Invention and Evolution of Porcelain in China
Although the precise origins of porcelain have been lost in the mists of time, most modern researchers believe that it was invented in China. Not surprisingly, then, many Chinese today boast that their ancestors were drinking tea from porcelain cups when their European counterparts were still wearing animal skins and living in caves, and it turns out that this pride is accurate and justifiable. To determine the facts, this paper reviews the relevant literature to provide a discussion concerning the technical and artistic history of porcelain drawing on four examples that span four different time periods in Chinese history. Finally, a summary of the research and important findings about the invention and evolution of porcelain in China are provided in the conclusion.
Review and Discussion
Porcelain differs in fundamental ways from ordinary pottery known as earthenware that is formed from clay and then baked in a kiln at temperatures ranging between 500 degrees C and 1150 degrees C (Porcelain, 1988). By contrast, porcelain is manufactured by coating a piece of pottery with a glaze which is then fired at even higher temperatures than pottery (around 1,280 degrees C) (Porcelain, 1988). Ancient Chinese artisans were blessed with the precise ingredients and conditions they needed for manufacturing porcelain, including most especially the ready availability of white kaolin or Chinese clay. For instance, the editors of the UNESCO Courier report that, “The reason why China was able to ‘invent’ porcelain at a very carly age compared to the rest of the world was that the Chinese potters both found the clay and were able to produce the high temperature necessary to fuse it” (Porcelain, 1988, p. 23). Consequently, it is not necessarily surprising that the combination of artistic enterprise with the availability of natural resources would result in an improved type of pottery. What is surprising, however, is just how exquisite many of these works are given their largely utilitarian function.
As noted in the introduction, although it remains unclear when porcelain was first manufactured in China, the archaeological record indicates that Chinese artisans were making porcelain as early as the first century CE, and the manufacture of porcelain in China was well established by the third century CE (Porcelain, 1988). During the Tang Dynasty which lasted from 618 through 906 CE, Chinese artisans introduced further refinements in their porcelain manufacturing methods that created a significant demand in the domestic market for these products (Chinese art, 2016).
By the time of the Song Dynasty between 960 and 1279 CE, the manufacture of porcelain in China had achieved a notably high level of proficiency and organization (Porcelain, 1988). For instance, the editors of the UNESCO Courier add that, “Porcelain manufacture by this time was a highly organized trade employing hundreds of thousands of people. There were teams of men who specialized in washing the clay, others who concerned themselves only with glazes, others who maintained the kilns, and so on” (1988, p. 24). Indeed, archaeologists have unearthed the remains of one kiln from the Song Dynasty that was capable of firing 25,000 individuals piece of porcelain at a time (Porcelain, 1988). It is noteworthy that even during this early period in the history of porcelain, Chinese artisans had already gained a significant amount of experience and expertise in working in the medium, and continually sought to identify opportunities to further refine and improve their techniques (Porcelain, 1988). The porcelain that was manufactured during the Sung Dynasty from 960 to 1279 CE was prized by Chinese collectors and few pieces were exported to the European market until the late 19th century (Fitzgerald & Seligman, 1938).
During the Ming Dynasty which spanned the years from 1369 to 1644 CE, porcelain manufacture in China became even more exquisite, and the noteworthy blue and white porcelain wares became prominent (Porcelain, 1988) (see Figure 1 below).
Figure 1. Blue-and-white Porcelain Jar from the Ming Dynasty (currently located in the Museum of Fine Art, Boston, U.S.)
Source: http://www.hnmuseum.com/hnmuseum/UserFiles/Image/collection/2009 / 20090401_22.jpg
The manufacture of blue-and-white porcelain during the Ming Dynasty involved further innovations in glazing techniques, including the use of cobalt blue pigment that could only be achieved by reducing the heat of the kiln and firing the pieces at specified temperatures (Porcelain, 1988). Like the silk industry, Chinese artisans closely guarded their secrets to manufacturing porcelain and even the famous Marco Polo was only able to observe rather than learn anything of significance concerning their methods and even when kaolin clay was smuggled out of the country, European potters were unable to reproduce their methods (Porcelain, 1988).
The epitome of porcelain manufacture in China took place during the Qing Dynasty, a period in which other artistic pursuits were in a state of decline (Fitzgerald & Seligman, 1938). According to Fitzgerald and Seligman (1938), “For this reason porcelain was for long the only Chinese achievement about which anything was known in the western world, where it had become so identified with its land of origin that ‘China’ came to mean both the country and the ware” (p. 79). Unfortunately, this achievement by Chinese artisans was underappreciated by European collectors because the porcelain pieces that managed to wend their way into the export market were of lesser quality than those produced in the imperial kilns (Fitzgerald & Selgiman, 1938). According to Gardner, “The Ming court’s appetite for luxury goods gave new impetus to brilliant technical achievements in the decorative arts. The Ming emperors turned to the Jingdezhen kilns for fine porcelains” (p. 79).
As commerce between the West and China increased, there were more opportunities for European collectors to gain access to the finer pieces of porcelain that were being manufactured in China and large collections of porcelain masterpieces were displayed in the major cities of North America and Europe (Fitzgerald & Selgiman, 1938). According to Fitzgerald and Seligman (1938), “The rich choice of examples to be seen in the west has formed a large and appreciative public who remain almost unaware of the character of the older arts of China; porcelain alone has become an integral part of the western cultural inheritance, and thus relatively early has been made the subject of a vast and detailed study” (p. 80).
Not content to rest of their well-deserved laurels, Chinese artisans continued to improve their porcelain manufacturing techniques and by the time of the Qing Dynasty from 1644 through 1912 CE, Gardner reports that, “Potters at the imperial kilns at Jingdezhen continued to expand on the Yuan and Ming achievements in developing fine porcelain pieces with underglaze and overglaze decoration, and this art form gained wide admiration in Europe” (p. 83). According to Bartlett (2011), porcelain manufacturing during this period in Chinese history had a significant influence on the local and international market for Chinese porcelain that was unrivaled by any trade in raw materials and represented the primary export by which China was known in the West until well into the 20th century.
The research showed that porcelain differs from earthenware by virtue of the ingredients that are used and the temperatures that are used for firing them. Although the exact origins of the invention of porcelain are unknown, what is known for certain is that by the third century CE, Chinese artisans were producing porcelain wares for both decorative as well as utilitarian purposes and that the manufacturing process continued to be refined and improved until the end of the Qing Dynasty in 1912. While the individual responsible for the innovation of porcelain is also unknown, it is reasonable to conclude that it involved a series of trials-and-errors until the desired outcome was achieved. The research also showed that Chinese artisans jealously guarded their secrets of porcelain manufacturing which involved more than just kaolin clay, but rather extended to the entire manufacturing process.
Bartlett, S. (2011, Annual). Robert Finlay, the pilgrim art: Cultures of porcelain in world history. Southeast Review of Asian Studies, 33, 229-232.
Chinese art. (2016). Development of Visual Arts in China. Retrieved from http://www.visual-arts-cork.com/east-asian-art/chinese.htm#tangpottery.
Porcelain. (1988, October). UNESCO Courier, 22-24.
Fitzgerald, C. P. & Seligman, C. G. (1938). China: A short cultural history. New York: D. Appleton-Century.
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