You Say “Vase,” I Say “Väse”: 
Looking at the Evolution of Chinese Ceramics
China History

Research Report
Web Resources

Most often when thinking about Asian ceramics, fine porcelain commonly known in the West as “china” comes to mind.  Where did porcelain come from?  How did the Chinese manage to perfect its manufacturing so many hundreds of years before the West?  These questions can be answered by realizing that porcelain is only one of many types of ceramics that the Chinese developed throughout their history.  In fact, porcelain came quite late in China’s history, but its effect on the West is what makes it special.  Ceramics in China can be traced back to the earliest known culture, the Yangshao.  Every culture or dynasty that followed the Yangshao had its own unique earthenware or stoneware that helped define that particular time period.  This paper will examine the evolution of Chinese ceramics, in both their components and glazes, beginning with the Yangshao culture thru the Qing dynasty in order to better understand how the Chinese became so proficient in making the finest ceramics in the world. 

Historical Background

The history of Chinese ceramics truly begins with the first known Chinese civilization, and the art form rapidly flourished for several reasons.  The quickness with which the Chinese discovered the many types of ceramics and glazes is due in part to the vastly rich clay soil that had the perfect combination of loess, kaolin, and albite to create both earthenwares and stonewares very easily.  Another factor in the creative force behind the development of ceramics in China was the knowledge gained from working in bronze.  Oftentimes clay molds were made for bronze vessels, and the artisans learned to manipulate both mediums at the same time.
Research Report
Chinese ceramics began with the people of the Yangshao culture in about the year 5000 B.C. near the Wei River.  Two major types of pottery were made at this time.  The first was gray everyday earthenware that often was minimally decorated with “cord, mat, or basket impressions” (Blunden 53).  The second type of pottery is more intricate as well as beautiful.  These earthenware pots have a “lightly burnished surface decorated with painted designs in black, red, maroon, and brown” (53).  The decorations are generally simple geometric patterns such as swirls, but they can be more ornate and include stylized fish, birds, and human faces (Gernet 39).  As the culture spread westward, the pottery “from the Kansu sites…displays more elaborate designs” (39).  This type of highly decorated pottery seems to have been used primarily for funerary practices. 

From a more mechanical and less aesthetic viewpoint, the Yangshao potters began the long tradition of combining function, form, and painting into their ceramics.  The Yangshao had a small repertoire of shapes that included bowls and jars.  The usual baking temperature was 1000-1500°C (39). Both the coarser gray ware and the highly burnished pottery were hand built.  The gray ware was built “with coils of clay, and smoothed over to conceal the joins” (Blunden 53).  The burnished pottery was built up in a similar fashion but was of a higher quality of workmanship.  Much of the decoration on the burnished pottery was painted on with slips, which are solutions of metals.  The Yangshao used “colours deriving from iron and manganese producing black, dark brown, and maroon.  A later addition was the white slip which heightened the decoration in a striking manner” (Hook, 387).  From these discoveries, decoration blossomed, and even in this early time of Chinese culture embellishment upon the pottery was “highly stylized, yet it exhibits the vitality and rhythm which is to characterize all Chinese art” (Morton 12).

Types of pottery are the central division among Chinese Neolithic cultures.  The Yangshao, as described above, had two main types, with the burnished, highly decorated pottery being the hallmark style.  Following the Yangshao is the Longshan culture, beginning in approximately 4500 B.C. and overlapping with the Yangshao for 1500 years.  The Longshan were generally farther east compared to the Yangshao, but some excavation sites have the Longshan directly succeeding the Yangshao.  Like their predecessors, the Longshan had two types of pottery, but only one is studied with great care.  The Longshan share the more functional gray wares with their predecessors.  The key difference between the cultures is the Longshan blackware.  There are some immediate differences from the highly decorated Yangshao pieces.  First, the Longshan wares are significantly thinner due to the fact that the vessels were thrown on a potter’s wheel rather than built by hand.  This may have been a consequence of being farther east and having more contact with the Koreans.  Second, Longshan pottery is has no decoration.  These blackwares were made by firing the iron poor clays initially and then exposing them to smoke.  The smoke could be “penetrated deep into the hot porous ceramics, turning them a fine black colour- a process known as carbonizing.  If the ceramics had been burnished before firing the result was a deep and glossy black” (Wood 14).  Another major difference in the Longshan pottery is its form, which is “angular in outline and extremely elegant…Some shapes are already close to those vessels of the Bronze Age”(Gernet 39).  Although the Longshan culture ends around 2500 B.C., there are no new defining styles of pottery until the Shang dynasty of 1766 B.C.

