Chinese Sculptural Art


Porcelain originated in China and its production techniques matured in the Eastern Han period (25–220) about 1,800 years ago. Porcelain production was an important handicraft industry in ancient China. Today, China is the largest producer of porcelain in the world.


The porcelain wares of the Ming (1368–1644) and Qing (1644–1911) dynasties can be seen as the culmination of more than four thousand years of ceramic production. At this time, Jingdezhen was the center of manufacture in China and produced a near endless variety of wares. Polychromatic designs, which became popular during this period, were possible because centuries of experimentation had led to the sophisticated techniques needed for firing various high and low temperature glazes.


Chinese porcelain has been made into both practical items for everyday use, sacrificial vessels for the imperial household, as well as masterpieces of art. From this, one can see that porcelain is well regarded both for its practical functions as well as its artistic merit. In earlier times, it was an indicator of class and social standing as it was a material that had imperial prestige.


The multitude of shapes, decorative designs, and glazes are some of the factors that give Chinese porcelain its charm. Porcelain is scalable; it can be shaped into grand and vigorous pieces as well as small works that are delicate and exquisite. These pieces can be polychromatic and vivid or monochromatic like jade. The variety of designs is also extensive; some are very painterly while others are produced by such techniques as engraving, carving, and stamping. These exquisite decorative techniques and the wide variety of patterns were seldom seen elsewhere in the world.


Not all designs on porcelain are purely decorative, some also reflect spiritual and cultural beliefs. This is true throughout the entire history of ceramics. Neolithic pottery was decorated with simple, geometric patterns in addition to flora and fauna designs, which reflected the concerns of these early people. Over time, a large number of auspicious designs were incorporated into the decoration. It is commonly believed, that in the Qing dynasty, porcelain artisans felt that “all designs must have meanings and these meanings must be auspicious.”


Polychrome porcelains are produced by a variety of means. Some have pigment applied to the clay body which is then glazed and fired; the underglaze pigment often reveals its true color only after firing. Others may have designs drawn or painted over already-fired glaze; this technique is referred to as overglaze enameling (the colored glazes used for the decoration and enamel have a similar composition). Alongside these popular polychrome wares, single-colored wares were also being produced. Early on, glaze was available only in a limited range of colors, but by the Ming and Qing dynasties there was a panoply of colors to choose from: yellow, red, blue, and white are only some of them.


Throughout the long history of porcelain, many wares have been singled out for their outstanding qualities. As early as the Tang dynasty (618–907), people were describing the celadons produced at the Yue kilns as resembling jade and ice. The white porcelain from the Xing kilns was compared to silver and snow.

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