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. Statistics are presented from important sites outside China where Chinese ceramics have been found.
Imperial China has a long-standing, multifaceted, and interesting imperial maritime history. Of particular importance in this context are the commercial dimensions of China’s maritime contacts with the outside world. From approximately the 7th century until Yuan 元 times (1279–1367), China even developed as a commercial maritime power, although its maritime trade was, until the late 11th century, basically dominated by foreign merchants. During the Yuan and early Ming dynasties (1368–1644), China was also a naval power—the attempts of Qubilai Khan (r. 1260–1295) to subdue Japan are well known. But their maritime interests took the Mongols as far as Southeast and South Asia. The early Ming 明 period, under the third Ming Emperor, Yongle 永樂 (r. 1403–1424), is characterized by unforeseen political, military, and commercial maritime expansion. After 1435, following the instructions of the first Ming emperor, Hongwu 洪武 (r. 1368–1398), China officially retreated from the seas and prohibited all private maritime commerce, until internal socioeconomic and financial problems and the great demand of foreigners—after 1500 also including the Europeans—for Chinese products urged the government to “reopen” its borders for trade. The rulers of the last imperial dynasty, the Qing 清 (1644–1911), first concentrated on securing their maritime borders against competing commercial and political interests, then managed a flourishing trade, increasingly also with Europeans, but were finally confronted with the colonialist and imperialistic claims of the Europeans. After the Opium Wars (1839–1842), the maritime commerce and politics of China were more and more controlled by European powers, especially the British.