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Wares Of The Tang Dynasty

[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 )


WE have quoted Professor Fenollosa as expressing the view that creative effort reached its highest plane in the Tang dynasty. Even if any of us venture to differ from that opinion, it behoves us to examine with some care the ceramic art of the time. There is no section of Chinese wares of which examples have come to Western knowledge with greater rapidity and in larger quantity in the last few years : twenty years ago we knew little or nothing of T'ang ceramic art;writing in 1902 Mr. Hippisley 1 says, " The description which has been attempted of the varieties of porcelain hitherto enumerated (i.e. Han and T'ang wares) possesses merely a historical interest.No specimens manufactured prior to the advent of the Sung dynasty have survived to the present day." Even twelve years ago the knowledge of the ceramic work of the Tang dynasty was almost negligible, though Mr. Laufer in 1909 extended enormously our knowledge of the Han wares; at the present time we know more about the potter's craft from the seventh to the end of the ninth century than we do about some of the later wares.

The contents of graves and other excavated sites have furnished us with specimens covering a wide range and displaying a technique and an art which must be seen to be believed. It is doubtful whether any potter of later time could have produced the figure of the Lohan in the British Museum. The figure is forty-seven and a quarter inches high, and the technical skill required to fire such a piece, without cracking it or without collapse of the clay in its plastic state, would be a triumph for a twentiethcentury potter, even if he had the patience to try and do it. The remarks in the T'ao Shuo describing certain Tang wares seem to apply: " Endowed with the high power of the furnace, it is free from fault or crack : annealed by the joint forces of heaven and earth, it will long retain its strength." But if the potting skill is great, the grandeur of the art it displays is greater : to those who wish to realise T'ang art, I suggest that they sit and look at the figure in the British Museum for half an hour. If they do so, I think they will go away impressed.

We have seen in Chapter II how Tai Tsung with the help of his Empress placed the country on a peaceful footing and encouraged artistic developments in all directions; and we have also noted how the notorious Wu Hou encouraged art, though her rule was cruel and exacting. These two names are perhaps the outstanding ones in the history of the Tang dynasty; and to their encouragement of art may be attributed, no doubt, much of the ceramic excellence of the period. As was the case in the Han dynasty, intercourse with Western peoples took place, but to an even greater extent. The Empire was enlarged and trade followed the flag. Commercial prosperity brought in its train more opportunity of studying the artistic products of other countries; and the Tang wares often bear the impress of Persian and even Greek influences, which are readily accounted for by Chinese history.

When we come to the Sung wares it will be found that they are discussed under their respective factory centres; but in the case of the Han ceramic products and those of the T'ang dynasty, we have not yet sufficient data to attribute them to individual factories. The specimens with which we are familiar have been taken from tombs or sanctuaries in different provinces of China; while there is some probability that they were made, as a rule, in the same locality as that in which the tombs were situated, it does not necessarily follow that this was so.

We know from literary data of the existence of a number of factories which were operating in the Tang dynasty, and the names of the principal ones will be mentioned shortly. But there is small doubt that there was a considerable number of pottery centres dotted about all over the country, and the differences in paste and glaze furnish evidence in support of this surmise. On the other hand, there were no " household names " associated with the Tang wares, and such works as the Tao Shuo do not describe the products of any centres comparable in reputation to the Sung factories of Ting Chou and of Lungch'uan, for example.

The two places which are mentioned by early writers as worthy of special attention are the factories which operated at Hsing Chou and Yueh Chou : the first-named was in Chihli and the second in Chekiang. The cups produced at these places when struck gave out " tones which surpassed those of the hanging musical stones of jade." In case the reader has a sufficiently fertile imagination to visualise the ware from Chinese descriptions, it may also be mentioned that the Hsing Chou ware " resembled silver, and was like snow "; while the Yueh Chou product " resembled jade and was like ice." One imagines therefore that the ware of the first place was white, while that of the second was of the nature of a celadon ; and the Samarra fragments referred to on p. 77 give evidence of white wares and celadon wares of T'ang manufacture.

We have less evidence " of the porcelain baked at Ta Yi, so light and yet so strong; resounding like pure jade when struck, and famed through the city of Chin." Ta Yi is in the province of Szechuan on the extreme west of the Empire.

