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Pottery Of The Chou, Han And Other Pre-T'ang Dynasties

[General Considerations]  [Historical Review]  [Chinese Grave Customs]  [Pottery Of The Chou, Han And Other Pre-T'ang Dynasties]  [Wares Of The Tang Dynasty]  [Ju Yao And Some Related Wares]  [Kuan Yao]  [Chun Yao]  [Ting Yao And Related Wares]  [Lung-Chuan Yao And Related Celadons]  [Tz'u Chou Yao]  [Chien Yao And Related Wares]  [More Articles Related To Chinese Ceramics] 

( Originally Published 1922 )

FROM study of the early history of China in Chapter II it will have been gathered that rude pottery shapes were made in the earliest times, but we cannot point to examples made of the " scarlet clay which greatly pleased the people about the year 2360 B.C. : nor are specimens known of the vessels made of different coloured clays in the days of Emperor Yao (2357 B.C.).

Pottery utensils dating from the Chou dynasty, which held sway over the long span of years from 1122-255 B.C., are known, and specimens dating from the latter part of the Shang dynasty have been found. These dynasties are chiefly noted on the artistic side for their bronzes, but pottery was evidently made also on an extensive scale for utilitarian purposes. As we shall see shortly, during the succeeding Han dynasty an important development of ceramic art took place, but the Chou pottery was apparently simple in shape and devoid of much embellishment.

The body of the Chou vessels was made of hard grey clay which had no glaze on its surface. The pieces were usually moulded by hand, but specimens are known which exhibit signs of the use of the potter's wheel.'

The ornamentation, such as it is, consists of hatching, and sometimes cross-hatching which produces the effect of a mass of tiny diamond shaped excrescences; a lozenge-shaped pattern may also be found : the hatching effect is seen on the three-footed vase depicted on Plate I. There is an interesting hexagonal vase in the Victoria and Albert Museum which is attributed to the Chou dynasty. On the sides are to be seen figures of animals and of men executed in relief in a very primitive fashion. The paste is a dark cinder-colour.


We have no series of examples which can safely be ascribed to the succeeding Ch'in dynasty (255-206 B.C.); but Mr. Laufer in his Chinese Pottery of the Han Dynasty refers to an important find by Mr. Chalfant 1 of a brick on which is stamped the character Ch'i. The feudal state of Chi was brought under complete Imperial control by Shih Huang Ti about the year 221 B.C.

Though the examples of these very early wares do not exhibit high artistic qualities and are of little more than antiquarian interest, mention of them is necessary to prepare the way for an account of the Han wares. It is remarkable, however, that several centuries before the Christian era Chinese potters had achieved a considerable degree of proficiency in pottery manufacture. In this respect they were not, of course, ahead of the Egyptians or indeed of the Persians, who in several matters were more advanced butaccording to European standards, the Chinese potters were in the sixth form, so to speak, while the inhabitants of the British Isles were in the kindergarten stage.

The Han dynasty proper extended, as we have seen, from 206 B.C.-A.D. 25 and was succeeded by the Later or Eastern Han dynasty from A.D. 25-22I. For our purposes it is not necessary to distinguish between the two epochs, though it is fairly certain that the harder and more porcellanous ware, which is attributed to the Han dynasty, had its origin in the second phase and dates from about the third century.

The Han pottery can be described in a few words so far as body and glaze are concerned. The paste is nearly always of a red colour varying from a deep to a light tone, and consists of a fairly soft faience or pottery : sometimes a cinder or ash-grey body is found, the difference in colour being no doubt due to the different clays existing in various parts of China.

The ware which seems to have been made in the latter half of the dynasty is harder and more porcellanous in its nature : generally of a dark grey colour, it gives a distinct note on percussion. While attempts have been made to establish the fact that " porcelain " was made prior to the Han dynasty, there seems considerable doubt about the matter: but the ware now under consideration certainly has many of the characteristics which would class it as "porcelain" in the Chinese sense of the word.' If we adopt the term porcellanous stoneware to describe a body which is not translucent but which has other attributes of porcelain, much of the Han ware made after the beginning of the Christian era may be classed under that category. The term proto-porcelain has been coined to describe these early bodies which gradually were improved until the substance, by which China is best known to the ordinary person, was evolved.

