Glaze Development in Ancient China

The worlds first stoneware glazes were developed during the Shang Dynasty in China (1,600 – 1,100 bce).  This is an astounding feat when considering that stoneware was not achieved in Korea and Japan for another 2,000 years and in the West for another 3,000 years.

One theory for the early development of stoneware temperatures in southern China was that the clay being used at earthen ware temperatures was actually under fired stoneware bodies.  Observation would have shown that these clays when fired hotter produced more durable ceramic.  The glaze was likely another observation of the process already being employed, wood ash fluxing at higher temperatures would have lightly glazed both the pots and the interior of the kiln.  It would have been a simple assumption to begin testing wood ash mixtures and developing glazes.

shang 1These early glazes, being based on the variable material wood ash, have a wide variety and composition.  In addition to the innovation of glaze and kiln design allowing the higher temperatures, the Shang also began the pursuit of Chinese porcelain.  This proto porcelain as it is known is made from a kaolin bearing stoneware.  The pieces were modeled after The bronze vessels being produced at the time and were lightly glazed with the same ash glazes common at the time.China_shang_white_pottery_potThis type of glazing persisted through the Han Dynasty, techniques and form being refined through the generations.Han 1Unlike the high fire glazing tradition of most early cultures, the first Chinese stoneware were composed primarily of clay and calcia, rather than feldspars,  in the form of limestone, but also derived from wood ash and sometimes crushed shells.  The composition of these glazes were Silica, alumina, and calcium carbonate.  The silica and alumina were provided by the clays and the ash or limestone was the second ingredient.  The glazes were usually yellow to green and were colored by incidental trace amounts of titanium and iron in the clays used in the mixture.  There was also a range of surface qualities that were largely dependent on firing and cooling speed.  The more matte glazes were fired and cooled more slowly allowing calcium crystals to grow.

Over time the ash in the glaze was largely replaced with limestone, though it is likely that wood ash was used in some combination throughout the early history of Chinese glazes.

The height of these stoneware glazes were achieved in the Yue wares which were made during the Five Dynasties Period in the early 10th century ce.  These works are revered for their refinement and  beauty.yue wareFrom these simple beginnings, the tradition of Chinese stoneware and porcelain glazes unfolds and reaches its great peak during the Song Dynasty.  From elegant celadons to rich temmoku’s the potters of the Song were some of the most accomplished in the history of ceramics. temmoku




I used Chinese Glazes; Their Origins, Chemistry and Recreation by Nigel Wood and 10,000 Years of Pottery by Emmanuel Cooper for sources in this post

ceramic art

Ai Weiwei and The Art of Destruction

ai-weiwei-installation-012The pottery of Neolithic and Bronze era China have inspired many artists over the centuries since it was first created, but none to such a controversial degree as the work of Ai Weiwei.  Ai Weiwei is a Chinese artist who has risen to the apex of the international art scene with his thought-provoking social commentaries.  The majority of these are protests aimed at the communist government of China.  The artists work in ceramic is no exception.

The bones of the work are historical vessels from the early history of China, including Gansu Jars and pieces from the Han period.  These objects are then changed, and sometimes destroyed to make Ai’s controversial work.  The photo above shows two of the works.  The first, the photographs, are a piece titled Dropping A Han Dynasty Urn and are exactly as the title and photo indicate, The artist is seen in three frames dropping an urn from the Han dynasty period, a piece that has remained intact since it was made any where from 206 bce to 220 ce.  The other vessels  depicted are from a piece called Colored Vases and are Chinese jars from various early periods that have been dipped in paint.artwork_images_93_621026_-aiweiweiAnother work titled Dust to Dust are the remains of 30 Neolithic vessels that have been ground to dust, and displayed in glass jars in orderly rows.ai weiweiPots are not the only objects that have been altered from their original state as antiques.  These stools are from the Ming Dynasty and represent a large body of works based on altered antique furniture.

Ai sites his greatest influence as Marcel Duchamp, and indeed in these works we see Fountain and Bicycle Wheel reborn in a new context, but rather than a pure examination of art and object, the objects the artist has chosen to alter are loaded with political statement as well as artistic.  When challenged regarding the destruction of the furniture, he countered with the official Chinese government position of destroying objects from the Ming and other dynasties.

This leads to the sticky question of the nature of Ai’s works with objects of antiquity.  Is this destruction or transformation?  First it must be noted that there is a good deal of speculation that the works are convincing fakes.  We must acknowledge that the artist loves the concept of the Fake, giving that the name of his architectural firm.  It is not unreasonable to consider the entire project an elaborate joke.  But for the sake of argument, we must consider that these are the genuine article, irreplaceable objects of tremendous importance for the history of all of humanity.  Are they truly destroyed?

