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Ancient Chinese Pottery

Evolution of ceramic ware in China
Paleolithic, Neolithic, Bronze Age

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Example of ancient pottery from Yuchanyan Cave, China, dating to 16,300-13,430 BC.
Reconstructed pot made from sherds taken from the Yuchanyan Cave near Shouyanzhen in Hunan province. The clay was mixed with sand and charcoal and imprinted with a cord-mark pattern. It is one of the oldest ceramic vessels in the world. Image by Professor Gary Todd. CC BY-SA 3.0

When was Pottery First Made in China?

Ancient pottery in China first appeared during the Stone Age, during the Upper Paleolithic.

In 2012, scientists announced that fragments of primitive earthenware had been discovered in the Xianren Cave in China's Jiangxi province, which were subsequently carbon-dated to 18,000 BC, making them the oldest known clay-fired pots in the world. This followed the 2009 discovery of ceramic sherds at Yuchanyan Cave in Hunan Province, which dated to around 16,000 BC. See also: Ancient Pottery Timeline (from 34,000 BC).

Note, however, that ceramic figures (not vessels) were first made at the hunter-gatherer encampment of Dolní Věstonice in Moravia, around 29,000 BC.

What's more, similar terracottas (earthenware sculpture, as opposed to pots) were made in Croatia, around 15,500 BC - long before ceramic know-how reached Europe from China. For details, see: Vela Spila Cave Pottery.

Digging Up Pottery

For a short guide to archaeological digs, see: Archaeology: Prehistoric & Ancient. For a guide to terms, see: Archaeology Glossary.

How Pottery Spread From China

Chinese pottery technology spread east to Japan, becoming Jōmon pottery (14,540 BC), and north into the Russian Far East, becoming Amur River Basin pottery (14,200 BC).

Later, it spread westwards from China to West Asia and the Middle East, ending up in southern Europe (Greece) around 7,500 BC. Classical Ancient Greek pottery would not emerge for another 6,500 years!

Evolution of Prehistoric Chinese Pottery

While Chinese pottery was invented during the Upper Paleolithic, and continued to be made during the Mesolithic culture, it only took off during the period of Neolithic culture, about 5,000 BC, as the population became more settled and started forming towns and cities.

During this final phase of Stone Age culture, the introduction of the potter's wheel and better kilns, as well as the emergence of parallel technologies in smelting and metallurgy, helped to improve the range and quality of all types of ceramic ware.

Neolithic Pottery Highlights

Neolithic pottery in China is usually divided into Early, Middle and Late.

Early Neolithic

Chinese earthenware (7,500-5,000 BC) consisted of red-coloured pots, hand-coiled and fired in bonfires. Decoration was confined to simple patterns applied by stamping and impressing techniques.

Early Neolithic pottery cultures in China included:

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Middle Neolithic

Chinese Middle Neolithic pottery (5,000-4,000 BC) is characterized by deep jugs, as well as red or reddy-brown vessels and oval amphorae. It is also noted for its fine clay pottery decorated with geometric designs. Along the lower Yangtze River, pottery makers specialized in black pottery.

Chinese traditions of the period, included:

Late Neolithic

Chinese Late Neolithic ceramic ware (5,000-4,000 BC) is exemplified by a range of delicate, ceremonial vessels, illustrating the 'painted pottery' culture of the time, including highly polished bowls of black or red pottery, with spirals, black dots, and curvaceous lines.

By 3,000 BC, the standard of craftsmanship being achieved was quite exceptional. Two standout pottery traditions of the late Neolithic are the Yangshao and the Longshan.

Yangshao Pottery (5,000-3,000 BC)

Yangshao culture (5,000-3,000 BC) is noted for two major types of pottery:

Ceramicists produced a narrow range of shapes, such as bowls and jars, which were usually fired at 1000-1500 degrees Celsius. Both the grey ware and the burnished pottery were hand-formed and made from coils of clay. Decoration on the burnished pottery was applied with slips, using colours obtained from managanese and iron. A white slip was added later to the repertoire.

Longshan Pottery

After the Yangshao comes the Longshan culture (3,000-1,900 BC). Like the Yangshao, Longshan potters produced two styles of ceramics.

Chinese Late Neolithic pottery cultures include:

NEXT: See: Prehistoric Art Timeline (from 540,000 BC).

Ancient Art

By the Late Neolithic, Chinese fine pottery had achieved a level of craftsmanship and sheer elegance which was quite exceptional.

Some works were seen as extremely high quality decorative art, much sought after by the elite, whose burial mounds often included quantities of it along with jade carvings, lacquerware, and other precious objects.

This form of ancient art was further enhanced by the development of bronze metallurgy.

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Bronze Age Pottery

China's Bronze Age culture continued the tradition of innovation in pottery, begun during the Neolithic. Developments during the Xia Dynasty (2100-1600), as well as the Shang (1600-1050 BC) and Zhou dynasties (1046-221 BC).

The Shang dynasty, for instance, introduced several key advances in ceramic technology, including advanced stoneware and pottery glazes, using a thin, yellowish green glaze painted onto the vessel.

In addition to the common grey pottery of the dynasty, Shang potters also produced a famous form of ceremonial white ware, containing kaolin (a material later used in porcelain), and decorated with geometric imagery, such as chevrons.

