By the Shang period (c.1600-c.1050) when stoneware was first produced in China, there was an advanced ceramic technology, with the separate high-fired and low-fired traditions of Chinese ceramics already apparent. The high-fired Yue stoneware produced from the 3rd century AD were the precursors of the great celadon of the Song period and represent a high level of technical and artistic achievement.
The earliest known Chinese ceramics are low-fired earthenware dating from the Neolithic period. Distinct traditions emerged in the Central (c.5000-c.2500 BC) and Western (c.3300-c.1800 BC) Yangshao cultures and the Dawenkou culture (c.5800-c.1500 BC) in the north-east. The distinctive bulbous red Yangshao earthen wares were coil constructed and were sometimes decorated with impressed cord-like patterns or painted with bold black or purple geometric designs, often of spirals and loops enclosing checkered patterns. Dawenkou wares are thin, wheel-thrown pots made of red, grey, or black earthenware, which was burnished.
During the Shang period thick, white, unglazed pots were made of kaolin (china clay), while other fine clays were used to make stoneware, which were then glazed. A, ceramics technology developed, wares became increasingly sophisticated; the potter’s wheel became more common, and new types of body - such as high-fired stoneware-were introduced. Forms at this time tended to be based on such bronze ritual forms as the ding and the hit. In the Han period a huge variety of wares were made, including models of houses, farms, ponds, and human figures in lead-glazed earthenware, which were all produced as funerary goods to accompany the deceased into the afterlife. Sophisticated desk ornaments, such as water droppers and brush rests in the shapes of frogs, lions, and other animals, as well as burial urns with applied models of buildings, animals, people, or Buddhist deities.
Yue wares also include more functional items, including straight-sided basins. From the second half of the 4th century ewers with characteristic “chicken-head” spouts were produced, and within about 100 years more elegant versions with taller proportions were being made. In general, later Yue wares are more graceful than earlier ones, the glaze becoming progressive less olive and more jade-like and translucent owing to the use of finer raw materials.
Some fine white-bodied wares, which led to the production of true porcelain, were made during the Tang period, and included both glazed and unglazed wares. The glaze on Tang wares is particularly distinctive as it has a bright, glassy appearance. In the low-fired range the most characteristic wares of the period are the sancai (”three color”) wares, namely earthenware vessels and models made as tomb goods, decorated with runny lead-fluxed glazes colored green, chestnut, amber, cream, and, later, blue. Vessels are typically squat and rounded, and include jars, vases, and bowls. Decoration was Molded or painted with spotted designs based on contemporary textile patterns. Figures include tomb guardians (whose faces were often left unglazed and painted with colored pigments after firing), camels, and horses.
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