In the case of the pieces from Dust to Dust, there can be no doubt that the vessels that fill these jars have been utterly destroyed.  The remaining ceramic is contained in its own funerary urn, placed on a beautifully crafted shelves, clean ordered and evenly spaced.  Yes the jars are destroyed, but they are still being treated with reverence and respect.

The Han Urn too is destroyed, or at least broken, like most of the works from its time.  A skilled restorer could have the piece back to museum quality in a few days, so what truly is lost?  certainly the rare quality of having never been broken, which is remarkable and wonderful to me personally as a person in love with art and antiquity, yet what might have been gained from the sacrifice, for that is what I believe these acts constitute.

We consider the great history of China unbroken, yet I believe Ai is pointing to another possibility, that it has been broken, that the current government of China has broken completely with history and humanity.  The ritualized sacrifice of treasures has brought a great deal of attention to the artist and so then his cause for the freedom of the people of China.  Reading comments to certain blog articles about this work it is clear that many believe that  Ai should be imprisoned for this desecration.  Actually he is imprisoned, being  on house arrest for years because of acts like these.  Is it because of the breaking and damage to historical objects? No, it is because the Chinese government sees this artists statements on a global scale as a threat to their continued power.  This is what sanctifies the destruction of these objects and why this work is so compelling and thought-provoking.

Last year an artist broke one of the vessels from an exhibition in Miami.  He claims to have done it to protest the galleries emphasis on international artists rather than on the local scene.  I believe he has missed the importance of the statement made by Ai and used his fame to artificially propel his career, I have no doubt that if the protestor was himself showing internationally he would have no problem with an international gallery, nor would he refuse the opportunity to exhibit abroad in solidarity with local artists.

As for the painted pots, Greek sculpture demonstrates that painted surfaces usually don’t survive time the way that objects can.  These pieces belong to history and humanity.  This is but a brief moment in their existence.  It is possible that the new status conferred to these objects as highly valued pieces of contemporary art will have a protective effect on them, but in any case, The culture of contemporary art and these political and aesthetic concerns will crumble to dust before all of these pots are lost.



ceramic art

Gansu Jars of Neolithic China

Neolithic culture is a period that begins worldwide about 8000 bce and is defined by humanities move from hunter-gather culture to settled agriculture centered around small villages.  Important innovations and technology of the time were stone tools and the regular manufacture and use of pottery.  It is in fact through pots and fired ceramic objects that we have learned about many of these early cultures, because the ceramic is able to survive the decay of long years in a way that other crafts that were practiced by these early ancestors cannot.Neolithic chinaThis illustration is a recreation of a neolithic community in Jiangzhai Village, Lintong China.  The image was taken from this website below, where a discussion of the layout and functions of the buildings is discussed.  Most interesting to this article is the area near the river, which was the locations of the potteries and kilns.  This would have been a very important industry for the village and so was located within the walls of the town.


The area of this site, while outside of the Gansu province was from the neighboring province of Shaanxi and was a part of the Yangshoo culture which give us the Gansu Jars.Neolithic2 jarThis jar was found in the Jiangzhai Village and has many of the distinctive characteristics of the Banshan Yangshoo or Gansu Jars.  Bulbous shape, small handles and free flowing dynamic brushwork are all characteristics of this work.  In addition, these pots were light and well made, which is one of the reasons for the large number of these that have survived the many years since their creation (from the 4th to the 3rd millennium BCE)  These were thought to have been built quickly with an eye for function.  The majority of those that survive were used as burial jars.gansu 3These beautiful forms were made by coiling and then paddling to refine the form, they were then scraped and burnished and painted with colored slips and fired in small updraft kilns.

“The forms of Chinese are are…in the widest and deepest sense harmonious…we can appreciate them because we too feel their rhythms all around us in nature, and instinctively respond to them”     -Michael Sullivan 1967gansu 1I dont dispute this quote, but I would go further, in that all art springs from that which came before, either in celebration or protest.  Chinese culture is rare in that it traces its beginning, unbroken, to the Neolothic.  There are many villages in China that still employ techniques for making pottery that were used during this early period and many of the forms produced clearly owe their origins to this formative period.  Not only are these forms still relevant in China, but the pottery of China has been traded and treasured all over the world since the opening of the silk road.  We respond to these forms and these designs because they are fundamental to the culture of the entire world, nearly every artistic tradition owes a debt to the pioneering potteries of Neolithic China.


Speight, Charlotte F., and John Toki. Hands in Clay. 5th ed. Mountain View, Calif.: Mayfield, 2004. Print.

Wood, Nigel. Chinese Glazes: Their Origins, Chemistry, and Recreation. London: & C Black ;, 1999. Print.

