When we consider the history of ceramics in places like the Ohio River Valley in the United States or Staffordshire in England, we need only look back as far as the 19th and 18th centuries, respectively. In China, though, one is obliged to know when the Neolithic Period took place (5000 to 1500 BC) since that's how far back Chinese ceramics goes. Red, black, and gray pieces of pottery dating to around 3000 BC have been found near three main rivers—the Yellow in the north, the Yangtze in the center of the country, and the Xi in the south.

More recently, during the Chinese Bronze Age, which began around 2000 BC and lasted for two millennia, Chinese potters figured out how to produce objects as hard as modern stoneware, and they coated these pieces with what are considered the first glazes. By the Han dynasty (206 BC to 221 AD), Chinese ceramists introduced lead and feldspar into their glazes, which they colored with mineral oxides such as iron and copper. When fired in a reduction atmosphere, the iron oxide turned green, creating a color we know today as celadon.

About 500 years later, beginning in the 7th century, Tang dynasty potters completed the ceramics evolution from earthenware to stoneware to porcelain. Concurrently, ceramic figurines became more realistic, whether they were lead-glazed horses or the horsemen upon them. Vessels and vases took on ever-more elaborate forms, from squat covered jars to slender-necked ewers and amphorae.

Between the 10th and 13th centuries, Song dynasty ceramists firing kilns in northern China developed ivory and white glazes, which they applied to bowls and plates. The result was what is today known as Ting or Ding ware. Celadon, of course, remained popular, especially on jars (some footed), which were often carved to create relief patterns and designs on their surfaces.

After the Mongols ended the Song dynasty, potteries that had been owned by craftsmen were industrialized so that ceramics could be exported wholesale to the Near East. This led to standardization. Molds helped keep quality high and the walls of some vases thin, but many other vessels were irregular and thick in parts, while glazes were often riddled with broken bubbles in thin spots, resulting in a rough surface.

When the Ming dynasty drove off the Mongols in the 14th century, the ceramics industry was reclaimed. Exports continued, but by the 16th century Portuguese sailors had arrived on China's shores, which meant the market for Chinese porcelain shifted to Europe. That said, Chinese ceramists continue to produce goods for Muslim nations, as the numerous blue-and-white pieces from this period, bearing Arabic inscriptions from the Koran, attest.

By the 18th and 19th centuries, Chinese exports to the West included porcelain plates, often in blue on a white. These hand-painted pieces were so popular in Europe, that British potteries devised transferware in an effort to capture the lucrative market for this type of decorative ceramics for themselves.


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