Other T'ang factories mentioned in Chinese writings are Ting Chou, Kuang-chung, and Nan-shan in Shensi; Yii-tzu Hsien and P'ingyang Fu in Shansi; Lo Yang and K'ai-feng Fu in Honan; Shou Chou in Anhui; Fu-liang in Kiangsi; Wu Chou and Wen-chou Fu in Chekiang; Yo Chou in Hunan; and Kuang Chou in Kuangtung. In addition Ching-te Chen, or Ch'ang-nan as it was then called, was beginning to make a name for itself as a ceramic centre.

The body of the T'ang wares varies considerably, as we should expect from the list of factories given above. As will be observed,they were situated in widely separated parts of China where the clay deposits varied in content; moreover, the numerous schools of potters no doubt used different techniques, although they worked on the same general principles.

The paste is often of fine grain and soft, resembling pipeclay in consistency and appearance; this type is easily scratched with a knife. Other bodies are quite hard and cannot be scratched : they rank among the porcellanous stonewares.

The colour of the body also differs : sometimes it is white, or a very pale pink; in other cases varying shades of grey are found, while red bodies are not uncommon. The glazes used during this period were chiefly lead glazes; that is to say, lead silicate entered largely into their composition, giving them a softish consistency. These lead glazes in process of time undergo chemical changes if exposed to appropriate conditions, decomposing to a certain extent and assuming an iridescence: they are also apt to flake off, with the result that we often find bare patches on the glazed portions of specimens, so that the body is exposed. In all cases the glaze is thinly applied and quite different from the thick skins put on the Sung wares. On the other hand, the glaze was allowed to run down the vessels, and terminal drops are found in consequence, but these are not like the treacly Sung finishes.

A feature of the T'ang glazes is the wavy line in which they finish short of the base. As in the case of the Han glazes, crazing of the glaze is found, but this is not intentional and is quite different from the artificial crackles sometimes imparted by the Sung potters. The crazing is natural and due to the soft glaze fissuring by age.

The T'ang potters used a greater variety of glaze colours than did the Han potters. The chief were yellow and green; but brown, blue, purple and black were also employed. The yellow is usually of a rich tone but is sometimes very pale, and little more than a creamy-white or straw colour. The green is a leaf green which also shows a wide range of tones; the brown ranges from an amber yellow at one end of the scale to dark brown at the other. The blue, which is much less common, is a dark but bright blue. In addition to the hard-fired black glaze mentioned below, the Tang potter also employed red and black colours which are not, strictly speaking, glazes at all, but pigments applied to the ware and unfired in the kiln. Black painted ornamentation under a transparent green glaze can be found, and in these examples we find the earliest evidence of under-glaze painting. The T'ang potter was obviously familiar with the use of the high-fired felspathic glazes which were so much exploited in the Sung dynasty. The colours of these are white, brown, black and various shades of celadon green.As would only be natural, these high-fired glazes are found on porcellanous bodies.

The view has been held for some time that the T'ang potter was probably master of the production of a true porcelain; but, until certain excavations in Mesopotamia were made, there was no definite proof of this. The discoveries of Professors Sarre and Herzfeld of Berlin at Samarra furnish definite evidence. The town of Samarra on the Tigris was founded in A.D. 838 and was the capital of the Caliphate until about 883, when it was abandoned and fell into ruins. From the buried remains of the town fragments of Chinese ceramic wares have been retrieved. These consist of white porcelain, glazed in very similar fashion to the Ting wares described in Chapter IX, and of several kinds of celadon ware.The majority of the specimens are portions of bowls and dishes, often fashioned with foliate rims and lobed sides; other fragments appear to be parts of vases or ewers.The base finishes vary from the typical flat T'ang bases to the hollowed-out bases with foot-rims which are characteristic of the Sung wares; some have sand adhering to them. The glaze is a gummy white remarkably like the Ting yao glaze, and presents the same " tear-drop " appearance where the glaze has run more thickly. The celadon specimens vary in colour from a typical Sung celadon to the olive-green associated with the Northern Chinese celadons (see Chapter X). In a few instances there is evidence of incised decoration having been used. A less welldefined group consists of a coarser porcellanous ware with a creamy white glaze which is often crazed.

The importance of these fragments lies in the proof they furnish that the manufacture of true porcelain and the use of high-fired glazes was sufficiently well established in China in the ninth century to ensure an export trade in such ware as far afield as Mesopotamia; and consequently it is fair to assume that the knowledge of the way to make true porcelain was the possession of the Chinese potter at a distinctly earlier date. On Plate V will be seen a small bottle with pear-shaped body moulded in five lobes. The body is porcelain with an ivory white glaze which has formed in places in brownish drops. This specimen shows the characteristic features displayed by the Samarra fragments.

