A History of Asian Pottery and Ceramics

Pottery may have originated in the area around the Mediterranean, but it was also evolving in other parts of the world.

The pottery of China
The Chinese started making pottery about 3,500 BCE. Besides being used for everyday objects, pottery was an important part of funeral rites, with ceramic objects buried along with their owners. Eventually these objects were formed into the likenesses of people, to be buried with rulers in place of their still-living counterparts.

The Chinese started using glazes about 300 BCE. By the time of the Tang dynasty, which began in 618 CE, there were many different colors of glazes being used. The Tang dynasty also saw the development of the first true porcelain. During the two dynasties that followed, the Sung and the Yuan, the making of porcelain became an art form.

The Ming dynasty, founded in 1368, brought a welcome peace to a land that had been torn apart by war (principally with the Mongols). The pottery of this time is more sophisticated and uses many different techniques, including a red glaze that had not been available before. But the most notable objects are probably those in plain blue and white, adorned with images of plants and flowers.

The Ming dynasty endured for almost 300 years. It was followed by the Ch’ing dynasty, which saw a trend toward more simple designs. But there was also a drive toward perfection, so that it occasionally took several people to make just one item.

The pottery of Korea
Korean pottery also dates back to ancient times. As in China, it was used in funeral ceremonies, with the objects buried along with the deceased. This custom changed in the eighth century when Buddhism became the main religion; vessels that were previously buried were not used to hold ashes.

Korean pottery was frequently based on Chinese designs, particularly during the Sung dynasty. However, Korean potters developed some of their own techniques, including mishima, the use of colored clays for inlay work.

The pottery of Japan
Japanese pottery developed about 2,000 BCE-slightly later than that of the Chinese. Besides making everyday objects, the Japanese made figures of soldiers and horses, some of them life-sized, and in such large quantities that they must have had a streamlined way of making them.

Some Japanese pottery designs were based on those of the Koreans and Chinese, but they also developed their own styles. A big influence was the Japanese tea ceremony of Zen Buddhism, which created a need for specialized types of pottery with very simple designs. The Japanese also invented the technique of raku, which involves firing at relatively low temperatures and removal of the object from the kiln while it’s still red-hot.

Pottery techniques and designs always tend to reflect the cultures in which they develop. This is particularly true of the pottery of Asia. It may have evolved relatively isolated from the rest of the world, but its sophistication is very much a product of the cultures that produced it.

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