Chinese Porcelain
Characteristics, History, Types of Fine White China.

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Chinese Porcelain Vase (1505-21)
Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 CE)
Under the Zhengde Emperor.
Nanjing Museum. Under the
Ming Emperors Chinese art
blossomed, and large amounts
of porcelain was exported to
Europe, where scientists tried
unsuccessfully to copy it.

For the oldest pots, see:
Xianrendong Cave Pottery
(c.18,000 BCE) and
Yuchanyan Cave Pottery
dating to 16,300 BCE.

Chinese Porcelain (c.100-1800)
Types and Characteristics


What is Porcelain?
What are the ingredients of Chinese Porcelain?
Is Chinese Porcelain Glazed?
How is Chinese Porcelain decorated?
When was Chinese Porcelain first made?
Why is Chinese Porcelain so famous?
When did Europe finally succeed in producing Porcelain?
When did America begin to import Chinese Porcelain?
What are the main types of Chinese Porcelain?
Why is Ming Porcelain so famous?

Visual Arts in China

For more about traditional Chinese arts and crafts, see:

Jade Carving (c.4900 BCE onwards)
Lacquerware (c.4,500 BCE onwards)
Calligraphy (206 BCE - 1911 CE)

For more about ceramic traditions in Asia,
please see: Asian Art (from 38,000 BCE onwards).

Chinese Porcelain Jar (1522-66)
Ming Dynasty Period.
Indianapolis Museum of Art.
A perfect illustration of the
Ming method of adding manganese
to cobalt blue to produce a more
precise line in underglaze painting.

For the earliest cultures,
see: Neolithic Art in China.
For Bronze/Iron Age, see:
Xia Culture (2100-1600)
Shang Dynasty Art (1600-1050)
Zhou Dynasty Art (1050-221 BCE)

For dates of early cultures,
see: Prehistoric Art Timeline.
For later dates and chronology,
see: History of Art Timeline.
For movements and periods,
see: History of Art.

For details and styles, see:
Chinese Buddhist Sculpture

What is Porcelain?

In ceramic art, the term "Porcelain" (derived from the Italian word "porcellana", meaning a type of translucent shell) describes any ceramic ware that is white and translucent, no matter what ingredients it contains or what it is made for. It is however fired at a higher temperature than regular earthenware. In Chinese pottery, the porcelain clay body is typically heated in a kiln to between 1,200 and 1,400 degrees Celsius. These temperatures cause the formation of glass, and other chemical compounds, which in turn gives the porcelain its toughness, strength, and translucence.

What are the ingredients of Chinese Porcelain?

Chinese porcelain - one of the best examples of traditional Chinese art - is typically made from the clay mineral kaolinite, combined with pottery stone known as petunse, feldspar and quartz. Other ingredients may include ball clay, bone ash, glass, steatite and alabaster. The clays used in porcelain manufacture are usually lower in plasticity and shorter than other pottery clays. In China, the composition and characteristics of northern porcelain differ markedly from that made in the south of the country.

Is Chinese Porcelain Glazed?

Yes, but unlike other lower-fired pottery, porcelain wares do not require glazing to make them impermeable. So glazes are applied merely for decorative purposes, or to prevent staining. As it happened, several different types of glaze - including the iron-rich glaze used on the celadon pottery of Longquan - were conceived specifically for their decorative effects on porcelain.

How is Chinese Porcelain decorated?

Porcelain is typically decorated under the glaze with colour pigments like cobalt and copper, or painted above the glaze with coloured enamels. Today, Chinese porcelain may be biscuit-fired at about 1,000 degrees Celsius, painted with glaze and then returned to the kiln for a second firing at about 1,300 degrees Celsius.

When was Chinese Porcelain first made?

Due to confusion over what exactly constitutes porcelain, archeologists and art historians disagree about when the first Chinese variety was produced. Some contend that the first true porcelain was made in the province of Zhejiang during the period of late Han Dynasty art (100-200 CE). For example, fragments unearthed at Eastern Han kiln sites revealed firing temperatures ranging from 1260 to 1300 degrees Celsius, entirely consistent with porcelain manufacture. This means that Chinese ceramicists invented porcelain about 1,700 years before their counterparts in Europe! Meanwhile, other experts say it first appeared as one of the arts of the Six Dynasties (220-618 CE), or during the era of Tang Dynasty art (618-906).