The Shang dynasty is considered a part of the Chinese Bronze Age and therefore ceramics during this time period are generally not spectacular.  Nigel Wood, an expert of Chinese ceramics, states, “Ceramics from China’s early Bronze Age are generally considered inferior, both in design and finish, to the Neolithic ceramics” (14).  Wood suggests that the quality decreased because of the increased use of bronze vessels in rituals and mortuary practices.  Instead of showcasing a particular style of pottery, the coarse gray ware with cord markings continued to dominate, and much of the ceramic wares found from the Shang are molds for bronzes.

Very much like the Shang dynasty, the Zhou dynasty (1027-221 B.C.) did not put great emphasis on their ceramics.  Once again the simple, coarse gray wares were the main type of pottery produced.  The Zhou dynasty did craft some unique wares including glazed stoneware that was decorated by both painting and dipping.  The wares of the Eastern Zhou (771-221 B.C.) tend to follow the fads of the bronzes because they were an inexpensive alternative to the bronze vessels used in rituals.  These “bargain” funeral wares of the Warring States period were often made from “fine siliceous stoneware clays with yellowish, greeny-gray, or dark brown glazes” (Wood 20).  The end of the Zhou dynasty marked an important change in China’s history because the dynasty to follow was the first to unite all of China, so technically the first truly “Chinese” ceramics were produced during the Qin.

The Qin dynasty was extremely short, only fifteen years, lasting between 221 and 206B.C.  Obviously this short amount of time was not enough to create a unique style of ceramics or glaze, but the Qin dynasty is noteworthy because of the tomb of Qin Shi Huangdi, the first emperor of China.  Qin Shi Huangdi’s tomb is outfitted with an entire division of infantry and cavalry that consists of over “7,000 life-size earthenware soldiers equipped with real weapons, real chariots, and pottery horses” (Huang 37).  The tomb is an awesome archeological find due not only to its size, but also its accuracy.  Each soldier has a unique facial expression, hairdo, armor, and stance.  Qin Shi Huangdi’s tomb represents a breakthrough in production of earthenwares and showcases the creative capability of thousands of anonymous artisans. 

The Han dynasty (202 B.C.-220 A.D.), which follows the Qin, exhibits an intriguing dichotomy because great unity and peace was brought to China with the establishment of the new dynasty, yet the Han’s most important contribution to the history of China’s ceramics is the fact that this time period brings about the first noticeable difference in Northern and Southern wares.   According to The Cambridge Encyclopedia of China, “In the north lead-glazed ceramics tended to be simply cheap substitutes for bronzes and intended for tombs, but in the south ceramics were developed more in their own right”(Hook 404).  The common wares were often red or gray with high-fired glazes.  Wares used for funerary purposes often used glazes that were “reminiscent of bronze in its various states of patination and early Han lead-glazed vessels often followed the shapes of Han bronzes” (Wood 191).  Han discoveries were the early prototypes for glazes used during the Tang and Song dynasties in sancai wares.