The view is held in this country that glaze was first used during this period, though that theory has been questioned recently' and the alternative suggestion made that the introduction of glaze dates from about the fifth or sixth centuries, i.e. shortly before the formation of the Tang dynasty. The arguments put forward are of a negative and inconclusive character. Negative evidence in a precisely opposite direction is furnished by comparison of the Han bas reliefs and the Han pottery reliefs and is rejected as equally inconclusive. Until present knowledge of the subject can be strengthened by the results of more research, it is only possible to express an opinion based upon a priori reasoning. We have seen that in the Han dynasty China first came into contact with Western civilization, and it is at least probable that this intercourse gave rise to the use of glaze as a means of embellishing pottery and of making it non-porous.

The advance in technical knowledge denoted by the manufacture of true porcelain as an alternative to the use of pottery bodies only, and by the use of high-fired felspathic glazes in frequent substitution for the low-fired lead silicate glazes, could not have been made very rapidly with the scientific knowledge possessed in those days in China. The process must have been evolved gradually, by experiments conducted by competent craftsmen, no doubt, but by men without full appreciation of the underlying scientific principles. One feels, therefore, that the Chinese must have known how to use the simpler types of glaze for a very considerable time before the early part of the Tang dynasty. The general tendency of further research into Chinese ceramics is to antedate rather than to postdate various types of ware.

The colour of glaze employed by the Han potter, as we hold, is generally green, usually of a deep tone; but many specimens exist in which the glaze is yellow or brown, and there are examples in which a black glaze is found. Owing to long burial and consequent decomposition of the lead glaze, a wonderfully beautiful silver or golden iridescence has been imparted to it, where chemical action has taken place. The effect is striking and difficult to describe: the simile which will best help the reader, until he has seen an actual specimen, is to liken the effect to the silvery skin on the underside of a mackerel. The silvery sheen on that fish's skin,with its copper-gold iridescence, is not at all unlike a Han glaze decomposed by long burial and chemical action.

On the body of some of the later specimens a brown slip is found with a coating of transparent glaze : this technique is interesting, as we shall find considerable use made of it in the T'ang and Sung wares. Moreover, examples will be found where the glaze has run down in streaks, to end in terminal drops short of the base of the vessel; and this feature will also be found to have its counterpart in later wares.

The typical Han pottery, however, consists of a darkish red or grey clay with a green or brown glaze washed over it more or less completely to the base, and this glaze nearly always has a silvery iridescence to a greater or less extent. The glaze is usually minutely crazed , and it is common to find also incrustations of hardened earth adhering to the surface, due to centuries of burial.

The ware was fired in the kiln supported on " spurs," which were small projections on which the vessel rested. " Spur " marks, usually three or five in number, are found on the base of the specimen as a result. In some specimens " spur " marks are found on the mouth-rims and the flow of the glaze points to inverted firing.

While the general characteristics of body and glaze do not differ materially, a wide variety of shapes was used by the Han potters, and it is worth while to mention the main types, so that collectors may know what specimens they may expect to see. It will not be possible to deal exhaustively with the subject in a book of this scope, and those who are desirous of studying Han pottery deeply are directed to Mr. Berthold Laufer's treatise on the subject.

The Han wares were made for the actual use of the living and the supposed use of the dead. One may be struck by the artistry displayed in the decoration of the former as compared with the severe simplicity and crudeness of the latter. But there is not much cause for surprise : the living eye could appreciate and enjoy decoration and motives which the spirit might pass over; besides, the object of the grave utensils was to minister to the new corporal wants of the departed one rather than to satisfy his aesthetic taste. An analogy may be found in our own times in Rosslyn Chapel near Edinburgh, where the chancel contains such splendid works of art as the Master's and the Prentice's Pillars but the crypt consists of bare brick walls.

From what has been stated in Chapter III, the underlying idea of these grave vessels will have been realised, and we are consequently in a position to discuss both classes without further explanation, remembering that on some occasions the utensils were specially made for tomb deposit, while on others the crockery used in every-day life was placed by the coffin. The wares specially made for the use of the spirit inhabiting the tomb took the form of models of the implements, etc., used by the living : thus, miniature granary towers and urns, models of farm sheds and wells, with buckets standing on the rims, have been found, in addition to diminutive cooking-stoves and cooking utensils.

In connexion with these cooking arrangements, braziers of different forms were provided. These consisted of cylindrical jars in the top of which fitted a shallow bowl, perforated with holes to let the embers fall through to the bottom. Ladles or spoons are not difficult to find; these are in the shape of a spatula as a rule, but occasionally consist of a shallow oval bowl elongating into a narrow handle. The features of the bowls and dishes hardly need description, but some account must be given of the chief forms of jars and vases of the period. These vary from rather stumpy, globular receptacles with short necks to graceful vases built on a sturdy plan; an example is seen on Plate II. Many are evidently modelled on bronze shapes. Some of the most desirable have " tiger " masks through which dummy ring handles pass. The handles are not loose but are laid on the body, and serve to complete the resemblance to their bronze prototypes. The vases are also frequently decorated with bands in relief; the general nature of the ornamentation of these is described later.

