Sometimes I am haunted by the idea that I want to spend the rest of my life in the basement of the British Museum or an auction house in Hong Kong in the company of the bright ceramics and sublime tea tools of bygone eras. I confess I have written this article to share this passion with you so that we can continue to explore the beauty of tea ceramics together. Consider this visual guide the first step towards realizing my dream. In view of the almost infinite magnitude and inexhaustibility of the subject, we should begin purposefully with an introduction to Chinese ceramic types, and only later should we dive into the details slowly and gradually.

Survival of Ancient Styles

China may never have been completely united, even during the imperial period of its history; it was divided into separate territorial units several times over the millenia. Even so, we can say that the oldest living civilization to have actually survived is in China. Even the first advanced Neolithic cultures, that started to emerge as early as 7000 BC on the territory of present-day China, have a great impact on the appearance of contemporary Chinese ceramics.
The pottery of farming villages, brought on by the independent development of tribal settlements around the Yellow River and the Yangtze River about 7000 years ago, made vessels for a variety of purposes including ceramic jars to store the harvested crops, mortuary and sacrificial objects. Over the millenia of boundless social and technological development following the initial steps, the pottery of the area remained of outstanding standard, and has become a tradition respected and preserved by all artisans.

A group of globular jars with painted curvilinear designs, Neolithic period, Majiyao and Yangshao cultures. Source: Christie’s

Today’s artifacts and tea tools provide valuable information about human past: different historical ages and cultures are reflected in their styles, forms and manufacturing techniques. This is also due to the fact that during the continuous transformation of the empire, internal migration favored cultural transmission as well as the spread of technological achievements. Over the centuries, ceramic art and tea culture had a mutually beneficial relationship; we can say that tea drinking was the direct incentive in the development of some ceramic styles. In other cases, the clay and glazes, that had previously been applied to make storage vessels, sacrificial ewers or mortuary pottery, started to become widely used for producing tea vessels.

Copying, Imitation, Counterfeiting

When studying ceramic styles and unique pieces, it is worth clarifying the difference between these three concepts, as they are a far cry from each other, especially in the eyes of the Chinese. The habit of copying and its role in education still play a huge part in the survival of old styles. Not only does copying provide students with a foundation of practice and a high level of craftsmanship, but even great masters often copy their contemporaries or go back to old forms and styles. In the case of the classical pieces of outstanding artists, the successors look at the creation of the original version as a professional feat and do not think of the masterpiece made in this way as a copy. In this case, the copy is a tribute to its great predecessor.

Zhou Guizhen master potter and her teacher Gu Jingzhou. Source: Taohuren

Copying famous styles and works of art is a tribute to the historical age and the creator, and it reveals that the artisan knows and respects their great predecessors.
Today, imitation is more common. It means that a product is copied in a way that does not exactly match the original piece and then offered for sale under the same name. In the case of counterfeiting, the name of the original maker (not the faker), era or brand is indicated on the item. The seals, signatures, markings, and sometimes the materials used are so faithful to the original that they are suitable to deceive customers and even experts.
This is an issue worth paying attention to as there are rare and prestigious glazes, shapes or works whose low-level copies are worthless, their high-quality copies, however, bear the marks and are carriers of original excellence. In the case of today’s guan or tianmu-style glazes, in the knowledge that they are reminiscent of the Song Dynasty, the glazed wares are referred to as Song Dynasty or Song style ceramics.

Commonly Used Terms: Ceramics, Stoneware, Porcelain, Celadon

Ceramics is a collective term including vessels and other articles made from clay hardened by heat. Stoneware is special pottery in which the clay is obtained by grinding and mixing certain mineral rocks into a powder and then kneading and maturing it with water. Its composition is not the same as that of the clays mined in Hungary. These low-porosity, precision ceramics, fired at very high temperature, unlike their predecessors, are not water-permeable and are much harder, more solid and more durable. Some of their types are burnt white or light gray; these are called porcelain-like clays, which are still used by pottery today in addition to real porcelain. Porcelain is made of a special stone clay, its two distinct components are kaolin and porcelain stone (dunzi), it also contains feldspar, quartz and mica, which make it flexibly formable with high strength and perfect waterproofing properties. In the 16th-17th centuries, porcelain differed significantly from the chunky, usually dark glazed or unglazed earthenware of Europe due to its fineness, strength, and white color, therefore it became extremely popular in a short time. Because of its elasticity, it allowed the use of special decorations and designs, creating an upscale atmosphere at the table. Finally, celadon is a collective term for greenish blue, pale blue and light green monochrome glazed ceramics. The bluish, greenish hues are caused by the varying proportions of iron oxide and titanium oxide mixed in the glaze in a reduction atmosphere. This glaze has been known since the 3rd century and is still very popular today. The Chinese use the term qingzi (greenish blue) for this type of ceramics, the term celadon was coined by European collectors. Celadon pieces have crackle or non-crackle glazes; the crackle pieces exude a wonderful, ancient atmosphere.

