Chinese civilization dates back more than 8,000 years, with written records going back more than 3,500 years. Chinese historians have traditionally used the names of dynasties—a dynasty is a family of kings or emperors—as a way of tracing their history.
Neolithic period (c. 6000–c. 1650 BC)
The first Chinese people to leave remains of their ceramic objects were farmers who lived in small settlements along China’s great rivers, the Yellow, the Wei, and the Yangzi. They made simple food vessels by coiling strips of clay, which they painted with geometric designs. They also made clay models of the human body.
Shang Dynasty (c. 1650–c. 1050 BC)
The Shang dynasty is the first line of Chinese rulers about whom written records and archeological evidence can be found. This kingdom was located in northern China. At this time the potter’s wheel may have been used to form glazed earthenware for everyday use as well as in ceremonies. Huge Shang dynasty burials have been found, filled with the bones of people and animals as well as elaborate bronze vessels.
Zhou Dynasty (c. 1050–256 BC)
The Zhou dynasty conquered the Shang and lasted for nearly 800 years, though war and chaos often swirled around them. Two great Chinese systems of thought arose in this time: Confucianism and Daoism. Ceramic objects began to replace more expensive bronze vessels in tombs, and ceramics technology continued to advance.
Qin Dynasty (221–206 BC)
After a period of war and turmoil, China was united for the first time under the short-lived Qin dynasty (pronounced “Chin” dynasty—from which China gets its name). The first emperor of this dynasty, Qin Shihuangdi (reigned from 221 to 206 BC), united the empire through a centralized bureaucratic government. The Qin built systems of roads, waterways, and began the Great Wall. The emperor maintained huge armies. It was in the tomb complex of Qin Shihuangdi that the famous mass-produced life-size terracotta warriors and horses were found.
Han Dynasty (206 BC–AD 220)
During the Han dynasty, China experienced a period of stability and growth. The empire expanded to territories now part of southern China, northern Vietnam, and parts of Korea. Important developments included the adoption of Confucianism as the official state ideology, scientific and technological developments such as the invention of paper and the compass, and economic expansion brought about by new trade routes (the Silk Road) through Central Asia to India and Persia.
The wealthy elite’s increasing interest in elaborately furnished tombs led to the mass production of armies of ceramic figures made using molds. Burial ceramics made during the Han dynasty were decorated with simple but colorful designs painted directly onto the unglazed fired pieces or with brown and green lead-based glazes that could be fired at low temperatures.
Sui Dynasty (AD 581–617) , Tang Dynasty (AD 618–907)
After a period of conflict, China was reunited by Yang Jian, a powerful military leader. Yang Jian and the Sui dynasty laid the foundations for the subsequent Tang dynasty, a period of economic prosperity, military security, supremacy in foreign relations, territorial expansion, and cultural sophistication. At the height of the Tang dynasty, China was the largest and most powerful empire in the world, and traders and diplomats traveled to China to share in its greatness. The arts and literature prospered, and the Chinese embraced Buddhism, brought earlier from India and Nepal. Ceramic production flourished during this period, and shapes were influenced by objects from the Middle East and Central and West Asia.
By the 6th century AD, the combination of fine white clay and sophisticated kiln technology gave birth to the first translucent white ceramics known as porcelains. Both these porcelains, and the period’s fine green-glazed wares (later called “celadons” by the Europeans) became highly prized by both the wealthy Chinese and foreigners. It was also during the Tang dynasty that sancai (“three-colored”) wares were first made for burial, using lead-based glazes that produced mottled and streaky effects in green, amber-brown, and cream, with an occasional addition of blue.
Song Dynasty (AD 960–1279)
Following another period of upheaval, China was again consolidated during the Song dynasty, a period of great prosperity, scientific inventions, and overseas trade. Stimulated by patronage from the Song emperors, the arts and literature flourished once again.
During the Southern Song dynasty (AD 1127-1279), porcelain kilns were established at Jingdezhen, where porcelain is still produced today. Jingdezhen came to dominate the Chinese porcelain industry because it is close to deposits of high-quality porcelain clay and to two major river systems for transport. The Jingdezhen kilns were particularly successful because of their innovative use of assembly line methods. The widespread demand for Chinese ceramics during this time, both from a growing Chinese middle class and from foreign merchants, led to a diversity of shapes, glazes, and decorative motifs.
Yuan Dynasty (AD 1279–1368), Ming Dynasty (AD 1368–1644)
In 1215, China was invaded by the Mongols, who ruled China as the Yuan dynasty. The Jingdezhen kilns continued to produce great quantities of porcelains during this period, and a growing demand for Chinese ceramics in the Middle East stimulated the Mongol rulers to boost ceramic output for export.
Chinese rule was reinstated at the beginning of the Ming dynasty, which became one of the longest and most stable dynasties in China’s history. In the later half of the Ming dynasty, European traders established direct contact with China and stimulated the ever-growing ceramics market to produce objects with new shapes and designs. Perhaps the most famous type of ceramics made during this period are the blue and white porcelains, which are white porcelain bodies painted with underglaze blue and then covered with a transparent glaze before firing. Many blue and white porcelain pieces were commissioned by the Chinese Emperors, and, starting in the late 16th century, by wealthy Europeans and Middle Eastern rulers.
Qing Dynasty (AD 1644–1911)
At the end of the Ming dynasty, the Manchus from Central Asia invaded from the north and established China’s last imperial dynasty, the Qing dynasty. During this time, China’s strong leadership and good government stimulated the last imperial golden age, during which the population expanded at unprecedented rates and contact with European missionaries and traders proliferated.
During the Qing dynasty, colorful enamel porcelain overglazes were invented. Imperial patronage stimulated one of China’s most intense periods of ceramic production, characterized by unmatched technical expertise and refinement in blue and white, monochrome, and polychrome ceramics.
Chinese Republic, Peoples’ Republic of China
In the 19th century, internal government corruption and the Opium Wars (1840-42) brought about imperial collapse, and in 1911, revolutionary groups inspired by Dr. Sun Yixian (also known as Sun Yat-sen, 1866-1925) overthrew China’s last imperial dynasty. In 1949, Mao Zedong (1893-1976) led the Communist Party to power, bringing with it today’s People’s Republic of China.