- Neolithic era (around 10,000 B.C.)
Chinese civilisation originated in the Neolithic era, from the development of settled communities built up around the main river systems, (namely the Yellow river and the Yangtze river), who sustained themselves by farming and raising domesticated animals. During this period, the materials mainly used for art were jade and pottery (commonly hand-molded earthenware vessels). In the late neolithic period, the potter’s wheel was invented, thus leading to the production of more uniform vessels.
- Shang Dynasty (1600 B.C. to 1050 B.C.)
Artefacts from the era have shown that there was a high level of civilisation, from the first significant recording of Chinese characters on bronze artefacts, oracle bones and turtle shells. The Shang are remembered for their high level of detail in their bronze casting, which were used for religious rituals.
- Zhou Dynasty (1050 – 221 B.C.)
This was the longest lasting dynasty in Chinese history. It was during this period that written script evolved from ancient characters to the beginnings of the present day characters. Iron started to be used, and bronze was developed for more practical purposes. Pieces of glazed pottery have been dated as far back as the Zhou dynasty, but the production of glazed wares was not common until the Han dynasty.
- Qin Dynasty (221 – 206 B.C.)
This period saw the unification of China under the first emperor- Qin Shi Huang, marking the start of Imperial China. This was the period where magnificent artefacts such as the Terracotta Army at Xi’an were produced, along with the linking of the walls of the three states in the north to form the first “Wan Li Chang Cheng” (Great Wall).
- Han Dynasty (206 B.C. – A.D. 220)
The Han Dynasty is often thought of as one of the greatest periods in Chinese history. Many significant items were invented- including paper, acupuncture and the world’s first earthquake tracking device. Porcelain production in Jingdezhen, Jiangxi province has been fundamental since the very early Han Dynasty, and new arts such as Chinese paper cutting, Chinese paper folding (which later developed into origami) and the creation of jade burial suits were developed. It was during this period that the initial ‘Silk Road’ from China to the West was developed.
- Three Kingdoms period (A.D. 220 – 265)
The three kingdoms were known as Wei, Shu and Wu. The first part of this period was spent by warlords fighting throughout China, and despite the three rival states eventually coming to a more stable arrangement, a large proportion of the population was killed during these warring times. Technological advances were still made, such as the wooden ox (an early form of the wheelbarrow), a hydraulic-powered mechanical puppet theatre designed for the Emperor and a pump system for the irrigation of Palace gardens in Luoyang.
- Jin Dynasty (A.D.265 – 420)
Founded by Sima Yan (Emperor Wu) who, despite conquering Eastern Wu and therefore uniting the country, was overthrown by the invasion of nomadic peoples. The remaining members of the Jin court re-established themselves near the present-day Nanjing, under the Prince of Longya.
- Southern and Northern Dynasties (A.D. 420 – 589)
This was a period of civil war and political unrest. Chinese calligraphy, music, painting and poetry became very popular with aristocrats in the south throughout this period, and Buddhism featured widely in the arts.
- Sui Dynasty (A.D. 581 – 618)
Founded by Emperor Wen, who re-unified Southern and Northern China. The Grand Canal was built, linking various sections from Beijing to Hangzhou which date as far back as the 5th Century B.C. As in the previous period, religion played a strong role, and the change in Chinese culture during this time can be attributed to Buddhism.
- Tang Dynasty (A.D. 618 – 907)
This period saw the rise of many new urban communities along the Grand Canal, and the re-opening of the Silk Road. This led to an increase in trade both within and outside of China, and the amount of foreign influences resulted in Buddhist Tang sculptures being designed with a classical form, inspired by the Gupta period in India. However, many Tang sculptures were destroyed at the end of the Tang period, when all foreign religions such as Christianity and Buddhism were banned. One distinctive feature of this period is known as Sancai (meaning three-colours in Chinese). This was the use of three colours for decorating ceramic pieces, and is also known as ‘egg-and-spinach’ for their use of green, yellow, and white.
- Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms (A.D. 907 – 960)
This was a time of political turmoil, where many periods succeeded one another and independent states were founded. Although Celadon has been produced at Longquan for a long period of time prior to the Five Dynasties, it was not until this period and the Song Dynasty which followed that production on a large scale actually took place.
- Song Dynasty (A.D. 960 – 1279)
This was the first government in the world to issue paper money. There were two periods- Northern Song and Southern Song. In paintings, the quality was determined by the artist’s ability to illustrate the inner harmony of man and of nature, following Buddhist and Taoist ideologies. Ceramic production during this period was highly successful- with mainly monochrome pieces being produced, especially Celadon.
There were five famous kilns that produced porcelain wares during this period, listed below:
- The Guan Kiln
This was the government kiln producing ‘Official ware’ for the royal family and the courts. Pieces generally have many cracks on the surface. The Northern Song kiln was in Bianjing, Henan province, with strong, smooth and shiny glazes being produced. The Sothern Song kiln used light green, gray or yellow glazes, and was located in Hangzhou, Zhejing province.
- The Jun Kiln
The Jun kiln, in Baguadong, Henan, produced coloured glazes, mainly in sky blue and moon white. However they had a special copper red colour, which was highly sensitive to variations in kiln temperature- resulting in a totally different colour even if the temperature varied by a few degrees. Other colours such as green, peach-pink, lavender-blue and streaked purple and blue were also very popular.
