Ceramics are the most abundant types of artifacts made by human beings in the last 12,000 years. Chinese potters discern two types of products: earthenware (tao), which is porous and does not resonate when struck, and wares with vitreous bodies (ci), which ring like a bell. Western potters and scholars differentiate stoneware, which is semi-porous, from porcelain, which is completely vitrified.
The earliest ceramics in the world are thought to have been made in China around 15,000 years ago. By the Shang dynasty, potters in China began to decorate the surfaces of their pottery with ash glaze, in which wood ash mixed with feldspar in clay to impart a shiny surface to the pottery. The first ash-glazed wares were probably made south of the Yangzi in Jiangnan.
In the 9th century, China began to export pottery, which quickly became sought after in maritime Asia and Africa. Pottery making for export became a major industry in China, employing hundreds of thousands of people, and stimulating the development of the first mass-production techniques in the world. Much of the ceramic industry was located along China’s south and southeast coasts, conveniently located near ports that connected China with international markets. Chinese merchants had to adapt their wares to suit different consumers. For the last 1,000 years, Chinese ceramics provided an enormous amount of archaeological information on trade and society in the lands bordering the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean, contributing a major source of data to the study of early long-distance commerce, art, technology, urbanization, and many other topics. This section presents statistics from important sites outside China where Chinese ceramics have been found.
Julia K. Murray
The study of visual culture in imperial China is a young and heterogeneous field that encompasses a large and shifting array of visual materials and viewing practices. Because of the many political and social changes over the course of roughly two millennia, scholars have generally focused on specific forms and shorter periods, often defined by dynasty, instead of proposing comprehensive theories or all-inclusive overviews. The most recent dynasties, Ming and Qing, have received the majority of the scholarly attention to visual culture as such, but much research on earlier periods also sheds light on the roles of the visual and visual experience. In contrast to scholarship on modern and contemporary Chinese visual culture, which typically draws upon European and American theoretical models, studies concerned with the imperial era more often use methodologies and interpretive frameworks from art history and anthropology. Major foci of interest, whose relative importance varies by period, are the imperial court and its projects to perpetuate and project imperial authority, concerns with and techniques for creating auspicious environments in earthly life and in tomb contexts, structures and practices associated with Buddhism and Daoism within religious institutions and in lay communities, uses of writing and representational images to embody the values of the Confucian-educated elite, woodblock illustration and consumerism in urban culture, rural forms of visual culture, vernacular images and erotica, and the assimilation of elements of foreign visual culture.