Pot sancai dragon handle


© China Heritage Project, The Australian National University


Sancai pot

with a bowl-shaped mouth and double-dragon handles
unearthed from tomb no. 4 at Guanlin, Luoyang, Henan

Book Review:
Wang Guangyao, Zhongguo gudai guanyao zhidu
(China's ancient system of official kilns)

Many chapters in the history of Chinese pottery and porcelain technologies have been revised or rewritten over the past two decades in the light of discoveries and advances in ceramics archaeology. Recent finds of ancient ceramics in Xi'an, for example, have resulted in a modification of the history of Tang dynasty sancai (tricolour) porcelain firing (see pot above), while the discovery of porcelain ritual musical instruments in a tomb at Hongshan near Wuxi in 2004 have necessitated that the invention of proto-celadon be dated several centuries earlier than previously known, to the Spring and Autumn period (722-481 BCE).

The discovery in 1996 of the Tiger's Cave kiln site in Hangzhou, discussed at length in this book, has renewed study and debate regarding the Xiuneisi and other official kiln sites of the Southern Song dynasty (1127-1279).

Over the past twenty years, archaeological work has focused on the technical aspects of kiln firing, as well as on the delineation of kiln systems. The increasing sophistication of our knowledge of the location of production centres has resulted in a heightened awareness of the economic, social and ecological impact of the ceramics industry in ancient China.

Finds of Chinese ceramics also serve as evidence of an international trading system that predated the European rise to a position of global hegemony from the late 15th century onwards. Archaeological finds now also enable us to appreciate better the role Jingdezhen in Jiangxi province, as a ceramics production centre, played in a Chinese proto-industrial revolution which took place during the Ming and Qing dynasties.

Wang Guangyao, a scholar at the Palace Museum, has made important contributions to our increasingly complex and nuanced understanding of ancient Chinese kiln systems, and especially imperial kilns.

Wang Guangyao makes it quite clear that the official kilns are not to be identified as 'imperial kilns' (yuyao), a term only appropriate for specific institutions of the Ming and Qing dynasties. The imperial kiln of the Ming dynasty was termed Yuqi-chang,while that of the Qing was the Yuyao-chang.

The Ming dynasty Yuqi-chang was established in the 1st year of the Xuande reign (1426) and, although it was created on the basis of the guanyao system, it was not the logical result of the development of the official kiln system, but was, according to Wang Guangyao "an outcome of the strengthening of autocratic rule by Zhu Yuanzhang, Emperor Taizu of the Ming dynasty, effected during the struggle for the succession by his descendant Emperor Xuanzong in order to further strengthen imperial authority".

The yuyao constituted a new system within the official kiln system because it facilitated direct control by the emperor over porcelain production, and court officials were now sent to the kilns to supervise the manufacture of ceramics in person. Henceforth, the production of imperial porcelain became an integral system not previously seen and wholly different from the management of 'tribute porcelain' to be found in the Tang and Song dynasties.

It should also be pointed out that the imperial kilns did not monopolise innovations in the production of export wares either. It is widely argued that the development of blue and white porcelain was probably influenced by pottery tastes of the Middle East, as much as it depended on earlier breakthroughs in underglaze technology in China.

The improvements in blue and white wares were sustained by the evolution of a large export market in the Middle East and then later in Europe. Innovative blue and white porcelain items were not produced exclusively by official kilns; most of the Ming and Qing dynasty originality in both narrative and illustrated blue and white pieces was, in fact, initiated by civilian kilns addressing market demand.

Nevertheless, Wang Guangyao makes it clear that the ceramics traditions of China unfolded through a bifurcation between official and civilian kilns, and it is clear that state involvement in the development of metallurgy and of many handicrafts in China was significant from an early date. The control that the Ming and Qing courts exercised over handicraft production stands in dramatic contrast to the guild-based organisation of handicrafts in contemporary Europe, as do the nature, degree and scale of government and imperial patronage of arts and handicrafts in China.

Read more in the Newsletter, click the LINK given above.


China Heritage Newsletter
has been appearing for over a year. Considering the style and substance of our publication, from this issue we are renaming the journal China Heritage Quarterly

Apart from our regular items, we are introducing a Bibliography section under New Scholarship. We believe that this will enrich the focus of the issue in which it appears.


Daruma Museum, Japan

No comments: