A Fresh Look at Chinese Ceramic History

Two years ago scientists examined fragments of coarse gray pinch pots found by archaeologists in Yuchanyan, China and discovered that they dated back to at least 12000 BCE; the Paleolithic Era. This startling finding made headlines around the world. Along with the pots, there were rice hulls at the site. So we now know that pots were made and used for food and that some form agriculture was practiced at an earlier date than was previously believed. Potters in China, blessed with good clays, have continued to make ceramics up to the present.

Fourteen thousand years of pottery making! Without interruption!

There have been enough books and papers written on Chinese ceramics in English, French, Chinese, German and other languages, that the plethora of volumes could fill the shelves of a good-sized library. Do we really need one more? Have we not all read about the enormous dragon kilns? About porcelains and luminous celadons? You know, I am a history nut and can always read a bit more on the topic, but after picking up Chinese Ceramics: From the Paleolithic Period to the Qing Dynasty, I say, emphatically, yes, anyone interested in ceramics needs this addition to the reading table.

Chinese Ceramics is a joint project of the China International Publishing Group and Yale University Press and brings together the top scholars from both countries.

This is a very big book. It is meant to be read sitting up in a chair, maybe with some paper for notes, or ribbons to mark pages, but please, clean hands and no clay on your jeans. There are lots of drawings and photos with a deliberate attempt to include lesser-known works along with images of the most famous pieces we are all at least vicariously familiar with. So, yes, there are three-color Tang Dynasty horses and (my favorite) camels, but also works you have likely not seen. I had to chuckle at the “earliest known example of advertising on ceramics,” a lovely white porcelain vase (also from the Tang Dynasty) with a “foliate mouth” and the inscription, “Vases made by Ding Daogang are superb.” Well, if this vase is a representative example, I agree, vases by Ding Daogang are indeed superb. Inspired (which is what this book does to you, it inspires), I might try a foliate mouth myself but doubt mine will come out quite so nice and plump.

The editors, Li Zhiyan, Virginia A. Bowers, and He Li, have organized the book chronologically, ending with the early twentieth century. The various contributors focus on six themes; “continuity, national or ethnic character, geography, periodization, synthesis and dissemination.” There is also a look at authenticity (oh the forgeries, some of them antiquities themselves). They incorporate the latest research and findings; cargo from the Belitung and the Sinan shipwrecks; the discovery of the Ming Imperial Kiln; and hitherto little known collections. They seek to understand the ceramic industry and the culture in which it thrived, especially how the wares were made and how they were used. Chinese pottery was shipped vast distances and influenced ceramics wherever it was sold. And Chinese potters absorbed ideas from elsewhere and made them their own. At almost seven hundred pages, there is a lot here.

The contributors have spent ten years on Chinese Ceramics. We readers and potters are the beneficiaries. So I thank them. This is one book I expect to turn to again and again over the years.

And now, I will try that foliated mouth.

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