There are two types of jar which require particular attention, as they are specially characteristic of Han times. They are the so-called " hill censers " and " hill jars." We have seen that Wu Ti (140-86 B.C.). that great representative of the house of Han, was strongly imbued with Taoist doctrines, and his leanings in this direction were shared by his successors in the Later Han dynasty. One of the Taoist theories was that there existed certain mountainous Isles of the Blest, on which those attaining immortality resided. To reach, therefore, these island abodes of bliss was the constant hope of Taoist believers. Scenes based upon this myth are commonly found depicted on the later porcelains, where may be seen raftloads of philosophers, priests and other Taoist notables making their precarious journey on the high seas in search of these mountainous islands, which apparently were thought to be situated somewhere in the neighbourhood of Japan. The Emperor Shih Huang Ti in the third century B.C. sent a party in search of these fairy isles under the command of a professor of magic, who took with him a troop of young men and maidens; but the expedition proved fruitless, being driven back by contrary winds.

These hill censers are called po shan lu, or braziers of the vast mountain, and derive their title from the shape of the cover, which resembles a mountain peak. They represent the hilly features of the Isles of the Blest. The covers may be loose or may form part of the body; in either case they are perforated so as to allow the incense smoke to issue from them. The globular bowls of the censers are placed on stems which in turn are fixed to saucer dishes. The effect is to give the idea of a hilly island surrounded by water.

Incense was first imported into China in the Han dynasty as a result of the intercourse with the West which took place during that epoch : this fact, when coupled with the Taoist leanings of the time, accounts for the popularity of this kind of ware.

The hill jars are similar in type.They consist of cylindrical vessels resting on three feet, which are generally shaped like squatting bears.The hill jars are larger than the hill censers and the covers are boldly moulded in the shape of one or more mountains with waves lapping their bases. The bodies of the jars are often decorated in relief with typical Han motives. A specimen is illustrated on Plate III.

The purpose of these jars is not known : they could hardly have been intended for incense burning, as the covers are not perforated. Probably they were made for mortuary purposes solely and for burial with the dead, in order that their presence might facilitate transference of the departed one to the Isles of the Blest, which they represented, and so to the land of immortality and perpetual peace.

The methods of ornamentation of the Han wares and the motives employed are important to note, for it is in this dynasty that we first find a potting technique comparable with that used in later times. Moreover, an artistic feeling is displayed which, if a little crude, exhibits a boldness and directness which we can admire without making any allowance for the early date at which it was inspired.

The potter obtained his ornamental results by three methods.The ware was sometimes pressed in moulds, which contained impressed designs; when the mould was removed, the design stood out in relief upon the surface of the vessel. Or a stamp was used, which produced a somewhat similar result. A third method was to make the decoration separately in a mould and then to apply the decorated strip, so made, to the body of the vessel, luting it on with moist clay Whatever the plan adopted, the piece was then glazed, before being fired in the kiln.

The Han folk were evidently great huntsmen, for most of the motives employed are based upon hunting scenes in which men on horseback or on foot are depicted pursuing, with the help of dogs, stout quarry such as tigers and boars, besides less dangerous animals like deer and birds. Considering the time that has elapsed since these decorations were moulded, the reliefs stand out with remarkable distinctness and, while exposure to moisture and chemical influences have partly obliterated the designs, enough remains to show how strong was the art and how life-like the spirit.Hunting dogs are to be seen leaping at their prey or coursing after it ventre k terre : the huntsman may be seen thrusting a spear down the throat of a tiger in a more possible manner than the plan which St. George is supposed to have adopted for dealing with his dragon. The Han huntsmen seem, however, to have been in the habit of coping with mythical animals as well, because fearsome beasts with four legs and wings are found. Sometimes this type of monster is left to the mercies of an equally monstrous being in the form of a demon.

Domestic animals are also found modelled in pottery; verbal description is perhaps hardly necessary in the case of most of these, but some discussion of the dogs and horses, especially of the latter, is necessary to pave the way for the acquaintance we shall make of the equine figures constructed with such success in the Tang dynasty.

The Han hunting dog was evidently of two breeds; there was the fleet greyhound type used for the pursuit of deer, and the stockier-built mastiff variety. Models of the latter type were evidently made for tomb deposit to serve as guard dogs to protect the spirit of the departed one and the tomb generally from undesirable visitors. These guard dogs are powerfully built animals with well-developed teeth, and their tails are invariably curled pug-dog fashion over their backs.

