns to produce a faster, lower-temperature firing needed for stone-rich wares.


Because in China there is no universally accepted definition of the term porcelain, there is some confusion about when the first Chinese porcelain was produced.  There were porcelaneous wares or proto-porcelain wares, which were made with some kaolin and fired at high temperatures, well before the year 1000 BC.  There is no clear separation between these proto-porcelain wares and true porcelain, but claims for first producing true porcelain have been made for the late Eastern Han period (100 to 200 AD)m the Three Kingdoms period (220 to 280 AD), the Six Dynasties period (220 to 589 AD) and the Tang Dynasty (618 to 906 AD).

Many experts now believe the first true porcelain was made in the province of Zhejiang during the Eastern Han period because there were significant amounts of porcelain-building minerals (china clay, porcelain stone or a combination of the both) found at kiln sites from this time, which are estimated to have been first at between 1260 and 1300 degrees Celsius.

One of the first times porcelain was mentioned by a foreign traveller was in the eighth or ninth century, during the Tang Dynasty, when an Arabian man recorded that ‘They have in China a very fine clay with which they make vases which are as transparent as glass; water is seen through them.  The vases are made of clay.”

During the Sui and Tang periods (581 to 906), a wide range of low-fired and high-fired ceramics were produced including the famous Tang lead-glazed sancai (three-colour) wares and the high-firing lime-glazed Yue celadon wares and low-fired wares from Changsha.  In northern China, the provinces of Henan and Hebei were producing high-fired translucent porcelains.

During the Song and Yuan dynasties, porcelain made in the south at such kiln sites as Jingdezhen was made solely by using crushed and refined porcelain stone.  By the early 18th century, however, china clay was added in about equal porportion to the stone, which produced a porcelain that was very strong and also very white.  Whiteness was a very desirable quality, especially for use in blue and white wares.

Porcelain bodies made from stone alone fire at a lower temperature of about 1250 Celcius, while those made from a mixture of china clay and porcelain stone first at about 1350 degrees Celcius. The temperatures within the large, egg-shaped kilns typically used in the south greatly vary depending on where the work was placed.  When artists began mixing clay and stone, they could produce works for different areas in the kiln for greater efficiency; they made clay-rich wares to fire at the hot end of the kiln near the firebox, and stone-rich wares to fire near the chimney were it was cooler.


Since the early Han Dynasty the city of Jingdezhen has been an important centre for the production of ceramics in southern China.  At first, the area produced low-fired wares, but by the time of the Southern and Northern Dynasties (420 to 589), raw materials found locally were being used to produce a form of porcelain.  In the year 1004, under the Song emperor Jingde, the newly-named city of Jingdezhen was named as the production centre for Imperial porcelain.  Detailed descriptions of manufacturing processes at Jingdezhen during the Qing Dynasty are still in existence, including a memoir written by Tang Ying and the letters of Pere d’Entrecolles,

This Jesuit missionary, Pere Francois Xavier d’Entrecolles, was also an industrial spy, although he denied the charge.  Two letters he wrote give important details about how porcelain wares were produced in the later years of the reign of the Kangxi emperor, which was an important period in the history of Chinese ceramics.  In the first letter, written in 1712, the priest described how porcelain stone was crushed, refined and shaped into little white bricks known in Chinese as petuntse or baidunzi.  He also described the refining of china clay, known as kaolin or Gaoling, and the preparation of glazes, and the stages of forming, glazing and firing porcelain wares.  When asked why he had provided such details in his letters to Europe, Pere d’Entrecolles said that ‘Nothing but my curiosity could have prompted me to such researches, but it appears to me that a minute description of all that concerns this kind of work might, somehow, be useful in Europe.”

Another man documented the secrets of porcelain making a few years later.  In 1743, during the reign of the Qianlong emperor, Tang Ting, the imperial supervisor at Jingdezhen created a manuscript entitled ‘Twenty illustrations of the manufacture of porcelain’.  The original illustrations have been lost, but the text is still accessible, together with photographs replacing the illustrations and additional commentary.

Jingdezhen was the main production centre of porcelain exported to Europe; trade was already booming during the reign of the Wanli emperor from 1572 to 1620.

Notable Chinese porcelean wares

Tang sancai burial wares featured representations of camels and horses, for example, which were cast in sections, in moulds, and then put together with a clay slip.  Sometimes, the finished pieces had hand-carved details to add individuality. Tang sancai wares were northern wares made using white and buff-firing secondary kaolins and fireclays.  The clays used for burial wares were similar to those used by Tang potters for the bodies of high-fired whitewares, but the burial wares were fired at lower temperatures.

Sancai literally means three-colours, but the colours of the glazes used to decorate these wares were not limited to three.  In the West, Tang sancai wares are sometimes called ‘egg and spinach’ by dealers, because green, yellow and white are three colours which were commonly used.

Jian blackwares, comprising mainly tea wares, were made in Jianyang in the Fujian province and were at their most popular during the Song Dynasty. These wares were made using local, iron-rich clays and they were fired in an oxidising atmosphere at about 1300 degrees Celsius.  The clay for the glaze was similar to that used for the body, but it was fluxed with wood-ash.  The molten glaze separated at high temperatures and produced a patterning called hare’s fur, and some pooling or thickening of the glaze at the base of the wares can usually be seen.  Where bowls were tilted for firing, for example, the glaze often rain into drips on one side.  No two items have identical patterning.