Overall, the Bronze Age led to a series of changes in pottery manufacture. Potters introduced new techniques in high-fired glazing, creating pots with a brownish appearance which presaged Yue ware, a later class of stoneware, decorated with a soft grey-green-coloured glaze, known as celadon.

Towards the end of the Bronze Age, demand grew for the replacement of bronze vessels by cheaper clay vessels, especially for home or funerary use.

As the pottery industry expanded to fulfil this demand, new mass-production processes were introduced to streamline manufacture. They involved a clearer division of labour and a greater use of lacquerware, glazes, stamps, molds, and other methods of decoration.

Qin Dynasty Terracotta Army

The Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC) coincided with the final phase of Greek culture in the Argean and Mediterranean.

The big highlight of Qin dynasty ceramics was the extraordinary Chinese Terracotta Army - a huge collection of 8,000 warriors, 130 chariots and more than 650 horses, together with a large assemblage of sundry courtiers, officials, acrobats, and musicians.

This enormous collection of clay-fired figures - undoubtedly the greatest example of terracotta sculpture in the archaeological record - reportedly took 700,000 workers over 38 years to complete.

It was commissioned by the Qin Emperor Qin Shihuang Ling as a form of funerary art, and was buried with him in 210–209 BC, in order to protect him in the afterlife.

While not pottery, the terracotta army exemplifies some of the many skills acquired by Chinese ceramicists during the Neolithic and Bronze Ages. The project demonstrated the capacity and capability of China's Kiln firing technology, which was an important factor in the growth of the pottery industry.

The two main types of kiln in operation at the time, were the long, thin dragon kilns of hilly southern China, fired by wood, and the more compact horseshoe-shaped mantou kiln of northern China, fired by coal.

Both produced temperatures of up to 1,400 degrees - sufficient for all types of clay-fired pottery, including porcelain.

In addition, the manufacture of the Terracotta Army demonstrates the incredible organizational skills of the Chinese ceramic industry.

What are the Main Types of Ancient Chinese Pottery?

In the West, pottery is usually categorized as one of three types: earthenware, stoneware and porcelain.

The differences lie in the firing temperature and, in the case of porcelain, the materials used in their manufacture.

The Chinese ceramic tradition features only two main categories of pottery: high-fired and low-fired. Earthenware is separate, but stoneware is usually grouped with porcelain to form a 'porcelain spectrum'.

What Exactly is Chinese Porcelain?

Porcelain is the finest type of clay-fired pottery, renowned for its delicacy, strength, translucence and whiteness.

It was invented and developed in China, and is made by heating a mixture of clay, kaolinite and other substances in a kiln to a high temperature - usually between 1,200 and 1,400 degrees Celsius.

There are three main types of porcelain: hard-paste, soft-paste, and bone china, whose qualities vary according to the materials used, and how they are fired.

When was Chinese Porcelain First Made?

The earliest porcelain, known as primitive porcelain, emerged during the Shang Dynasty (1600-1046 BC), but the first real porcelain did not appear until the Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD). Porcelain production techniques continued to improve during the Tang Dynasty (618-907). This form of 'fine china' slowly spread across East Asia, then to Europe, and eventually to the rest of the world.

Why is Ancient Chinese Pottery Important?

Answer: Because it set the foundation for the golden age of Chinese pottery during the Song and Ming dynasties.

The wonders of Song Dynasty Ding ware, Longquan Celadon and the opalescent glazes of Jun Ware pottery, as well as Ming Dynasty blue and white porcelain and Blanc de Chine - owed a great deal to the creativity and manufacturing know-how which emerged during Neolithic and Bronze Age China. (Note: By the end of the Ming, at least three million porcelain vessels were being exported to Europe annually.)

Ancient Chinese ceramics also introduced the idea that aesthetics and functionality are perfect partners.

Throughout the centuries that followed, each dynasty produced mundane pots and vessels for everyday use, but in addition it also created special forms to be used at ceremonial, mortuary or social functions.

Ancestor worship and other funerary rites were especially important occasions, requiring special ceramic ware - witness the enormous cost and effort devoted to producing the terracotta army in order to protect the spirit of Emperor Qin Shi Huang, as he passed over into the next world.

What makes fine Chinese pottery so different from other traditions, is its ability to harmonize the aesthetic and utilitarian sides of life, thus creating a univeral art form of exceptional beauty and functionality.

NEXT: See: Lingjing Bird Figurine, China's oldest sculpture.


(1) Kerr, Rose, Needham, Joseph, Wood, Nigel (2004). Science and Civilisation in China, Volume 5, Part XII: Ceramic Technology. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-83833-9.
(2) Vainker, S.J., Chinese Pottery and Porcelain, 1991, British Museum Press, 9780714114705.
(3) Higham, Charles (2004). Encyclopedia of ancient Asian civilizations. Infobase Publishing. p. 200. ISBN 978-0-8160-4640-9.
(4) Bagley, Robert (1999). "Shang Archaeology". The Cambridge History of Ancient China: From the Origins of Civilization to 221 B.C. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 178. ISBN 9780521470308.
(5) Portal, Jane (2007). The First Emperor: China's Terracotta Army. Harvard University Press. ISBN 978-0-674-02697-1.

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