The Tang dynasty (618-907 A.D.) is arguably the most significant time period in the evolution of Chinese ceramics because porcelain, the epitome of Chinese stoneware, was discovered during this dynasty.  Even more astounding, porcelain is not the only development that occurred during the Tang dynasty.  Sancai, also known as “three-colour” wares, were also developed using new high-lead glazes that produced a plethora of color combinations (Hook 409).  Another addition was marbled pottery, which used different colored clays to create a swirled look that was painted with a transparent glaze (409).  The  final development was expanding the repertoire of shapes of vessels, many of which were influenced by contacts with the West.  During this time, vases and bowls became quite novel and popular.  The interest in different clay colors used in the marbled pottery helped bring about the discovery of porcelain, which “evolved out of the conscious attempts to produce a pure white clay body” (Tharp). 

There are three major types of Tang porcelain designated by the region in which the producing kilns were located.  The first type is early whiteware created in Gongxian in the northern part of the Henan province.  Gongxian porcelains had good translucency, and their glazes had good resistance to dullness and crazing (Wood 97).  The porcelains made in Gongxian included plain whitewares as well as blue and whites, which are porcelains with a cobalt blue underglaze.  Xing porcelain is the most famous Tang porcelain because it was the whitest produced in the north.  A combination of extremely pure clay and high firing temperatures, as high as white-blue heat or 1350°C, was needed to produce such white porcelain (99).  The final type of Tang porcelain is known as Ding ware.  During the Tang, Ding ware was considered inferior to the Xing because of its creamy color.  This opinion of Ding inferiority changed during the Song dynasty.

The artisans of the Song dynasty (960-1279 A.D.) perfected what those in the Tang had begun.  The hallmark of Song ceramics is monochrome porcelain with exquisite form.  Ding ware, formally considered second rate, developed into “plain and beautiful cream-coloured, oxidised porcelain with austere and refined forms that showed a superb balance of inner and outer space” (100-1).  Decorations changed significantly from the vibrant colors used in the Tang to the more subdued monochrome glazes and incised designs.  The evolution of Ding ware came to a point when it was declared the “official palace ware of the Northern Song emperors” (Hook 411).  Unfortunately, the notoriety of Ding ware did not last very long for the royal family and was replaced with Ru ware, “a fine, undecorated ware with a pale grey-green glaze usually with a faint crackle” (411).  The Song had managed to perfect the creation of vessels to the point where “most of the pots are fully glazed (including foot and base), because in the kiln the vessels were placed on tiny supports called spurs that left only minute “sesame-seed” marks on the glaze” (“Northern Song”).  It is said that the Song dynasty was the time of perfection for Chinese ceramics, and that nothing could ever compare with it again.

The Yuan dynasty (1260-1368 A.D.) unfortunately did not keep up to the standards set by the Song.  Although the forms of Yuan and Song pottery are similar, the excellence in balanced form of the Song was not to be met by the Yuan.  Wares became “heavier and cruder, with new shapes such as large dishes and bowls” (Hook 413).  Even though Yuan wares are disappointing in aspects such as style and form, decoration is the Yuan’s saving grace.  Images became much more dramatic, naturalistic, and dynamic.  Glazes became less pure, but underglazing with qingbai, a “thicker and more opaque glaze,” brought about the unquestionably Chinese blue and white porcelain (413). 

Although the Ming dynasty (1368-1644 A.D.) is best known for its blue and white porcelain, many types of unique ceramics were developed at this time.  The kilns that produced the best quality and quantity of wares were concentrated at Jingdezhen in the Jiangzi province because of the deposits of kaolin and petuntse, the most important elements for porcelain making (416).  The kaolin is the key to making very thin vessels because when heated to high temperatures, upwards of 1,300-1,500°C, the kaolin becomes extremely hard and strong without too much clay so the vessels could be made to be almost translucent (Morton 129).  These kilns produced blue and white porcelain along with “red monochromes, and ‘bodiless’  imperial wares…[with] anhua, incised in the body under the glaze, visible only when held up to the light” (Hook 416).  Another type of ware produced at the imperial kilns was doucai, porcelain vessels enameled with many colors.  The effect of doucai is a “true polychrome effect, combining red, yellow, green, brown, and aubergine overglaze enamels with underglaze blue” (Wood 233).  The popularity of Ming wares could not be stopped, and large-scale production continued into the Qing dynasty.