The Triple System of Classification

The books presenting Chinese pottery focus on art styles and technological solutions that come with changes in the way of living and thinking within historical ages and dynasties, which are shaping them. In such an approach, it is difficult for us to grasp an object, because if we have a porcelain cup with a lotus flower pattern, we do not necessarily want to follow the stages of porcelain art across dynasties and learn about the negligible differences between the kilns. For us, the main thing is to recognize the style and value of the object and then let ourselves be touched by the technological skills, craft knowledge, artistic sensitivity, intent and message that is present in it.
Returning to the classification of ceramics, we can examine the issues of identification and origin in the following triple system:

  • the historical age and dynasty (influences of different ages)
  • the art style (colors and glazes)
  • famous kilns and ceramic villages.

The dynasty-based classification shows the effects of the spirit of age, social and technological development, prosperity, religious and philosophical tendencies. In this respect, the Song Age can be considered the golden age of Chinese ceramics due to the development of tea culture in the Yuang and Ming Dynasties, when loose tea and gong fu cha first became widespread.

By artistic styles we mean the enrichment of glazes and color variations, which can be related to the gradual discovery of metals and the different colors coming from the burning of metal oxides. Further improvements were made by the enrichment of design and decoration, the appearance of more detailed, more sophisticated vessels.

Famous Kilns were commonly located in areas with easy access to good quality raw materials (nearby clay deposits), fuel (forest areas) and water (transport and processing). From the time of the Five Dynasties and the Tang Dynasty, there were official kilns built and inspected by the imperial court that made the utensils ordered by the court exclusively for them. When kilns were established, they were connected with settlements and were named after them.

Famous Constellations

Here we cannot do without mentioning the two groups according to type, that are often referred to together by ceramic experts, collectors, or lovers of Chinese porcelain. One of them is the group of the famous kilns of the Song Age, including the Five Famous Ceramic Types of the Song Dynasty (五大 名窯 Wu Da Ming Yao): Guan Yao, Ge Yao, Ding Yao, Ru Yao, Jun Yao and Tianmu or Temmoku. The other group is the Four Famous Types of Potteries: Yixing (Jiangsu Province), Nixing Qinzhou (Guangxi Province), Jianshui (Yunnan Province), Anfu Rongchang (Chongqing). I will go into details below.

The great official kilns of the Song Dynasty: Ge, Guan,Ru, Jun, Ding, Jian

Hidden Meaning of Decorations and Shapes

After we identify the art style or the kiln, we examine the form, ornamentation, and motifs used. A teapot or cup will be much more valuable to us if we know the meaning of the motifs, the hidden message of the object. In this respect, we can find ancient motifs (sun, geometric forms), China’s mythological heroes, thoughts of famous philosophers (Confucius, Lao Ce), symbols and figures of the Taoist worldview and Buddhist religion, symbols of fortune, phonemes and stylized images of plants and animals.

Chronology of Events and Cultural Influences

Date and Dynasty Ceramic ware and tea culture Craftsmanship, technology, philosophy, religious thinking
Neolithic cultures
7000-2000 BC
Yangshao culture
Longshan culture
Majiayao culture
Clay and ceramic vessels, advanced pottery.
Shen Nong discovers tea. Tea spreads as a medicinal herb.
Jade carvings, jade jewellery c. 4000 BCE onwards.
Firing clay in the kiln.
Low-fired, porous, vulnerable ceramics. Firing temperature: 600-1100 C.
The potter’s wheel is invented, signs of wheel on pottery.
Curvilinear designs with circles.
Fired red enamel painting, geometrical decoration. Stylized plant and animal patterns, masks.
Incisions, polishing.
Bronze Age Cultures
Xia Dynasty 2100-1700 BC
Bronze and copper vessels, tools and weapons.
Compressed bamboo stick tea, bamboo tea tools, bamboo bowls. Bronze vessels.
Yunnan, South-China, the birthplace of tea.
The discovery of bronze: alloying copper and tin. Metalworking.
Taoism: first cosmology, heaven and earth, the role of chi, yin and yang, their influence on human body and mind. The quest for immortality.The invention of writing in China.
The Bulang tribe starts to collect tea tree leaves in the forests near the China-Burma border.
Bronze Age Cultures
Shang Dynasty 1700-1100 BC
Sacrificial vessels, bronze inscriptions, oracle bones.
First South-Chinese (Zhejiang) ash-glazed porcelain.
More resistant, solid, non-porous, glazed ceramics.
Vases, ritual objects.
Porcelain-like ceramics, jade and white marble figurines
High level of bronze metallurgy.
Incised and relief decorations, distinctive animal motifs: tao tie, a monster with large protuberant eyes and horns.
Further development of writing.
South China (Zhejiang): high-quality clays, kaolinic clays. Wood ash glaze, rich in calcium carbonate imparts a shiny surface to the pottery. Evolution
of high firing.
Making tea without the addition of other herbs.
Zhou Dynasty 1100-221 BC
Warring States Period 453/403–221 BC
Glazed wares, early porcelain.
Bronze vessels with detailed ornaments, inlays of gold and silver. Ritual, ceremonial vessels.
Vertically divided bronze vessels, their vertical division symbolizes the four worlds. Writing on metal vessels.