Tracing the History of Chinese Porcelain
Porcelain is often recognized and celebrated for its translucence, but it is far from delicate. In fact, by its very nature, formed and forged by fire, porcelain is like a beautiful phoenix rising out of the flames.
Pinpointing the period when porcelain was first developed is a bit tricky. According to some resources, it was at least two millennia ago. There are reported discoveries of “near porcelain” in regions active with civilization during the Shang Dynasty (1600-1046 BC), as well as examples dating to China’s Eastern Han Dynasty (221-206 BC). Other resources point to the Tang Dynasty era (618-970 AD) as the period in history when porcelain became widely known.
One thing that seems to be apparent is that each dynasty in the history of porcelain helped to hone its production and presentation. Be it techniques used to make porcelain, methods of exporting, development of regions rich with firing kilns, or variation in design and decoration, it’s evident that porcelain’s history is one of multigenerational influence and evolution.
Not unlike most antiquities today, porcelain rose out of necessity. Creating utilitarian vessels to serve people’s day-to-day needs led to the creation of the remarkably durable, yet luminous medium that could be molded, dried, and fired. During the Tang Dynasty, when some of the earliest formal kilns for porcelain production were established in Chinese provinces, new specialities were produced: celadon in the Zheijiang province, and white porcelain in the Hebei province.
Porcelain Point: The city of Jingdezhen in China’s Jiangxi Province is one of the most prolific and longest tenured porcelain-producing regions, dating back more than 1,700 years. Today many traditional porcelain-making techniques are being passed on to artisans attending classes at the Pottery Workshop in Jingdezhen.
In the beginning, export of porcelain for monetary gain wasn’t a consideration. However, that changed as visitors became more prevalent in China. With porcelain finding favor among the elite of Chinese society, it was not uncommon for leaders to bestow gifts of porcelain to visitors from abroad. After a trip to China around 850 AD, Muslim explorer Suleiman wrote that he had viewed porcelain for the first time, a revelation that attracted widespread interest. Paraphrased, and based on various reports of the translation of his writings, Suleiman reported that Chinese artisans used a fine clay to make vases that were both transparent and strong. Curiosity in the Western world led to a demand that turned porcelain into a product for export.
Porcelain Point: For centuries porcelain ranked #2 among China’s leading exports, just behind silk. This included years when Chinese emperors banned the export of all goods, including porcelain.
Even with its deep and diverse history, the popularity of porcelain is far from a thing of the past. Today it takes pride of place in museum exhibitions, is a popular attraction at antique shows around the world, is the subject of study by academics, and is the focus of bidding battles at auction. Reporting on the 63rd Annual Winter Antiques Show held in New York earlier this year, former New York Times columnist Wendy Moonan selected not one, but two items from the porcelain family to include in her compilation of 10 stand-out items from the show. The highlights included an 18th-century punch bowl featuring a scene taken from a theatrical presentation, and a circa-1990 celadon platter made by Kawase Shinob – yet another example of porcelain’s appeal, whether it is of ancient past or contemporary times.
A History and Description of Chinese Porcelain by William Cosmo Monkhouse