The hallmark of the wares of the Qing dynasty (1644-1911 A.D.) was production over aesthetics or form.  Eventually the imperial kilns exchanged the blue and white wares for the polychrome enamelwares.  Two main types of enamelwares were  produced.  The first was famille noire.  These wares have a characteristic blackish-green background.  The second type is known as famille rose, which usually have a white background and the decorations consist of flowers or birds in yellows and pinks.  Although the Qing developed extraordinary kilns and production systems, the secret of porcelain making reached Europe and export immediately decreased.  The need to produce large amounts of porcelain was essentially eliminated.

This paper represents over 7,000 years of ceramic history from the Yangshao’s simple burnished vessels to the Qing’s technical perfection of production of porcelain.  Although each dynasty certainly has its own unique features, every style is undeniably Chinese.  Aesthetics and function meld together seamlessly in every object to allow for pleasing yet useful objects that continue to astound people around the world. 

Historical Significance

The importance of the art of ceramics cannot be overlooked because it is such an essential part of people’s lives.  Each dynasty had everyday wares that the commoners and elite alike could use, but there was always a special type vessel that served a ritual or social function.  These wares often served a primary role in mortuary practices, or in the case of Qin Shi Huangdi, to protect the spirit as it traveled to the other world.  Chinese ceramics always seem to pull together the aesthetic and functional parts of life and mould them into a perfectly harmonious union that is unequal elsewhere.

    In the long term, ceramics cannot only help define the influence the West had China, but vice versa.  Depending on the size, shape, and decoration on a particular piece, archaeologists can determine how Sinicized or Westernized an era or dynasty was.  In the West, reign marks can give a definite age to many of the pieces that traveled to Europe during the Ming and Qing dynasties.  The Ming dynasty really began the massive export of ceramics.  At the end of the Ming, “at least three million porcelains were being shipped to Europe each year” (Selvage).  Ceramics were just one more type of wares the West wanted from China when it demanded that ports be opened. 


Blunden, Caroline and Elvin, Mark.  The Cultural Atlas of the World: China.  Stonehenge:  Alexandria, 1991.

Gernet, Jacques.  A History of Chinese Civilization.  Cambridge University Press:  Cambridge, 1972.

Hook, Brian(Ed.).  The Cambridge Encyclopedia of China.  Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 1991.

Huang, Ray.  China A Macro History.  M.E. Sharpe, Inc.: Armonk, 1997.

Morton, W. Scott.  China: Its History and Culture.  Lippincott & Crowell: New York, 1980.

“Northern Song/Ming/Yuan.” China 5,000 Years.  6 Nov 2002. 

Selvage, Nancy. “Spheres of Influence, Cycles of Change, Widening Circles of Colleagues.” 
    Sept 1998.  6 Nov 2002. <>.

Tharp, Lars.  “Chinese Ceramics.” BBC Collector’s Guide. 6 Nov 2002. 

Wood, Nigel.  Chinese Glazes.  A & C Black: London, 1999.

Web Resources
    Contains a list of terms and definitions regarding ceramics and glazes.
    This site has several important sections regarding the evolution of early earthenwares as 
    well as porcelain.
    This site explains in detail what Ru ware is and has a few nice pictures of Song, Ming 
    and Yuan porcelain.  It also has very nice links to other types of Chinese ceramics.
    This site is well referenced and has very nice descriptions of the pictured figurine.  It is
    one of a series of sites describing Chinese art.  The National Gallery of Art is quite
    This site is an interesting reflection upon an artisan’s trip to China to discuss the 
    evolution of Chinese ceramics.

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