Note: For the influence of Chinese ceramics on the ancient pottery of Korea, see: Korean Art (c.3,000 BCE onwards). For the history and development of porcelain in China, please see: Chinese Art Timeline (c.18,000 BCE - present). To see how Chinese pottery fits into the development of ceramics, see: Pottery Timeline (26,000 BCE-1900).


Why is Chinese Porcelain so famous?

Two reasons: first, the Chinese invented porcelain - which is why it is often called "china" or "fine china" in English-speaking countries; second, the quality of Chinese porcelain has always surpassed European wares. An Arab merchant, for instance, on a visit to China in 851 during the Tang Dynasty, stated that he had seen "vases as transparent as glass" made out of a fine clay.

Despite the early growth of trade routes westwards to central Asia, it wasn't until the Tang Dynasty (618-906) that China began exporting its porcelain on a regular basis. The first major customer was Arabia and the Islamic world. Tang ceramicists managed to combine the qualities of southern Chinese celadon and northern white porcelain with the high-quality soil of the region near the town of Jingdezhen town, in northeastern Jiangxi province, so as to produce a type of white-green porcelain, known as artificial jade. Highly prized both in China and elsewhere, it was later exported to Arabia and Europe in large quantities.

In fact, the earliest known item of Chinese porcelain to arrive in Europe, was the Fonthill Vase (1300-40), which was exported in 1338 during the period of Yuan Dynasty art (1271-1368). Made in Jingdezhen as a gift for Louis the Great of Hungary, and named after William Beckford's Fonthill Abbey, the Fonthill Vase is a bluish-white Qingbai vase, probably made about 1320-38.

By the era of Ming Dynasty art (1368–1644), porcelain wares were being exported to Europe on a regular basis, including some of the most celebrated Chinese styles, such as the prestigious blue-and-white Ming ware (known as kraak porcelain).

Strangely, despite the enormous attention given to these Chinese imports, and the high value placed on them, all attempts to replicate them failed, despite some creditable efforts, such as faience (tin glazed earthenware), as well as the soft-paste Italian "porcelain" made by the Medici family in Florence, during the era of Late Renaissance art.

When did Europe finally succeed in producing Porcelain?

Not until the 18th century. Progress occurred during the early 16th century, when Portuguese traders brought back samples of kaolin clay from China, which they correctly understood to be an essential ingredient in porcelain production. Alas, despite countless experiments with kaolin, success remained elusive. Then, in 1708, the German Meissen scientist Ehrenfried Walther von Tschirnhaus (1651-1708) succeeded in producing a hard, white, translucent type of porcelain - a breakthrough previously attributed to Johann Friedrich Bottger (1682-1719). Shortly afterwards, the secret Chinese methods of producing porcelain were released and published throughout Europe by the French Jesuit father Francois Xavier d'Entrecolles (1664-1741), who had learned about them in China, during the rule of the Kangxi Emperor (1661–1722), one of the key figures in Qing Dynasty art (1644-1911).

Note: One fashion which took hold in Europe around the same time that Chinese porcelain was first produced by European ceramicists, was a pseudo-Chinese style of decoration known as Chinoiserie (17th/18th century).

When did America begin to import Chinese Porcelain?

During the 19th century. As porcelain factories sprang up across Europe during the eighteenth century, the demand for Chinese porcelain rapidly declined, forcing Chinese exporters to take advantage of the emerging American market. Chinese porcelains exported to America featured a variety of American themes and motifs, including the American eagle and George Washington. By the late nineteenth century, Chinese porcelain, particularly the blue-and-white variety, had become almost an art form, with items in great demand by American connoisseurs and art collectors during the last decades of the century.

What are the main types of Chinese Porcelain?

The best-known Chinese porcelains include the following:

Sancai is a type of lead-glazed porcelain, which uses three intermingled colours for decoration. It was developed in the north of China (Henan) during the Tang Dynasty, using white and buff-firing kaolins and fire clays.

Jian Tea Wares
These were manufactured at kilns at Jianyang, in Fujian province, with local, iron-rich clays, and fired at temperatures around 1300 degrees Celsius. This porcelain achieved the height of their fame during the era of Song Dynasty art (960-1279). They were were highly valued in Japan, where they were known as tenmoku wares.

Ding Ware
Ding pottery was made in Ding Xian, Hebei Province, south-west of Beijing. It was the finest porcelain made in northern China at the start of the Song, and became the first variety officially adopted by the Emperor. Ding paste is white, typically covered with a transparent glaze, although more rare Ding porcelain was glazed black or brown. In general, Ding ware relied more on the elegance of its shape than the boldness of its decoration.

