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Porcelain vases, Ancient Ming and Qing Streets, Pingyao, Shanxi

Known as 'the country of porcelain', China is the homeland of porcelain. The word for porcelain in English - china, has become the short name of PRC (People's Republic of China), indicating that porcelain is a fine representative of Chinese culture.

Born out of pottery, porcelain evolved from white pottery and stamped hard pottery. Porcelain making must satisfy three requirements: first, the material must be porcelain stone and clay or Kaolin, containing quartz, sericite and other mineral elements; second, the firing temperature must be over 1,200˚ Centigrade (2,192˚ F); third, there is glaze fired under high temperature on the surface of the item.

Originally, porcelain objects were made for people's daily use to store and hold food. Later, they were mostly used as decorations.

As early as in the Shang Dynasty (16th – 11th century BC), porcelain vessels appeared in Chinese people's life. Porcelain, as it then was, is commonly named 'proto-porcelain', because it was rough both in the body and the firing technology. The firing temperature was also low, with primitive and transitional characteristics.

The real porcelain vessels were produced in the Eastern Han Dynasty (25 – 220 AD). At that time most of the northern Chinese moved to the south and splendid and lavish burial was popular. As a result, Zhejiang Province with its favorable location became the cradle of China porcelain. Up to the Tang Dynasty (618 - 907), the technology and art of porcelain making had been maturing.

In the Song Dynasty (960 - 1279), came the peak time for porcelain. Porcelain making was developed apace. There were many famous porcelain kilns then such as Jun Kiln, Ge Kiln, Guan Kiln, Ru Kiln, and Ding Kiln, which were known as the five famous porcelain kilns of the Song Dynasty.

Jun Kiln – porcelains made in this kiln are red blue, purple spotted, pure sky blue, or pure moon white, with opal cyan as the keynote. They are opacified with irregular thin flowing lines on the surface. Their glaze colors are mainly cyan, blue and white, and a few are in rose purple or begonia red. Most of the porcelain vessels were bright-colored just like the morning sunlight and sunset glow, enjoying fame as 'treasures of the country'.

Ge Kiln – the body is mostly black, dark or light grey, and brown, and the glaze is mainly gray blue. The porcelain vessels made there are stove, bottle, bowl and tray, with excellent quality and delicate workmanship. Most of them are in the patterns of the objects used in the palaces.

Guan Kiln – the kilns built by the feudal officials to fire porcelain vessels are called Guan (Royal) Kiln. These kilns mainly fired blue glazed porcelain, in the shape of bottles, trays, bowls, pots as well as tripods, goblets and stoves, imitating those of the Zhou (11th – 221 BC) and Han Dynasties (206 BC – 220 AD). Most of the vessels made in this kiln are in the natural and graceful palace style.

A porcelain jar in Shanghai Museum

Ru Kiln – it was so named because it was located in the Ru State of the Song Dynasty (Qingliang Temple, Henan Province today). It was a kiln firing tribute porcelain vessels for the palaces. Most of the objects were in the shape of the former bronze and jade vessels, with sky blue, blue, light pink and moon white glaze. The glaze is thin and smooth, with small areas of patterns. Ru Kiln just existed for about 20 years with a few rare treasures coming down to today.

Ding Kiln – located in Hebei Province, it was built in the Late Tang Dynasty of the Five Dynasties (907 - 960), came to its peak time in the Northern Song Dynasty (960 - 1127), and declined in the Jin (1115 - 1234) and Yuan (1271 - 1368) Dynasties. It mainly produced white glazed porcelain objects, with decorative techniques of drawing, sculpturing, and stamping flowers as well as moulding. The decorations are usually lotus flower, peony and day lily, simple and vivid. Most of the objects are trays, bowls, bottles and boxes, with inscriptions on the bottom.

Porcelain of the Ming (1368 – 1644) and Qing (1644 – 1911) Dynasties were made with advanced technologies, and more elaborate porcelain works were made such as enamel porcelain of the Ming Dynasty and pink porcelain and plain tricolour of the Qing Dynasty.

Nowadays, the porcelain industry in China is still thriving, with many famous porcelain producing areas. Jingdezhen City of Jiangxi Province, Liling City of Hunan Province, Shiwan and Fengxi districts of Guangdong Province, Yixing City of Jiangsu Province, Tangshan and Handan Cities of Hebei Province, and Zibo City of Shandong Province are all well-known for porcelain.

 Jingdezhen Porcelain
This is the biggest porcelain producing area in China. It has been the porcelain producing center nationwide since the Ming and Qing Dynasties, and is recognized as the porcelain capital of China. Porcelains made in Jingdezhen are elegant in shape, varied in categories, rich in decorations, and unique in style, enjoying fame 'as white as jade, as bright as the mirror, as thin as paper, and ringing like the chime bell'. Blue-and-white porcelain, rice-pattern decorated porcelain, powder-doped color decorated porcelain, and color-glazed porcelain are the four great traditional porcelains of Jingdezhen.

 The Differences between Pottery and Porcelain
Generally speaking, pottery is made from pottery clay, and porcelain is made from porcelain clay, while their main differences are from the following five points:

First, firing temperature for pottery is 800˚ - 1,100˚ Centigrade (1472˚ – 2,012˚ F), and for porcelain it is 1,200˚ - 1,400˚ Centigrade (2,192˚ – 2,552˚ F).

Second, the body of pottery is not as hard as porcelain, and pottery will be scratched more easily than porcelain. Also, porcelain sounds clearer than pottery when knocked.

Third, the material of pottery is common clay, but porcelain needs special materials with rich mineral elements like kaolin.

Fourth, the body of porcelain is semi-translucent, while pottery is not. Fifth, the glaze of pottery can be fused at a low temperature, while the glaze of porcelain has to be fired at high temperature at the same time as the body, or it can also be fired at a lower temperature after the body has been fired first.

 The China Road
'China Road' was proposed in the1960s by Professor Mikami Tsugio, a well-known Japanese scholar who specialized in ceramics. Opened in the middle and late Tang Dynasty, it was the main artery on the sea for communication between China and foreign countries. Because of its different characteristics from silk, porcelain can be transported by water. This route started from the southeast coast of China, along the East Sea and South Sea, through the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea, finally reaching the east coast of Africa. Or it went through the Red Sea and the Mediterranean Sea to reach Egypt, or starting from the southeast coast of China directly to Japan and Korea. In ancient times, porcelain products spread along this route were like bright pearls lightening the whole land of Southeast Asia, Africa and Arabia. The Silk Road brought the Chinese knowledge of religions, while the China Road brought huge business and material wealth.

At present, porcelain objects made in China can be found in many foreign countries of the world, including Japan, North Korea, India, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Philippine, Malaysia, Egypt, Iran, Indonesia, Pakistan, Iraq, and many Arab States. They are the historic witness of the China Road.