Mr. Laufer considers that the mastiff type of dog reached China through the medium of the ancient Turks; and he also points out that the Pekingese pug, or sleeve dog, so called from the position in which it was carried, was similarly of Turkish origin. These pet dogs are first mentioned in the T'ang books; and ladies who today have pets of this description may be interested to know that in China the same small bundles of hair and eyes delighted society some twelve or thirteen hundred years ago.

The origin and date of introduction into China of the powerful horse of massive proportions are more important. About the year 138 B.C. the Emperor Wu Ti sent one of his generals, Chang Ch'ien, on an expedition to the West, but the general was captured and remained in captivity for over ten years. On his escape he brought back the cultivated grape and taught his countrymen how to make wine. During his travels in Bactria he came across the knotted bamboo which he introduced into his native country. The intercourse with Bactria, which thus took place, was no doubt instrumental in bringing to China the Bactrian horse and the Bactrian camel. The Han bas-reliefs show the powerfully-built Bactrian horse which is so different from the Mongolian pony, and we may date the introduction of this type of steed to that time; though the horse depicted on the Han pottery is of the small Mongolian breed common in China today and from very early times. If it were not for the evidence of the Han bas-reliefs, the absence of the Bactrian horse on the pottery reliefs would point to an earlier date than 140 B.C. or thereabouts for their production; but Mr. Laufer does not consider such negative evidence as determining. When we come to the Tang pottery we shall find many splendid examples both of the Bactrian horse and the two-humped camel. We shall also see more striking testimony of the influence of Scythian art in that dynasty, though examples of the typical Scythian peaked cap, for instance, and of the riding costume and method of shooting with bow and arrow from the saddle, which were derived from Turco-Siberian sources, will be found on Han pottery. For instance, the relief ornament seen on the vase depicted on Plate II shows a horseman shooting an arrow at a charging (?) leopard from the saddle. For a most interesting account of the influence of this early Western intercourse on Chinese art in the Han dynasty the reader is directed to Prof. Fenollosa's book.

Between the date of the fall of the House of Han and the institution of the T'ang dynasty there is a space of nearly four hundred years, and some mention must be made of the ceramic wares which were then produced ; but our information is far from satisfactory at present. In Chapter II a brief account is given of the constantly changing ruling powers which in turn held sway, and from it will be gathered that China passed through a disturbed period at that time. The settled government of the Han dynasty no longer existed, and the various warring states which successively got the upper hand had no time, if they had the inclination, to establish a social system conducive to the arts of peace.

Thus it is that we have no extensive literary record of the ceramic art of the time, and have to attribute specimens to it on rather general grounds and in a very tentative fashion. To the orderlyminded this process is vexing, for naturally enough there is a desire to fill up the lacuna with a series of accredited wares, which will connect the great Han dynasty with the equally great T'ang epoch. Specimens certainly exist which appear to be pre-T'ang and yet dissimilar from the typical Han productions, and these are assigned tentatively to one of the regimes which controlled China in part at this date. The most popular pigeon-hole in which to place these specimens is the Northern Wei dynasty (3g6-535) The figure on horseback illustrated on Plate IV may perhaps be ascribed to this period.

It is important to trace the influence of Buddhism in the art of this time, and in this quest we receive much assistance from Prof. Fenollosa. Buddhism is said to have been first introduced into China by Ming Ti in A.D. 65; but a new religion takes time to root itself, and it was not till somewhere about the third century of the Christian era that Buddhism exerted any appreciable influence. Consequently, it was not until after the fall of the Han dynasty that reflection of the faith was made in artistic pro duction :even then it wasin architectural expression and in sculptural art that its influence was chiefly apparent.

Among Chinese floral motives, the lotus is typical of Buddhist India; while in the statuary of the period, apart from figures of Buddha himself, the enlargement of the ears is a noticeable Buddhist feature, especially in the Lohans. The depressed chest, symbolical of the mystical withholding of the breath, is a further Buddhist element.

Of the different houses which held control in this inter Han-T'ang period, the Sui dynasty (589-618) was the most devoted to Buddhism, but during the division of the country between the North and South Buddhist influence first began to make a real impression. The South was the section of the country that proved most susceptible to its call, partly owing to its closer proximity to Burma and India and partly to the fact that the hardier Northerners were imbued with practical rather than romantic ideals : in consequence the contemplative aspect of the religion did not find such receptive material upon which to work.

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