Ru Ware
Like Ding ware, Ru porcelain - the rarest of all the major Chinese ceramic wares - was manufactured in Northern China exclusively for the imperial court. The Ru kilns were located close to Kaifeng, the capital of the Northern Song. It was only produced for about forty years, from 1086 until 1127, when the Songs fled to Hangzhou in the south of the country. Guan ware was then manufactured in the south, as a replacement for Ru ware. Like Longquan celadons, Ru ware contains tiny amounts of iron oxide in their glaze, which turns greenish when fired. Ru pottery is largely undecorated and magnificently understated.

Jun Ware
Jun ware was the third main style of porcelain produced for the Northern Songs. Characterized by a more substantial body than Ding or Ru ware, Jun pottery is typically coated with a thick turquoise and purple glaze. Production of Jun porcelain was centered at Yuzhou, in Henan Province.

Qingbai Wares
Also known as 'yingqing', Qingbai porcelains (Qingbai means "clear blue-white") were produced at Jingdezhen and at various other locations in the south of China, from the era of the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127) until they were superceded by blue and white underglaze-decorations in the early 14th century. The qingbai glaze is transparent, but contains iron. So when painted onto a white porcelain body it produces the greenish-blue colour that gives the glaze its name.

Blue and White Porcelain
Similar to earlier Qingbai wares, blue and white porcelains are glazed with a transparent fluid. Prior to this, the blue decorations are painted onto the porcelain, using finely ground cobalt mixed with water. Once the decoration has been applied the wares are glazed and fired. First made during the Tang Dynasty, only three complete items of Tang blue and white porcelain are thought to exist, although blue and white fragments - possibly from a kiln in Henan province - dated to the 8th century have been excavated at Yangzhou, in Jiangsu province. From the early 14th century, blue and white porcelain was the principal product made at Jingdezhen, reaching its peak during the late Kangxi period.

Blanc de Chine Porcelains
Blanc de Chine is a variety of white porcelain produced at Dehua in Fujian province. First made in the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644), it continues to the present day. Large amounts of Blanc de Chine were exported to Europe in the early 18th century, where it was copied at the famous Meissen works near Dresden, directed by Von Tschirnhaus and Bottger.

Why is Ming Porcelain so famous?

Because the Ming Dynasty witnessed some of the most important manufacturing innovations. These are traditionally divided according to the following periods: the Yongle (1402–24), Xuande (1425–35), Chenghua (1464–87), Zhengde (1505–21), Jiajing (1521–67) and Wanli period (1572–1620).

• Under the Ming Emperors, the production, decoration, glazing and painting of porcelain was constantly being refined. (See also: Chinese Painting.) New designs and shapes for clay bodies were explored, some based on motifs and plastic forms belonging to Islamic art, notably Islamic metalwork. In addition, blue-and-white ware and cloisonné enamelware were developed in part due to close contacts between China and Arabia, while other developments derived from the art of Ancient Persia.

• During the reign of the Xuande Emperor (1425–35), for instance, technical improvements were introduced in the use of cobalt for underglaze blue decoration. Until this point, the cobalt had been brilliant blue, but with a distressing tendency to bleed when fired in the kiln. Chinese painters therefore added manganese, which made the colour slightly muted, but gave a much sharper line - one reason why Xuande porcelain now ranks among the finest Ming pottery ever produced.

• During the reign of the Chenghua Emperor (1464–87), similar advances were made in enamelling. In fact by the Wanli period, the prices for Chenghua and Xuande era porcelain were on a par with antique Song-era porcelain.

• It was during the 16th century manufacture of porcelain, that kaolin began to be mixed with pottery stone in about equal proportions. Kaolin provided great strength when added to the paste; it also heightened the whiteness of the body - a trait that became especially prized asform blue-and-white wares grew in popularity.

• In addition, as we have seen, Ming porcelain was exported around the world on an unprecedented scale. By the reign of the Wanli Emperor (1572–1620), certain imperial kilns - notably those at Jingdezhen - had become a dedicated centre of production for large-scale porcelain exports to Europe. This made Ming ware famous throughout the world - a status it retains to this day.

For other Asian arts, see: Japanese Art, and India: Painting & Sculpture.

• For a guide to Greek ceramic ware, see: Greek Pottery (c.7,000 BCE onwards).
• For more about ceramics and pottery in China, see: Visual Arts Encyclopedia.

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