Porcelain.—By this word we distinguish broadly all those pieces of pottery in which the body of the ware is vitrified and translucent, and also, broadly speaking, in which the material is white throughout, unless minute quantities of metallic oxides have been definitely added to colour it. It is impossible to draw any hard and fast line between porcelain and stoneware, for both may be thoroughly vitrified and translucent in thin pieces—but generally the stonewares are drab, red or brown in the colour of the fired clay, and they seldom exhibit the precious quality of translucence. If the body of a piece of pottery is not even vitrified, however hard it may be, it is terra-cotta or earthenware. The Chinese, accustomed from a very early period to fire their pottery to a high temperature, produced vitrified stonewares before any other nation. Moreover, they glazed these stonewares with fusible mineral substances, and from that stage the natural refinements of methods must necessarily have produced porcelain. In regions where beds of primary clay were found, the body of the ware would burn whiter than elsewhere, and a mixture of limestone or marble with the felspathic rock would give a glaze of greater purity and brilliance and one that was more readily fusible and Would spread better over the whole piece. How many centuries were needed before a ware white enough and translucent enough to be now classed as porcelain was produced we cannot know; but the process was certainly one of gradual evolution. Some Chinese writers in their zeal for ancient things have ascribed to remote periods the production of wares of this class. Where authentic specimens are not to be found it is necessary to proceed with caution, and literary evidence alone cannot be deemed sufficient to settle such a difficult point. The balance of opinion at the present time is that something worthy of the name of porcelain was made during the Tang dynasty (A.D. 618-907), but we have no pieces earlier than the Sung dynasty (A.D. 960–1259), and the majority of these are perhaps more fitly described as stoneware than as porcelain.
Under the Sung dynasty China enjoyed great material prosperity, and all the arts were cultivated assiduously. Pottery of distinguished merit was made in many districts, and much of it has been classified as porcelain because the body is whitish and vitrified, though it is much inferior in finish and in translucence to the perfect white porcelain of later times. It is necessary to realize, too, that we have no record of any pottery with painted decoration until perhaps the very end of the 13th century; such ornament as was used consists entirely of designs incised or modelled in the clay. But the principal decoration is to be found in the varied coloured glazes with which the wares, whether stoneware or porcelain, were covered. The glaze is never clear and white as at later times; it is generally uneven, imperfectly fused and presents all the marks of an imperfect technique. The nearest approach to white is found in an opalescent grey which shades off to greenish and bluish tints. The glazes of this period which are most highly valued are the céladons, a family of cool bluish or yellowish greens of indescribable depth and softness. Besides the céladons which are the most uniform in tints of the Sung glazes, we get many shades of palish lavender, brownish yellow and brownish black, but these are all subtly or boldly mottled, splashed, clouded or veined with strange tones of red, blue, purple, opalescent grey and black. The most famous of these now very rare Sung wares were the stonewares of Chunchow, remarkable for their rich and varied glazes, the black variegated glazed wares of Fu-kien province, “hare’s fur cups” and “partridge cups” of collectors, and the four principal wares that may be called porcelain, viz.—the Ju-Yao, made at Ju-chow in Honan; the Kuan-Yao (Kuan = “official” or “imperial”), made first at Pien-chow and afterwards at Hang-chow; the Ko-Yao, made at Liu-t’ien; and the Ting-Yao, made at Tung-chow in Chih-li.
This was the period when Chinese porcelain became known beyond its native country, for the first mention of porcelain outside China appears in the writings of a Mahommedan traveller, Sulaiman, who visited China in the 9th century and wrote: “They have in China a very fine clay with which they make vases which are as transparent as glass; water is seen through them”; and its first appearance in the west is always given as A.D. 1171 (or 1188), when Saladin sent a present of forty pieces to the sultan of Damascus. From this time onwards an export trade was developed, particularly in the céladon wares of Lung-chüan, a city in the south-west of the province of Chehkiang. This famous ware, the “green porcelain” of the Chinese, probably made as an imitation of jade, exists mostly in the form of thick heavy dishes, bowls and jars, bearing incised or fluted patterns, and coated with a remarkable thick green glaze of indescribable softness of tone. Though the body of the ware is white when it is broken through, any parts not covered by the glaze have a reddish-brown colour due to the unrefined paste, and when the ware was reproduced in later times this reddish-brown tint had to be imitated artificially. The ware was highly prized both in China and Japan, in the islands of the East Indies, and in all Mahommedan countries. In Persia it was largely used, and specimens of it have been recovered during the last century from the east coast of Africa and as far west as Morocco. “Archbishop Warham’s cup” at New College, Oxford, which is the first specimen of Chinese porcelain to reach England that we can now produce, is a céladon bowl with a silver-gilt mount of the time of Henry VIII.
The Sung dynasty was overthrown by the Tatars under Kublai Khan (grandson of Jenghiz Khan), and the power remained in Tatar hands until 1368, when the great native dynasty of the Mings was established. During this period (Yuan dynasty), roughly a century, one can say little of ceramic progress, for the wares of the period are singularly like those of Sung times. But two important changes took place which had a marked influence on the subsequent development of Chinese porcelain—(1) the concentration of the industry at King-tê-chên, which was consummated in the early years of the Ming dynasty; (2) the introduction of painted decoration under a white transparent glaze, the idea of which (and perhaps the necessary cobalt mineral) was brought from Persia.
King-tê-chên was already a pottery centre when its factories were rebuilt in 1369 by Hung-Wu, the founder of the Ming dynasty, who made it the imperial factory, so that the best porcelain workers were attracted thither, and in the other old centres the industry was abandoned or some earlier manufacture was continued, as in the southern province of Kiang-su. In the province of Fu-kien a distinct kind of porcelain manufacture has also continued. We have already mentioned the black glazed cups, “hare’s fur,” &c., made in this province in Sung times, and, while King-tê-chên was to be the scene of the developments of the coloured and painted porcelains, Te-hwa in Fu-kien perfected the manufacture of the famous and beautiful white porcelain in bowls, dishes, cups and statuettes, best known under its French title of blanc de Chine.
The earliest painted Chinese porcelains, which are referred to the beginning of the Ming period, though some of them may be older, speak strongly of ideas imported from the west of Asia. The pieces are massive both in form and substance, and the ornament, consisting of figures mounted or on foot, animals, bands of diaper or foliage, or pendant necklaces, is strongly silhouetted by a raised outline recalling the decorative methods of the Assyrian brickwork. The technical methods also recall the methods of western Asia, for the ware was fired before it was glazed, and then yellow, turquoise, green or purple glazes, similar in nature to the glazes of Egypt, Syria and Persia, and quite unlike the Chinese Sung glazes, were filled into the outlined spaces and melted at a lower temperature. The Grandidier
- M. Reinand, Relation des voyages faits par les Arabes et les Persans dans l’Inde el à la Chine dans le IXe siècle (Paris, 1845).
- The suggestion has been made that the céladon wares found in Western countries were made by Moslem potters and not by the Chinese, but this theory is not generally accepted. On this point consult Karabacek, “Zur muslimischen Keramik” in Österreichische Monatsschrift für den Orient, vol. x., 1884; A. B. Meyer, “Über die Herkunft gewisser Seladon-Porzellane” under “Über die Marta banis,” ibid. vol. xi., 1885; Hirth, Ancient Porcelain (1888), and Bushell, Oriental Ceramic Art (1899).