- The Ru Kiln
This kiln produced pieces with studs at the base, allowing the foot-rims to be completely covered with the thick glass-like green/ sapphire glaze, which resembled the most expensive type of jade in China. The porcelain had fine crackles over the whole surface. Pieces from this kiln are extremely valuable, as it was only open for a few decades- it was closed when the Jin Dynasty came into power in A.D. 1127.
- The Ding Kiln
This kiln began producing porcelain in the late Tang Dynasty through to the Yuan Dynasty. White porcelain, with fine decorations of printing and carving were typical of Ding porcelain.
- The Ge Kiln
This kiln began producing in the Song Dynasty, in Zhejiang province. Celadons were produced here, renowned for its clear and even glaze, covered with crackles. It is said that the kiln was accidentally cooled when the porcelains were still too hot, leading to the glaze cracking into pieces. These cracks were filled with another coloured glaze, creating the unique Ge porcelain pieces.
- Yuan Dynasty (A.D. 1279 – 1368)
The Yuan Dynasty was established by Kublai Khan, the grandson of Genghis Khan. He built his new capital at the present day city of Beijing, and was a ‘benevolent’ (as described by Marco Polo) leader. He promoted science and religion, and his strong support for trade along the Silk Road brought many western cultures into China. Cloisonné ware was introduced to China during this period, from the Islamic people who settled in the western province of Yunnan, however it did not become popular until the later Ming dynasty. Blue and white porcelain was also first produced at the end of this period, by baking kaolin clay at extremely high temperatures.
- Ming Dynasty (A.D. 1368 – 1644)
This was the last dynasty ruled by ethnic Hans. During this period, restoration was made to the Great Wall and the Great Canal, and the Forbidden City was built in Beijing. International trade became a great feature of the economy- China traded with the Dutch, Portuguese, Spanish and Japanese, mainly importing silver and exporting silk and porcelain. Sources have recorded that the Dutch East India Company alone traded six million porcelain items from China to Europe in the latter part of the Ming dynasty.During the Yongle reign (A.D. 1403 – 1424), the potting and glazing techniques improved dramatically, resulting in pieces with a much whiter body and richer blues than those made previously. Jingdezhen, in Jiangxi, became the centre of the porcelain industry, producing large amounts of imperial wares and also exports for countries as far as Turkey. Dragons and phoenix featured heavily in designs, as well as human figures in interior and garden settings. Wucai (five colours) was developed later on in the Jiajing (A.D. 1522 – 1566) periods and was also popular in the Wanli (A.D. 1573 – 1620) period. Pieces were fully decorated with colourful designs, incorporating light and dark greens, yellow, red, brown and aubergine, with blue underglaze.
There were many rulers during this dynasty, and they are listed in date order below:
- Hongwu (A.D. 1368 – 1398)
- Jianwen (A.D. 1399 – 1402)
- Yongle (A.D. 1403 – 1424)
- Hongxi (A.D. 1425)
- Xuande (A.D. 1426 – 1435)
- It was during this period that Cloisonné became highly popular at court. Previously it had been thought that Cloisonné should only be used to furnish temples and palaces, because their flamboyancy was not suitable for more serious environments such as scholar’s homes.
- Zhengtong (A.D. 1436 – 1449)
- Jingtai (A.D. 1450 – 1456)
- Tianshun (A.D. 1457 – 1464)
- Chenghua (A.D. 1465 – 1487)
- Hongzhi (A.D. 1488 – 1505)
- Zhengde (A.D. 1506 – 1521)
- Jiajing (A.D. 1522 – 1566)
- Longqing (A.D. 1567 – 1572)
- Wanli (A.D. 1573 – 1620)
- Taichang (A.D. 1620)
- Tianqi (A.D. 1621 – 1627)
- Chongzhen (A.D. 1628 – 1644)
- Qing Dynasty (A.D. 1644 – 1911)
The Qing dynasty was founded by the Manchu clan ‘Aisin Gioro’. They were successful as foreign rulers in China, by preserving their own identity to maintain their power over the Chinese. Chinese ceramic production saw its peak during the Kangxi (A.D. 1662 – 1722), Yongzheng (A.D. 1723 – 1735) and Qianlong (A.D. 1736 – 1795) periods. Improvements were made in all areas of ceramics, especially the enamel glazes that were developed in the early Qing dynasty, giving pieces a ‘brilliant’ look.
There were many rulers during this dynasty, and they are listed in date order below:
- Shunzhi (A.D. 1644 – 1661)
- Kangxi (A.D. 1662 – 1722)
- Qing potters were able to reproduce many of the famous Song, Yuan and Ming coloured glazes, as well as several new ones during the Kangxi period, including Sang-de-boeuf, the mirror-black, the rough-pink, and the coral-red. The production of Fencai enamels also began at the end of this period.
- Yongzheng (A.D. 1723 – 1735)
- Fencai (the opposite of Wucai’s stong, bright colours) became very popular during the this reign, and improvements meant that the bodies were spotlessly white (some even as thin as eggshells), with superb enamels. Through the use of dying and shading, Fencai subject matters were more realistic and three dimensional. The Lujun, or robin’s egg flambe glaze, produced through two firings was invented during this time.
- Qianlong (A.D. 1736 – 1795)
- Jiaqing (A.D. 1796 – 1820)
- Daoguang (A.D. 1821 – 1850)
- Xianfeng (A.D. 1851 – 1861)
- Tongzhi (A.D. 1862 – 1874)
- Guangxu (A.D. 1875 – 1908)
- Xuantong (A.D. 1909 – 1911)