The evidence thus afforded of T'ang porcelain needs to be used with caution, for there is the danger in consequence of antedating a great deal of Sung porcelain of the Ting type and of giving a wrong attribution to some of the celadon wares. Before specimens of the kind can be confidently rated as T'ang, the form must be carefully considered and the general technique taken into account. The Tang potter had not probably achieved so complete a mastery of potting technique as his successor, and his work was no doubt of a more primitive type.

On the other hand, the Tang potter knew most of the essentials of his craft. He was evidently fully conversant with the usefulness of a " slip." The term " slip " implies a fluid mixture of clay and water which may be variously coloured; it is quite opaque, but when a transparent glaze is superimposed, a brilliant, coloured, glaze-like effect is produced.

The Tang potter, moreover, worked with different coloured clays for the bodies of his wares, and so it is that we find such a range of methods employed in the decoration of the period. A vase might be built of a red clay; a thin white slip might then be washed over it. Through the slip a design might be etched or carved, so that the red body showed up the decoration in white; the whole vessel would then be covered with a transparent and almost colourless lead glaze, producing an effect analogous with the technique of the Tz'u Chou potters described in Chapter XI. Before the slip was covered with glaze, different coloured oxides were sometimes washed on, so that a white flower may be seen set among green leaves on a yellow background.

In all cases the work of the artist is distinguished by its boldness and, though rough in its execution, the design is invariably conceived on large lines, in a spirit indicative of a matured art. The T'ang potters occasionally used mixed clays with which to build the bodies of their vessels, so that an agate-like appearance was created; and the vessels, if broken, show the different coloured clays throughout the body. Layers of grey and red clay were blended until a suitable stratification was achieved; the vessel was then moulded and covered with a green or yellow glaze, which gave the red veining an almost black colour.

The potter's wheel was the constantally of the T'ang potter and the vases and bowls show evidence of its use. As a rule the bases of the T'ang vessels are flat and do not finish in footrims as is the case in the Sung wares : sometimes, though not invariably, the circumference of the base is slightly bevelled, and concentric rings caused by the potter's wheel are often found on the bases.

The figures, which will be described in some detail shortly, were made in a mould, and the seams are sometimes visible on the figures; in the larger models the bodies of the figures are hollow. The fact that a mould was responsible for the production of the fine models of men, horses, camels and other animals has given an opportunity to the forger. It is not difficult to make a mould from a genuine Tang figure and thereafter to produce pottery figurines which are extremely difficult to distinguish from the originals; in fact where no glaze is employed, detection is more than difficult. Where, however, the copy has subsequently been glazed, its modernity is more apparent, because the glaze has not had twelve hundred years in which to mature under chemical action.

Another point on which the collector must keep an eye is modern repair of T'ang figures. In their excavation, heads and limbs get detached from bodies, and the Chinese restorer puts the figures together again with the head or-arms of one model on the body of another, or else replaces a missing limb with one of modern manufacture. I have seen an example of the "restorer's " ingenuity in which a broken T'ang model had been mended and added to so as to produce a new type. The foot of a figure was made to serve as the body of a duck!

The T'ang shapes are a continuation of, or a development from, those used in the Han dynasty with which the reader is now generally familiar. The majority of the specimens seen are mortuary wares obtained from tombs, and they comprise accordingly the utensils and vessels deposited therein for the use of the spirits of the departed. But we do not see the miniature cooking stoves, the granary urns, the hill jars, or the other Han grave equipment to anything like the same extent : the mortuary wares seem to comprise either figures or vessels for the reception of food. The figurines will be discussed later because they form perhaps the most important and striking item in the T'ang potter's catalogue. The food vessels generally consist of sets of cups placed on a tray, and glazed in the distinctive green and yellow splashed style. Vases for holding liquids were also placed by the coffin, and these take various forms, all of which are simple but of good proportions : the mouth and lip may be crinkled by bending the paste downwards at five or six points before the glaze was applied. Funeral vases may be of more or less elaborate forms, with figures in applied relief encircling the elongated neck and with incised decoration embellishing the body, the whole being covered with an opaque greenish-grey glaze. It was evidently one of these vases (now in the Victoria and Albert Museum) which Dr. Bushell mistook for a specimen of Ju yao, being led astray by the inscription on the stand of the piece, which read " Kuan-yin vase of Ju Chou porcelain."

Pilgrim bottles, ewers , and wine jars with double handles terminating in dragon or serpent heads were other forms executed by the T'ang potters.

