The Art of Chinese Pottery and Porcelain
The origins of Chinese pottery and porcelain go back to distant antiquity. And from the masterful excellence of Chinese ceramics, we can deduce the painstaking labor that went into making them. In the National Palace Museum in Taipei, you will find many outstanding examples of nearly translucent egg-shell china. Painted on the surfaces of these Ming (1368-1644 A.D.) and Ch'ing (1644-1911 A.D.) period pieces are delicate flowers, grasses, birds, and beasts that make one sigh and wonder how such fine work was ever produced.
Four objective factors influenced the beginnings and development of Chinese pottery and porcelain: clay, fuel, river systems, and markets. Heavy clay and large quantities of fuel are required for pottery and porcelain making. Prohibitively high shipping costs made pottery production economically impractical in areas without these basic prerequisites. So a locale with plentiful supplies of both clay and lumber as fuel had the best potential for setting up a ceramics kiln.
Once a large kiln has been set up, it often continues to produce for hundreds of years. The arts of preparing clay, glazing, and firing are often passed down from generation to generation; so each area will tend to develop its own individual glazes, clays, and decorating techniques, resulting in unique styles and designs. These special characteristics provide much of the basis of modern appraisal of ancient pottery and porcelain pieces: from the particular features of a piece, one can usually pinpoint definitively when and where it was made. Beginning with the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.-220 A.D.), and into the T'ang (618-907 A.D.), Sung (960-1279 A.D.), Yuan (1279-1368 A.D.), and Ming (1368-1644 A.D.) dynasties, large quantities of pottery and porcelain were exported from China to Korea, Japan, the Ryukyu Islands, the Southeast Asian Peninsula, the Philippines, Indonesia, India, the Middle East, the Eastern Coast of Africa, Continental Europe, Great Britain, and the United States. Pottery and porcelain pieces exported during these periods are an excellent source of research materials on the history of China's communications, trade, and economic relations with other countries.
Clay suitable for pottery and porcelain making is produced in the Peitou and Nanshihchiao areas of Taipei. Beginning in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, pottery and porcelain kilns gradually became concentrated in the Yingke Chen area of Taipei County. Today, Yingke Chen is the main ceramic-producing area of northern Taiwan. Due to the accumulation of ceramic-making experience over the years, and the ceramic masters residing in Yingke Chen who have received their craft from previous generations, modern kiln facilities continue to come to Tingke Chen to set up shop. The pottery and porcelain producing centers of central Taiwan are in Miaoli and Nantou counties. Thanks mainly to the plentiful supplies of stoneware clay and rich forest resources of the Shihtoushan area. kilns have sprung up all over these two counties. Some of the kilns in the Miaoli area have begun using natural gas as a fuel for firing pottery. They also import high-quality porcelain clay, and have brought in modern facilities and technologies to further improve the quality of their products.
The key to why ceramic art has been able to develop to such a high level in China lies in the spirit of Chinese craftsmen to strive for excellence. Ceramic and porcelain pieces dating back to various historical periods have demonstrated again and again how Chinese artisans overcame the shortcomings of the materials they used, and how craftsmanship can conquer the difficulties encountered in working with clay. For example, in the late Yuan (1279-1368 A.D.) and early Ming (1368-1644 A.D.) dynasties, the material used to produce porcelain in world-famous Chingte Chen, Kiangsi Province, was porcelain stone mixed with kaolin, a material with relatively poor plasticity. Faced with this difficulty, the porcelain makers of the time came up with the idea of grinding the raw material to an extremely fine consistency, then soaking it in water for several years. This process of hydrolysis increased its stickiness and plasticity. In this way the clay could be stretched and formed on a potter's wheel into beautiful porcelain articles. When half-dry, a special knife was used to shave it until extremely thin; this is how the famous Chinese ``eggshell'' porcelain-a product of the official kilns of the Ming and Ch'ing dynasties-was made. Modern porcelain makers would today be hard put to reproduce this unique process for treating porcelain clay, and the highly developed craftsmanship that accompanied it - even with their state-of-the-art equipment and technologies.
Pottery and porcelain artisans of today have full access to modern technological knowledge, and can freely choose their equipment. But they all still carry on in the traditional belief that man can indeed conquer nature. Some imitate ancient designs, others produce avant-grade pieces. With their minds, their hands, and clay and fire, these potters express the artist's perception of beauty, his professional experience, his sensitivity, and his level of artistic cultivation. A senior potter of Taiwan, Lin Pao-chia , has over the past 40 years come to be known as the ``doctor'' of the Yingke Chen ceramics industry. He can usually come up with an answer to virtually any question or problem regarding ceramics that is brought to him, and he has also helped to cultivate uncounted creative talent in the area of ceramic making. Chiu Huan-tang and Shih Nai-yueh made their contributions by bringing in new ceramic making concepts from the United States, and by creating modern works of ceramic art. These masters have also helped train a new generation of ceramists in their art. Young artists who have distinguished themselves in their field include Lien Pao-chai , Chen Chiu-chi , Yang Wen-ne , Sun Chao , and Feng Sheng-kuang . All have their own richly expressive and creative styles.
In the Republic of China on Taiwan, some ceramists have learned their craft on their own, others through study abroad; but most received their training from the National Taiwan Academy of Arts, the industrial arts department of National Taiwan Normal University, and the ceramics section, chemical engineering department of the Chinese Culture University. Accompanying the rise in the standard of Living in Taiwan, the number of people who enjoy ceramics and themselves like to throw pots is increasing every year. Those who have actually dug into clay with their own hands have the highest appreciation of the masterful creations of the ancient makers of pottery and porcelain. In meeting the challenge of modern art by merging it with traditional culture, Chinese ceramic art looks toward wholly new creative and innovative horizons.
The Eight Immortals, captured in glaze.