By Anthony James, Staff Writer
The decorative and culinary purpose of porcelain runs deep in modern American culture. In the 1940’s or 50’s one probably couldn’t find a nuclear family household without its glorious china cabinet. Still, Chinese porcelain is not as popular today as it was in past history, but the artifacts and remnants of its pieces are extremely valuable to collectors and historians in contemporary society.
By Anthony James, Staff WriterThe decorative and culinary purpose of porcelain runs deep in modern American culture. In the 1940’s or 50’s one probably couldn’t find a nuclear family household without its glorious china cabinet. Still, Chinese porcelain is not as popular today as it was in past history, but the artifacts and remnants of its pieces are extremely valuable to collectors and historians in contemporary society.
Porcelain, a moderately collective word that refers to ceramic wares that is white and translucent, is generally a type of ceramic piece that is fired in a kiln and often glazed with beautiful designs and colors. There many early uses of porcelain in China, from tea wares to wine cups to burial jars. When traders first brought such wares to Europe, demand grew to develop European with the Chinese designs. By the 17th and 18th centuries, the Chinese were manufacturing whole dinner sets and decorative pieces that would adorn only the wealthiest of European homes. To own such beautiful pieces became a status symbol and a statement of luxury.
Due to the fluidity of its definition, by many terms the date of origin of porcelain is not definitely known. Claims range from the Eastern Han period (202-220 AD), the Three Kingdoms period (220-280 AD), the Six Dynasties period (220-589 AD), or else the Tang dynasty (618-906 AD). Early pottery could be found in China dating 18,000 years ago. In the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2009, reports of ceramic wares created by coiling were discovered in Southern China’s Yuchanyan Cave. Such fragments, some dating to 9000 BC, showed remarkable signs of decoration, stamping, and piercing.
True porcelain is often attributed to first appear in the Eastern Han period. Materials that make up true porcelain, China clay or Porcelain stone, were dated to 202-220 AD, with estimation that kiln sites of that era reaching 1260-1300 C. The Sui and Tang dynasties saw a wider range of ceramics becoming more prevalent. Lead glazed sancai from the Tang dynasty was very popular, as well as the lime glazed Yue celadon wares or low-fired wares from Changsha were just to name a few varieties.
In the Song dynasty the production of porcelain had become one of the first commercialized industries. The city of the Jingdezhen became a central manufacturing hub, using only the most refined stones to develop pieces for the imperial palace. With the rise of scholars and elite class in the Song period, the need for such exquisite wares drove a large amount of productions for restaurants and homes.
Innovation to the manufacturing and design became much more prevalent in Ming dynasty. The Yongle emperor, the third emperor of the Ming dynasty, became particularly fascinated with unusual shapes and designs from foreign countries. He would send out eunuchs and explorers to research different shapes around the Indian Ocean as well as Islamic metalwork in order to translate into new shapes for porcelain. Later, during the Xuande reign, cobalt became of use as the notorious blue underglaze in the porcelain wares. Cobalt, which yields a brilliant color, was previously difficult to incorporate as it would bleed during the firing process. The innovation of mixing the cobalt with magnesium would yield positive results and eventually would become very popular.
The Ming dynasty also heralded a large amount of exportation of porcelain across the globe. In addition to the wares that were provided for domestic use, many wares were manufactured for European markets. The popularity of China’s ceramics, especially the beautiful blue and white wares, led to greater use of Kaolin in the development process. Kaolin, a layered mineral used for medicine and ceramics, not only enhanced the strength of the porcelain but also increased the whiteness of the product. Traders from all across the globe transported large amounts of porcelain to Europe during the 16th century; the entire continent was absolutely crazy to get their hands on the exquisite Chinese wares.
During Quing dynasty the porcelain manufacturing industry saw difficulties and demand. During the Kangxi reign a large part of wares produced were now exported solely to Europe. The shapes and design of the pieces were greatly coveted by European potters. For years they tried to emulate the imported porcelain but the work could not be easily duplicated. However, the Chinese manufacturers were also put in a bind if traders refused their wares since the variety of designs for export were not as popular in Chinese culture. High quality Canton porcelain continued to be exported throughout the early to mid 18th century. By then the Chinese had to compete with European manufacturers and soon the decline of the porcelain became evident by the end of the 18th century.
With the innovation of design, shapes, and techniques it has become quest for collectors and historians to date any existing porcelain piece to discover its origin. The porcelain can tell many different stories: where it was from, what where pleasing designs and colors at the time, what sort of manufacturing techniques was available at its creation. This is one reason why the collection and dating of older Chinese porcelain is so valuable in modern society. In addition to the beauty that pieces that are manufactured today, one can see a rich past of invention and innovation that spans the entire globe.