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The history of Chinese pottery
A painted cocoon-shaped vessel, adorned in the earth tones of the Neolithic period, dates back to the Warring States era in Chinese history (470 BCE-220 CE).

Pottery was first produced in China more than 10,000 years ago, before the advent of written history. Most Neolithic pottery is either Yang-shao ware, characterized by geometric painted decoration, or Lung-shan ware, which is unpainted and elevated on a base or tripod legs. A finer white pottery appeared during the Shang Dynasty (1766-1122 BCE), resembling in size and shape Chinese bronze vessels of the same period. The bronzes are believed to have been copied from pottery.

Traditionally, scholars trace Chinese pottery from the Han Dynasty (202 BCE - 220 CE). At this time, Chinese buried their dead with pottery figurines of people, animals, and objects from everyday life. Though glaze was probably first used in the Han Dynasty, the period is also characterized by exquisite examples of painted earthenware and highly imaginative form.

The history of Chinese pottery is written in the rise and fall of powerful clans. Several lesser dynasties followed the Han, each leaving its mark on prevailing fashions. Life-like figures of animals were popular during the Sui Dynasty (581 - 618). T'ang Dynasty (618 - 907) sentiments ran to polychrome pottery, most notably large figures of horses and human beings. A highlight in the history of Chinese pottery is the development of porcelain during the T'ang. Stoneware techniques were refined to create a more durable yet delicate pottery that can be carved, modeled, and glazed with colorful lustres.

During the Sung Dynasty (960 - 1279), monochrome glazes and austere forms became the norm. Though celadon, a family of sea-green glazes, was known in the Han Dynasty, its potential was only fully realized by Sung artisans. Sung celadons were treasured by European collectors during the time of Marco Polo. So great was the value of porcelain that an imperial factory was established at Ching-te-chen, south of Nanking near the Yellow River, by emperor Chen Tsung in 1004. Two early 18th century letters of Jesuit missionary Pere d'Entrecolles described Ching-te-chen as a city of a million people and some 3000 kilns.

The Mongol defeat of the Sung Dynasty meant that nomadic tastes for highly ornate and brightly colored objects prevailed at the new Yuan court (1279 - 1368). The partially assimilated Mongols were driven out by the Chinese, who established the Ming Dynasty (1368 - 1644). Nevertheless, the Mongols had left their stamp on aesthetics. A second invasion, this by the Manchus, established the Ch'ing Dynasty (1644 -1912). Some hallmarks of Ch'ing ceramics are large decorative vessels for imperial use, eggshell-thin porcelains with intricate colorful designs and, especially during the late Ch'ing, the popular blue-and-white ware and enameled gold bowls and vases that fueled a thriving international china trade.

The Ch'ing was also a time of introspection for Chinese intellectuals, who reflected on the T'ang and Sung past as the most authentic eras of Chinese civilization. This neoclassicist concern privileges older aesthetic values--the simple elegance of celadon, for instance--to establish a critique of contemporary Chinese society and its inability to find its proper place in the world. This tension between radically different values defines Ch'ing aesthetics. Ironically, as Chinese political power waned in the 19th century, the influence of Chinese aesthetics only grew, providing the standards for much of what we call modernism in the West.

- UM Museum of Fine Arts

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