These wares were fired in large dragon kilns thousands at a time.  Most of the kilns were about 100 metres or less in length, but one such Jian dragon kiln was built on the side of a steep hill and was more than 150 metres in length.

Jian blackware was more than attractive; it was thick and therefore retained heat.  As a Fuijan resident wrote in the 11th century, ‘Tea is of light colour and looks best in black cups.  the cups made at Jianyang are bluish-black in colour, market like the fur of a hare. Being of rather thick fabric they retain the heat, so that when once warmed through they cool very slowly, and they are additionally valued on this account.  None of the cups produced at other places can rival these. Blue and white cups are not used by those who give tea-tasting parties.”

The Japanese greatly prized Jian tea wares and copied them in their own country, where they are known as temmoku or tenmoku wares.  Phase separation in the iron-rich glazes of Chinese blackwares was also usd to produce other patterning, including the well-known oil-spot, teadust and partridge-feather glaze effects.

Qingbai wares were produced at Jingdezhen and at many other southern kilns from the Northern Song Dynasty until the early 14th century.  The qingbai glaze is called a porcelain glaze because it is made using porcelain stone; it is clear but contains a small amount of iron. The result is that when applied over a white porcelain body, the glaze produces a greenish-blue colour that gives the glaze its name (qingbai means greenish-blue in Chinese). 

Most of the surviving pieces are bowls, some for everyday use and others which are more luxurious.  They often had the texture of fine sugar, indicating that they were made using crushed and refined porcelain stone rather than stone mixed with china clay.  Many bowls were fired upside down, with the rim left unglazed.  The rim was later bound with bands of silver, copper and lead.

The most famous example of qingbai porcelain is probably the Fonthill Vase, which was given to Pope Benedict XII by the last Yuan emperor of China in 1338.  It was made in Jingdezhen and was described in a guide to Fonthill Abbey published in 1823 as “an oriental china bottle, superbly mounted, said to be the earliest known specimen of porcelain introduced into Europe.”  The mount was of enameled silver-gilt and was added to the vase in Europe in 1381, but was later lost. It can still be seen, however, in an existing watercolour.  The vase itself is housed in the National Museum of Ireland.

Qingbai wares have failed to captivate historians and antiquarians, who view them as being mass-produced for common everyday use.  The Fonthill Vase, however, casts some doubt on this opinion, although it is true that the goods were produced in bulk.

Blue and white wares are, like the earlier qingbai porcelains, glazed using a transparent porcelain glaze.  The blue decoration, which is made using very finely ground cobalt oxide mixed with water, is painted onto the body before glazing. The piece is then glazed and fired.

This type of porcelain is believed to have been first produced in the Tang Dynasty, from which only three pieces are known to exist.  Shards dating to the eighth and ninth century have been unearthed at Yangzhou and are believed to have originated in Henan. In 1957 a Northern Song bowl decorated with underglaze blue was found, and in 1970 a small fragment of a blue and white bowl, again from the 11th century, was excavated in Zhejiang.  Starting in the 14th century, blue and white porcelain became the main product of Jingdezhen where it remains an important product even today.

Famous fakes

Chinese potters have always borrowed designs and features from their predecessors, and that is not regarded as producing fakes or reproductions.  However, much deliberate falsification has taken place during the long history of Chinese ceramics, and much continues today.  For example:

The priest / industrial spy Pere d’Entrecolles recorded that in the 18th century in Jingdezhen, reproductions of Song Dynasty Longquan celadon wares were being made, but outright fakes were also being produced.  The priest recorded that potters used a special clay and boiled the wares in meat broth, re-fired them and stored them in sewers to make them look hundreds of years old.

At Jingdezhen, two remaining wood-fired egg-shaped kilns produce believable reproductions of earlier wares, and at Zhejiang province good reproductions of Song Longquan celedon wares continue to be made in large, side-stoked dragon kilns.

The English potter Bernard Leach found what he believed were genuine Song dynasty cizhou rice bowls being sold for little money before WWII, and was very surprised to learn that they were newly made.

In modern times, modern fakes of Song dynasty Jian tea bowls have been good enough to fool experts and have depressed the market for the originals due to their large numbers.  Some of these modern fakes might have genuine Song dynasty iron foot bases, grafted onto newly made bodies.

Many fake Kangxi period famille noire wares can still be seen in museums today; made in the late 19th century, they were good enough to deceive the experts of their day.

Europe’s love of Kangxi period blue and white wares in the 19th century led to their mass production in Jingdezhen to keep up with the demand, and many of these wares harked back in style to earlier periods but are not intended to be fakes.  Some, however, carry the four-character Kangxi reign marks that cause confusion to this day.

Authentication of Chinese porcelain can be difficult as one of the most widely used tests, the thermoluminescence test, involved drilled a sample out of the body of the piece, which can be risky.  The composition of the glaze and body materials can be tested and compared with other specimens and other comparative techniques can be employed.

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