OOI Giok Ling

Ornately painted porcelain bowl. Potters of the Ming dynasty concentrated more on painted design and less on form. PHOTO BY BERKSHIRE PUBLISHING.

Porcelain was first made in China about 850 CE. The essential ingredient is kaolin, a white clay that when fired at an extremely high temperature acquires a glassy surface. Porcelain wares were first exported to Europe during the twelfth century. By 1700 trade in Chinese porcelain was immense, with Ming dynasty wares, characterized by cobalt-blue-painted motifs, highly prized.

Porcelain is ceramic material made with kaolin, which is a fine, white clay. Porcelain wares were first made in China about 850 CE during the Tang dynasty (618–907 CE). An Islamic traveler who had visited China in 851 saw clay vessels that resembled glass. Evidence indicates that fine, white stoneware (pottery made from high-firing clay other than kaolin) was made in China as early as 1400 BCE, and potters appear to have been familiar with kaolin during the Han dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE). But the forerunner of modern-day porcelain was not made until the Tang dynasty. Tang dynasty porcelain is known as “hard-paste” or “true porcelain” and was made by mixing kaolin, which is formed by the decay of feldspar, a chief constituent of granite, with petuntse, which is a form of feldspar occurring only in China.

Kaolin is the essential ingredient in porcelain. Found throughout the world, kaolin is known for its white firing characteristics (that is, the finished product appears white rather than gray or brown or rust colored) and high fusion temperature (the high heat required to turn the ingredients into porcelain). Chemically kaolin is made up of kaolinite, quartz, feldspar, muscovite, and anastase. Kaolin and petuntse are fused by firing in a kiln at 980º C, then dipped in glaze and refired at about 1,300º C. Petuntse binds the clay particles and gives porcelain its translucency. The high firing temperatures vitrify the ceramic body, giving it its glassy characteristics.

During the Song dynasty (960–1279) some of the most beautiful Chinese porcelain wares were made, including eggshell porcelain, which was thinner and more translucent than earlier porcelain. Ding ware, made in northeastern China, has a molded design that is emphasized by its typical ivory-colored glaze. Two other types of porcelain were produced slightly later during the Song dynasty: Longchuan and Jingbai wares. Longchuan wares had near-white ceramic bodies under a bluish-green translucent glaze (celadon) that was reminiscent of green jade, a favorite stone of the Chinese. Longchuan ware showed to great advantage the incised or molded decoration of the time. Jingbai ware, produced in Jiangxi Province (which eventually became the center of Chinese porcelain manufacture), was delicately formed and distinguished by a pale blue glaze with decorations of incised flowers and foliage.

Porcelain was not widely produced in China until the Yuan dynasty (1297–1368), when the Chinese began to use a kaolin-based compound to make a material that when fired at high temperatures turned both white and translucent.

Spread to Europe

Porcelain came to be called “china” because it originated in China; china was first taken to Europe during the twelfth century. Portuguese traders began importing china in the sixteenth century. The Portuguese introduced the term porcelain sometime between then and the beginning of porcelain manufacture in Europe in the late eighteenth century. The terms china and porcelain are used interchangeably today, although some people use the term china to refer to figurines and items for use with meals and use the term porcelain to refer to a wider range of products. Thus, a tea set is made from either china or porcelain, but a toilet seat is made from porcelain.

The Chinese formula for making porcelain long remained a secret. During the medieval period Europeans, who had an insatiable appetite for the beauty of kaolin clay, experimented with various materials, hoping to discover the Chinese formula, but it was not discovered until the early eighteenth century. Meanwhile, beginning in the sixteenth century China exported porcelain wares in increasing amounts, particularly its blue and white ware (porcelain decorated with cobalt-blue designs under a clear glaze). The British and Dutch East India companies were the main exporters. By 1700 the trade in porcelain was vast. Porcelain ware of the Ming dynasty (1368–1644) was particularly prized.

Ming and Qing Ware

Potters of the Ming dynasty concentrated more on painted designs and less on the forms of the wares. They had great success with the blue and white wares. Wares with a yellow ground were made when the art of fusing enamels or colored glass onto the surface of the glaze was perfected during the reign (1505–1521) of the Zhengde emperor (1491–1521).

Jingdezhen (in Jiangxi Province), the center of porcelain production, reached its zenith during the reign of the Qing dynasty (1644–1912) emperor Kangxi (1654–1722, reigned 1661–1722). Jingdezhen produced wares for use by the court as well as large amounts of porcelain for the European market. Porcelain wares of great beauty were produced to commemorate the birthdays of emperors. Particularly popular during the reign of Emperor Kangxi was famille verte, which are wares in which shades of green predominate. Then a black enamel background was used, giving rise to the term famille noire and later the famille rose, which included a range of rose pink enamels. Such wares were in vogue during the reign (1726–1795) of the Qianlong emperor (1711–1795), grandson of Emperor Kangxi. Most of the enamel painting was done in Guangzhou (Canton), which was the main trading port.

Further Reading

Honey, W. B. (1945). The ceramic art of China and other countries of the Far East. London: Faber and Faber.

Payton, M., & Payton, G. (1973). The observer’s book of pottery and porcelain. London: Frederick Warne.

Source: Ooi, Giok Ling. (2009). Porcelain. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 1785–1787. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

Porcelain vessels fired with a red glaze. Porcelain came to be called “china” because it originated in China; the terms are often used interchangeably today. PHOTO BY BERKSHIRE PUBLISHING.

A display of “Blanc de Chine” porcelain. Kaolin, a white clay that when fired at an extremely high temperature acquires a glassy surface, is the essential ingredient of porcelain. PHOTO BY BERKSHIRE PUBLISHING.

Porcelain (Cíqì ? ?)|Cíqì ? ? (Porcelain)

Download the PDF of this article