MLA formatting by BibMe.org.





angzhai Village, Lintong


International Top 10: Pamela Mei Yee Leung

Early in the semester I did a lot of research for this project.  Power points, web research and books.  All that research went into a gray covered Moleskine note-book that i have used for my ceramic classes for a couple of semesters.  Today, as I ran out of the last artists that I remembered from that list, I realized that the notebook was missing.  It’s no where in my house that I can find.  It may be at the studio or somewhere else and I  may  yet find it, but today it might as well not exist.

Rather than panic, or start the entire process over again with the research, I though I might trust fate and see what the Google gods would bring me.  I put ceramic video into the search engine and got back a load of instructional videos.  I changed it up slightly and added  art to the already existing search.  It was largely the same, except the last hit on the first page, was a video posted by The Guardian UK on the artist Pamela Mei Yee Leung.


Born in China, and immigrated to England at 14, Leung seems to have been that rare third element, created by combining two different things.  This is the essence of what I am working toward in my experience of collaboration and why I am so interested in other artists that collaborate.  Leung is a collaboration of Chinese and Western culture, compressed into a single person.  If you watch the video you will hear her speak both accents, at the same time.  It is wonderful and musical and seems so rare.

Her work too is a fusion of both cultures, the content is so clearly Chinese in origin Yet her approach is that of a westerner, the work is loose and direct and has a sense of whimsy that the English tradition clearly brings.

Pamela Mei Yee Leung3

The work is autobiographical and much of it from the last decade of her life was focused on her ongoing battle with cancer.  The animal heads point to different emotional states and states of being in herself and others as she went down the long road of illness.

The video shows her working with coils to the legs of some creature. the slow attention and careful execution are delightful to watch, there is a sense in watching her make those legs that there is nothing she would rather be doing and the quality of attention reveals a devotion to the material and process so essential to its mastery.  It is this quality of attention that reminded me of something that I tell all my students.  I remind them that work in ceramic will outlast us, in some cases by millennia, and that to work in ceramic in a way requires a letting go of time, when considering its  long history as a human material and each pieces potential longevity.  Pamela Mei Yee Leung lost her battle with cancer, yet she is still enriching lives by the work she has left behind, and it will continue to accumulate story and meaning through decades and generations.

This work feels aware of that.  No certainty of time, but absolute timelessness.

Pamela Mei Yee Leung2

As I’ve mentioned before, we are only permitted two artists from any single culture in this assignment.  I have two from both England and China, yet I feel certain that this artist’s work is neither and both and so an entirely new country.

Her website



ceramic art

International top Ten: Ai Weiwei

One of the parameters of this semesters assignment is that I may only choose two artists from any single country.  For the most part this is no problem.  There are many great artists in the world and looking for inspiration is a wonderful opportunity for growth.  In the case of China though this is a real sacrifice.  So many of the artists making work I admire most are Chinese.  My favorite Chinese artist and possibly my favorite working artist right now is Ai Weiwei.


Seems beyond the reach of an assignment to speak of favorites to emotional connection as I did in the last post, but I think this is exactly what this type of study demands of an artist.  We must take art personally, and deeply so that it can penetrate us enough to change us, as makers and people.  So a great artist then makes work that demands that we as viewers take them seriously.  If the work is compelling, we cannot help ourselves, we look, and if we take the time needed,  we see something of our world or ourselves that we may not have been aware of before.

I think that the work of Ai Weiwei does exactly that.  In his deep collaboration with Chinese culture and history, we find something universal and true for all of us.  The work discussed in this video documents an installation called Sunflower Seeds.  The work is at once intimate and vast.  Each piece receiving so much attention, though there are millions of them.  The work’s content is beautiful and yet manages to be powerfully political at the same time.  The name of a single artist is on the piece yet it was made by an entire village.  The work of Ai Weiwei reminds me of what art is capable and demands that I push myself to find that power in my own work.  So please take the 15 minutes to watch the beautifully produced video and maybe find some inspiration for yourself.


Another body of work that I really respond to are his pots, ancient Chinese vessels that take a modern twist.  These pots are something incredibly rare and precious that become absurd  billboards.  This intersection I think is incredibly stimulating as I am constantly considering how to keep pots relevant as the focus of the ceramic world becomes fine art and the importance of craft diminishes daily.  Not only this but the layering of meaning and idea is rich and invites me to consider deeply not just the ancient pot or the company logo, but a world in which both those things could be so intimately connected.

Ai Weiwei1 Ai Weiwei3 Ai Weiwei4

Below is a link to a great New Yorker article on the artist if more information is wanted.  His work is vast and I have only scratched the surface of its potential here.


And to ensure that my own rules are followed, the tech piece.   Here is a link to his twitter account, seemingly his main medium now, though I do not know exactly what that means so I will not make a specific comment other than It has been vital for his work in resisting the current Chinese government.