A considerable advance in technical skill over that displayed in the Han dynasty is shown. The applied reliefs are in some respects more ambitious, and incised decoration and stamped designs are to be found. The motives show the result of intercourse with the West. Certain bird forms indicate a Persian origin, and a Greek influence can be recognised not only in some of the decoration but in the shapes of the vases themselves.

The Tang figures furnish a most important section of the early potter's work : not only do they provide examples of his skill in the matter of technique, but the art they display is extraordinarily mature. If we had not been prepared from the study of Chinese history to expect signs of an advanced culture, it would have been difficult to believe that the figures were made in the seventh to the ninth centuries.

It is important to bear in mind the support given to Buddhism in the T'ang dynasty, for it accounts largely for the strong Buddhist inspira tion exhibited in the pottery of the period. Reference has already been made to the great figure of the Lohan in the British Museum, which is a striking example of the same religious influence. Collectors may find it useful to have an explanation of these Lohans. There were eighteen disciples of Buddha, who became deified missionaries or apostles, and who were called Lohans in China (Arhat in Sanskrit, Rakan in Japanese). The original eighteen-there were only sixteen in the earliest days-had lesser personages added to their number; and in large temples five hundred Lohans, each with some distinguishing attribute, may be found.

The animals portrayed by the T'ang potter are perhaps the most interesting and those which display the highest artistic sense. Of these, the horses and camels deserve special attention. The camel is of the Bactrian variety with two humps; the one-humped variety will never be found in T'ang figures. Specimens may be met in which bundles of merchandise are slung between the humps, giving the effect of one, but examination will show the presence of the two humps.

If the camels are fine, the horses are still more splendid: a beautiful example is shown on Plate VIII.The Bactrian horse is quite different from the Mongolian pony which appears in the Han pottery reliefs. The former is immensely more powerful; the muscle development on the chest and haunches is very marked, but the fetlocks and feet are slender. To those of my readers who are horse lovers, these figures will make a strong appeal. In the T'ang dynasty riding was no doubt a popular pursuit, and the Chinese of that time were apparently good judges of a horse, from the evidence furnished by the life-like modelling bestowed upon the figures by the potters.

As we have noted already, the introduction of the Bactrian horse into China dates from 138 B.C.the date of Chang Ch'ien's expedition to the West. Importation soon encouraged the formation of breeding establishments over the country, and studs of these fine animals were, no doubt, the proud possession of the rich. Good specimens of these horse models are not difficult to acquire, either glazed or unglazed; but they fetch a fair price, fair in every sense of the word, for they are great works of art. As a rule the body is hollow to lessen the difficulties of the potter in the moulding and firing.

The ladies appear as tall slender figures very often dressed in elaborate costumes; long sleeves and high-waisted flowing draperies are distinctive features of their apparel, and ornaments in the form of necklaces add to their distinction. The coiffure is characteristic, as the hair is often made up into a pyramidal shape or else twisted round the head in a thick coil with a " bun " in the centre. In all cases the feet are natural and the cramped foot of later times is not to be found in these figures.

Some of these female figures represent musicians with instruments in their hands. As they are found as items in the grave furniture, presumably they were buried for the amusement of the departed.

The male figures vary considerably. Often they represent Western sojourners with faces very unlike the Chinese-the costumes are also somewhat un-Chinese in many cases : a not uncommon headdress found on these models can be derived from Turco-Siberian sources. Sometimes, as seen on Plate IX, figures of actors are found.

The internal conditions of the country during the intermediate period between the Tang and the Sung dynasty were not such as to encourage peaceful arts on any large scale; but, just prior to the formation of the Sung dynasty, the famous Ch'ai ware was made. This porcelain was named after the Emperor Shih Tsung of the family of Ch'ai.

The main ceramic output of these fifty odd years probably did not differ materially from that of the Tang dynasty, and we have little evidence on which to attribute specimens dating from those days. Mr. Eumorfopoulos possesses a vase with a black glaze of the Chien type, which has a mark of the Posterior Chou period; but, since the mark has been cut at a date subsequent to the firing of the piece, no reliable evidence is afforded by it, beyond the fact that someone centuries ago thought it was of that date.

Probably we shall always experience great difficulty in establishing the special characteristics (if any) of the wares of these minor supremacies; they were too short-lived to provide a substantial literature, and of the tombs excavated the percentage which belongs to them must necessarily be a small one. In a book written in the tenth century reference is made to magnificent banquet services which contained several hundred pieces, large and small, requiring table space of thirty feet square to accommodate them. These services were made during the Five Dynasty epoch, but we have only this literary evidence of them.

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