Ancient Chinese Glass Yields To the Advent of Porcelain

A brief History: Ancient Chinese Glass Yields To the Advent of Porcelain

A curious thing occurred to me a while ago about the history of Chinese decorative arts when it comes to glass, why did they make so little of it over the centuries? Especially compared to other things such as jades, bronzes, porcelains, textiles, paintings and statuary carvings.

The Chinese had glass and had first made it long before the Christian Era.

Despite having the knowledge of how to make glass starting in the Warring States Period 5th C. BC. Some argue glass was introduced to China by middle eastern traders in the form of beads, today recent studies indicated it may have been available well before this time as glass has been found inlaid into weapons predating this time period by several hundred years.

Ancient Chinese Glass Yields To the Advent of Porcelain
Warring States Period Glass Bi, Simulating White Jade
Some early excavated examples (5th c. BC) resembled jades and hard stone carvings which were executed as  Bi Disks which were used  in burials. These were formed by utilizing a press like device sandwiching the liquid glass until it cooled sufficiently to maintain it's shape. Most of the Bi discovered were found in tombs of more middle status Asians and were presumably used in place of Nephrite Jade examples due to costs. However some fairly complicated examples in the form of cups and bowls have been discovered in the Tombs of Nobles once manufacturing had shifted to lead barium glass and were placed along side gold and silver. Most if not all of the early glass was made in molds.

<img src="Han Glass Cup" alt="Mold Formed Han Dynasty Glass Cup">
Han Dynasty Mold Formed Cup
Eventually internal strife within China and edicts prohibiting the burial of Jades and precious objects in tombs lead to the decline of experimentation with glass. After the collapse of the Han Dynasty Emperor Wen of Wei (187-226 CE) decreed it illegal to bury the dead with jade suits and jewels. Following this period, glass supplies came from the West through traders from the middle east. It wasn't until several hundred years later that (500 CE) elaborate funerals were reintroduced and once again a more creative environment was underway influenced as well by the introduction of Buddhism several centuries earlier which had by then permeated all of the cultural arts.

<img src="Song Bowl" alt="Fine Blue Southern Song Cup">
Southern Song Qinbai Cup, 13th C
Private Collection, Hamilton, Massachusetts
see similar Victoria Albert Museum, entry c.45-1946
By the end of the Tang Dynasty (618-907) glass making seems to have slipped out of organized production and continued to decline for centuries afterwards. Most manufacturing seems to have nearly vanished entirely by the late 10th C. during the early Song Dynasty (960-1279).
It wasn't until the 1700's, 800+ years later, that much of it was made in any quantity, so why did this skill remain dormant for basically a thousand years?

China clearly had the technical skills to make almost anything and in large quantity's and was light years ahead of Europe on almost all counts after the 10th C. when it came to manufacturing and chemistry. Skillful and astonishing bronzes had been made for 25 centuries. So what happened?

<img src="Bowl3" alt=" Southern Song Bowl with Copper rim">
Fine Southern Song Bowl with Molded Decoration
and applied copper rim.
National Palace Museum Collection
One theory, which seems to be the most logical, was the creation of a product which would have competed directly with glass. A product that by its own manufacture had characteristics which seemed almost magical. This product was hard porcelain. Porcelain in it's cruder forms had been known of since the late Tang Dynasty but it took a hundred more years to reach the point of being quite superb in it quality and colors. Its important to realize that making true porcelain wasn't discovered in Europe until the 18th C. 800 years later.

<img src="song bbow" alt="Fine Souther Song Bowl with Brown glazed rim">
Southern Song Qingbai Bowl 12th C.
Private Collection, Beverly, Massachusetts
The earliest examples of the best quality became instantly popular and viewed as being more valuable and rare than jade. These were known as Qingbai Wares, which means literally "blue white" and it's cousin Yingqing which means "shadow blue". Before long over 130 kilns were in full operation in Jingdezhen, China.

Soon the colors found in Qingbai examples were being likened to the colors found in softly colored jades. The region around the kiln area was even given the name "Raoyu" or "jade of Rao' ", Raozhou was the region where Jingdezhen was located.. With this kind of fascination and adoration for these wonderful objects, pottery and porcelain making in China was on an entirely new path that would in the end enchant Kings and noblemen of Europe and become the staple of every Imperial household.

<img src="kong" alt="Song Dynasty Kong vase">
Very Rare Song Dynasty Qingbai Kong form vase
National Palace Museum Collection, Taiwan
The potters quickly learned they could adjust the colors and reflection of the glazes by making changes in the kiln temperatures and the amount of oxygen allowed in the kiln. Glazes could be thickened and thinned for depth, colors could be controlled from nearly pure white to soft sea mist blues and many more more in between.

In some poems these pieces were actually referred to as "jade" and were nearly as, if not more valuable than the actual stone itself. "The first chill of midnight steals into my silken-netted cage and touches my jade pillow" -- from Intoxicated in Flower Shadows, by the Southern Song Poetess Li Qingzhou. She was in this poem talking about a porcelain pillow which were extremely rare and valuable even in this period.

It was from this beginning that China developed into the largest and for centuries the only producer of porcelain in the world.

To this day we refer to dishes, cups and plates as CHINA!

Feel free to email or call with any questions about your own Chinese porcelains or their values.

Thank you for visiting ~ Peter Combs
Gloucester, MA 978-283-3524


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