What Makes Chinese Porcelain So Unique

The Chinese invented the compass, gunpowder, paper, and many other things throughout history. However, porcelain, another Chinese creation, is one of the least acknowledged.

Did you know that a single piece of Chinese porcelain can last over 1000 years?

The Chinese pottery and porcelain history stretches back to the Neolithic era. This makes it one of its oldest continuous activities. People have admired Chinese porcelain throughout history and continue to do so. 

Whether it's a collection of antique Chinese porcelain art or modern works of art, the vast genre of Chinese ceramics is certain to have something for everyone. So let's look at what makes it unique.

A Short History of Chinese Porcelain

The creation of porcelain was in China over the course of centuries, beginning around 2,000 years ago. The Chinese achieved the whiteness and translucency as we perceive them today, in the seventh century. 

Chinese manufacturers started exporting this kind of Chinese porcelain to the Middle East.  At the time there was a huge demand in the Middle East for this kind of Chinese porcelain.

In the 13th century, just one Chinese city, now known as Jingdezhen, was responsible for the manufacture of the world's most exquisite porcelain. In this city, natural kaolin resources are abundant due to the location of the city.

By the 16th century, they had found their way to Europe and further into the Americas.

At some time, the manufacture of Chinese porcelain was only for the royal court and no one else. Jingdezhen is still a major producer of porcelain today.

The most sought-after porcelain is “Blue and White,” or ceramics with pure white clay objects painted in vivid hues of cobalt blue, a material presumably imported from areas west of China.

Portuguese merchants went home with kaolin samples to reproduce Chinese porcelain, but they couldn't grasp the secrets of good porcelain making. As a result, porcelain made of kaolin and alabaster was only established in Europe in the 18th century.

Pottery From the Predynastic Period

You can trace Chinese pottery back as far as 20,000 years. This makes these items among the world's earliest known examples of their type in recorded history.

The invention of the potter's wheel dates back to the late Neolithic era of human history. As a result of this innovation, the essence of Chinese ceramic pottery production was dramatically altered.

Throughout China between 5000 BC and 1500 BCE, numerous important villages produced a wide variety of highly ornate vessels. These villages used different methods to create aesthetically pleasing visual effects.

Pottery From the Tang Dynasty

Over the course of the following epochs in Chinese history, significant advances were achieved in the development and innovation of porcelain and ceramics technologies.

The Tang Dynasty, which was from 618 to 907, is most renowned for its three-color pottery, including vivid, variegated glazes. They employed this glaze technique on conventional goods like vases and jars and detailed camel and traveler figures.

Qingci pottery, often known as celadon pottery, was another kind of pottery created during this period. Distinguished by its blue-green tinted glaze and timeless simplistic forms, this style of pottery is easily identified. As a result of their great value, they continued to make Qingci pottery long into the next dynasties. It was also thereafter exported and appreciated outside of China.

Porcelain in the Song Dynasty

During the Song Dynasty, between 960 to 1279 was when the practice of heating porcelain became popular. They named their porcelain after the regions in which items were made.

Each area had its own traits and attributes, drawing inspiration from life and the environment. It included complex patterns and simple and beautiful shapes.

Porcelain in the Yuan Dynasty

Qinghua porcelain was originally manufactured during the Yuan Dynasty, from 1279 and 1368, when the country was under the rule of the Kublai Khan and the Mongol people.

Since its introduction during the Yuan Dynasty, Qinghua porcelain has become one of the most readily recognized ceramics globally, distinguished by its blue designs on top of a white backdrop.

Porcelain manufacturers baked their goods at very high temperatures throughout this time period. As a result, the product became renowned for its structural purity.

Even today, this kind of pottery is generally regarded as one of the most priceless in the world.

Porcelain Making in the Ming Dynasty

However, during the Ming Dynasty, which lasted from 1368 to 1644, methods were developed that allowed Qinghua porcelain to be further improved. This resulted in this type of porcelain being one of the most highly demanded products worldwide.

The major hub for the porcelain manufacturing sector settled in Jingdezhen, located in the Jiangxi Province. This is where they manufactured Chinese porcelain, for the Chinese Imperial Court and later exported worldwide.

To this day, this kind of pottery is generally regarded as one of the most precious in the world.

Porcelain Making in the Qing Dynasty

Between 1644 and 1911, the Qing Dynasty introduced its own advancements, including the invention of five-color goods. Because of the range of colors used, this kind of porcelain became very popular in the West, allowing for complex and vivid patterns including flora, landscapes, and figure themes. 

Artists painted enamel paint on porcelain to create spectacular designs. Yangcai is the name for this technique. This is what inspired techniques employed in ornamental metalware.

Chinese Ceramics and Porcelain Making Today

The tradition of ceramics and porcelain manufacturers in China was seriously impacted in the decades after the end of the Qing Dynasty. This is because the arts suffered because of political turmoil and instability in the nation.

However, recently, new and modern Chinese artists have arisen who are revitalizing the old tradition, giving the heritage, technique, and resources of Chinese pottery new significance and meaning.

Artists such as Ah Xian, Ai Weiwei, and Liu Jianhua reinterpret tradition to represent the current world and problems of their own culture as it is today. They are doing this while relying on the techniques and legacy of the traditional practice of pottery-making in the process.

Did you know that Chinese porcelain was previously regarded to be high-tech in its design? For many millennia, China was the only culture that had mastered the art of porcelain production. Generally speaking, you create ceramics using three fundamental ingredients:

  • Use of Clay
  • Glazing of the item
  • Heating or firing

Generally speaking, you mold them into forms by hand, using molds, or using a potter's wheel.

The Three Elements Used in Porcelain Making

There are three key elements used in the making of porcelain. There are:

1. Clay or Kaolin

Essentially, clay is a rock that's buried under the earth for years and years. Clay needed to create excellent porcelain is known as kaolin. It originates in the Gaoling Mountains in southern China, where it was first discovered and extracted.

Chinese potters combined the clay with a powder made from a feldspar-containing rock. Feldspar is a stone that contains a glassy ore.

Kilns are ceramic-firing ovens. The stone melts in the hot kilns, making the clay glassy. However, unlike sand or regular mud, it retains its form when fired in a kiln.

Clay for ceramics, although widespread, is not found everywhere. This is why ceramics businesses are often established in areas where this critical raw material is readily available.

You need a second raw material; heat. You need heat in the kiln firing process. 

2. Glazing the Item 

The glaze serves as the item's outer shell, sealing and waterproofing it. When you touch it, it often seems like you are touching glass.

Four ingredients make up a glaze:

  • Clay, which is the same clay used in the item
  • Glassy minerals, such as silica found in sand, melt when heated, and harden the body of the item
  • Flux which is mineral-like calcium or feldspar that enables the glaze to melt at a lower temp than the surrounding material
  • Color-enhancing minerals such as cobalt, which give a blue color, or manganese which gives a purple color

The potter prepares the glaze components by mixing them with water and then applying them to the items to be finished.

There are various ways a potter applies the glaze to an object. It will sometimes be a brush or a spray, also pouring, or dipping the object. There are many glaze formulas, and Chinese potters often keep their own personal formulas to themselves.

3. Heating Process

Clay ware must be fired in kilns, much as dough must be cooked in an oven to produce a cake or bread.

The clay is baked in the kiln to remove water from the clay particles. In doing so, the clay melts together and hardens to keep the shape. Over time people used bonfires to different kilns, such as hill-climbing kilns or long kilns built on the side of a hill. 

There are three sections to a kiln:

  • The firebox contains the fueling element
  • The firing chamber where the objects go into
  • The chimney

The heat is transferred from the firebox to the firing chamber and then up the chimney to the outside. Wood and coal were traditionally used as fuel by Chinese potters, but electric kilns are becoming more common nowadays.

The Process of Making Chinese Porcelain

The entire manufacturing process of Chinese porcelain may be broken down into four fundamental stages. Let's look at these steps:

1. Forming and Pulling 

Because of the poor elasticity of the substance used to manufacture porcelain, it isn't easy to form the clay into desired shapes. In the instance of potter's wheel throwing, it may be thought of as pushing the clay up and outward into the desired form. Although potters often use "pulling" when creating an item on a wheel, the terminology is deceptive.

Clay in its plastic state is incapable of being pulled without cracking. Thus, throwing is, in reality, a remarkably complicated operation.

To the untrained eye, throwing performed by a skilled potter seems to be an elegant and seemingly easy process. However, this conceals the reality that a spinning mass of clay has a lot more energy and speed of its own. If mishandled, this can lead the piece to become out of control in a short time. It takes a lot of practice to use a pottery wheel.

2. Glazing of Porcelain 

Porcelain ceramics, unlike their lower equivalents, do not need glazing to make them waterproof to liquids. Instead, they are glazed for aesthetic reasons and to make them resilient to dirt and stains.

Like the iron glaze used on Longquan celadon ceramics from Zhejiang Province, potters created many glazes. These glazes were to give porcelain their unique aesthetic effects.

3. Decoration of the Item 

Porcelain goods may be adorned beneath the glaze with pigments such as cobalt and copper, or they can be painted on top of the glaze with colorful enamels.

As with many older goods, contemporary porcelain is often fired at a temperature of about 1,000°F. Then it is covered with glaze and further subjected to a second fire glazing at around 1,300°F or more.

Another early technique is firing the object only once. The glaze is put to the item's unfired original body, and the two are fired simultaneously in one fell swoop.

4. Firing and Finishing 

You heat original unfired ceramic products to very extreme temperatures in a kiln. You heat these objects to establish the ceramic pieces' forms. 

For example, you bake porcelain at a greater temperature than pottery for the body to harden. This allows the porcelain to become impervious to water and other liquids.

The Preciousness of Chinese Porcelain

Like many precious ores, like gold, one might argue that Chinese porcelain has never lost its monetary worth throughout time. Yet, throughout the world, porcelain collectors are prepared to pay a premium for ancient porcelain items. 

In its less expensive form, Porcelain, such as non-antique pieces, is a constantly popular product for everyone.

Why not browse our gallery's ceramic site for exquisite ancient Chinese ceramic pieces!