Moreinfo11 Last added-to or revised 20 July 2008 V.24.0
Victor Bryant ©1994,2008

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Start of Era Background Information

Tutorial No.11. - Image 11000map

Han Empire

The Early Imperial Age
(ca. 200BC-600AD)

The Han Empire
(ca. 206BC to 221AD)

Click on pic for Map & Info - Han Dynasty & Era of Disunity .The death of Ch'in Shi Huang, the First Emperor was followed by social unrest and a civil war. The most successful leader, the Prince of Han, became the next Imperial Ruler of China, taking the dynastic name of Han. The Han Empire lasted about four centuries and soon became an expanding and outward looking culture with freedom for many new ideas during much of that era. There was increasing contact with the West and trade expanded rapidly. It became a fluid and changing society, with long periods of prosperity but occasional outbreaks of social unrest.

After the Han Dynasty - The Era of Disunity

After the Han dynasty collapsed, lead glazing disappeared for some centuries. For four hundred years there followed periods of widespread disorder and instability as the Empire broke up into three, then half-a-dozen warring states.

The rivalry and open warfare between these Chinese princes made easier the penetration of the Huns and Mongols into northern China. Eventually the North was effectively under the control of the northern invaders. Many Chinese fled south - especially the rich and cultured. China now contained two separate cultures - North and South of the Yangsi River. This cultural divide lasted some three hundred years.

The Long Era of Disunity
(AD 220 to 618) - 399 Years

After nearly 400 years, bitter class and feudal conflicts finally brought an end to the Han Empire. The next four centuries saw a divided China engulfed in intermittent, bitter feudal warfare. Weak and divided, the northern Chinese states were constantly at risk of invasions by the Huns, the Mongols and the Turks - the 'Barbarian tribes' to the north, west and south. It was a long period of disorder and disunity; millions of people lost their lives. From the early 4th century to the late 6th century China was effectively divided into North and South of the Yangsi River System.

These circumstances encouraged increased communication and interchange between the folk cultures and lifestyles of various regions, which led to new developments in pottery design. In the north, remnants of the old Han styles combined with the new influences of Buddhism and the indigineous styles of newly-arrived migrant nomad peoples to form new and distinctive types of pottery; on the other hand, the south of China, focusing around Chekiang, inherited the Shang and Chou high-fired stoneware tradition as well as the Eastern Han green-glazed ware tradition.

The wars, plagues and political instability that characterized this lengthy period forced the Chinese to question traditional belief systems, especially Confucianism, and encouraged many to embrace Buddhism and Taoism. Despite the pervasive turmoil, the arts flourished and evolved. The invention of woodblock printing made it possible to teach the tenets of Buddhism to the masses. Poetry, painting and sculpture, no longer associated with the State, became personal modes of expression. Even penmanship took an artistic turn, as calligraphers perfected increasingly picturesque styles.

Ultimately under the Sui and T'ang Dynasties the Empire was restored and many non-Chinese peoples were now absorbed by 'the People of Han'. Out of these centuries of strife and immigration developed the 'Chinese' nation we know today.

There are now an increasing number of excellent Chinese History Web Sites. The need for me to include a detailed historical background is now diminishing. Click here (within the tutorial) for a brilliant example from Minnesota State University Site. Time lines of Chinese Dynasties.. Remember you can easily return to my tutorial pages by using Return with Back-Button TOP-LEFT.

Early Han Bronzes
Models of design and decoration
for Han potters

Click on pic for larger image.11015 Cosmetic BoxLien.Bronze H:18cm. MIA.
Cast in bronze and elaborately decorated with gold and silver gilt in a swirling clouds design. This was a rich tomb object from the tomb of a royal lady. Notice the cast bronze "animal" feet the box stands on, the "Phoenix bird" handles on the lid and the monster-mask with lug or ring - all cast separately and riveted on. Probably each was originally gilded.

Click on pic for larger image.11016 Detail of pic above.
The detail shows more clearly the silver and gold gilding. All such bronze shapes, applied cast figures, and pattern designs were adopted and copied by Chinese potters from this time.

Click on pic for larger image.11046 Gilded Bronze wine vesselChung W.Han Dyn.Chanan, Shensi.
This is perhaps the "classic" shape so often copied in clay by later potters. The gilt decoration has not survived as well as the previous example, but the three distinct forms of bold foot, globular belly and flaring neck form combine to produce a very satisfying form, strengthened by the banding and neck ring, and enlivened by monster-mask lugs or rings.

Click on pic for larger image.11017 Bronze incense burner with gold inlay. ca 100BC W.Han Dyn.
This complex bronze is essentially a bowl with a stand and a perforated lid. Smoke from the smouldering incense would drift upwards through the many openings in the lid - a Taoist image of the mountainous resting place of the immortals. This burner in bronze was found with much else in the cavern tomb of a Western Han Prince and his wife.

Potter's Notes(1) 

Lead Glazes in Han China

Lead Glazes: Glossy Green or Amber
During the early Han Era potters in the central area of China began to explore deeper the use of lead compounds mixed with clay slip to produce rich, glossy, low temperature glazes. Whether the technique was initially imported into China from the West is still not clear. Lead glazes were already used in the eastern Mediterranean Roman World (See Tutorial 8.: Roman Lead-glazed Ware.) However, by the 1st century AD Han potters had achieved a stable high-gloss lead glaze on red earthenware (sometimes covered with a white slip). Such a glaze consisted of a thickish clay slip mixed with sufficient lead oxide, so that when painted on, dipped or poured over a pot, allowed to dry and fired to near 1000°C. in an oxidising atmosphere (probably simple updraft kilns) it produced a high gloss glaze. As in the West, there were two popular coloured lead glazes: yellow - brown - black - (IRON oxide) or apple-green - black - (COPPER oxide). The final glaze colour depended on the amount of colourant used and the body or covering slip colour. The examples illustrated in my tutorial pages show the varied colours produced.

One final effect on these glazes is caused by long time exposure to dampness in soil or water-logged tombs etc. All low-temperature glazes and bodies are affected by moisture and acids in the soil. The lead glaze on many of these earthware objects has rotted to some degree. In some cases the colour has gone leaving behind a frosty mother of pearl surfact. In many cases this irridescence may appear a quite attractive effect today, however, it was quite accidental and never intended.

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Potter's Notes(2)

The Basic requirements:

1. Plentiful supply of wood available for the firings.

2. A local stoneware type clay with which to make kiln or furnace bricks and pots or moulds fired up to 1200-1300°C

3. An established industry where such wood-fired kilns or furnaces were repeatedly fired to high temperatures.

It is important to remember
that all these glaze and body discoveries
can only begin to happen
at firing temperatures of 1160°C and higher,
and that such high temperatures
were not achieved in the West
for another three thousand years.

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Potter's Notes(3)

Food for Thought

What Earlier Potters Did Not Know
Since the 19th century we have known that a balance is needed between Silca, Alumina and the various Fluxes( Lead, Alkalies, Calcium etc) to produce a stable glaze. Today we know that Silica, the glass maker, is present in clay, wood ash and, of course, sand. But silica is very refractory - melts about 1700°C. To melt at the much lower temperatures, silica needs such flux materials to become a glass(glaze) within the temperature range of the potter's kiln, about 800-1300°C. The most important flux in a stoneware glaze is Calcium, found in lime, limestone or chalk. Small amounts of calcium and alkaline fluxes are also present in wood ash and in some clays. Alumina acts as a stabilizer or glaze stiffener. The commonest source of alumina is in clay. Pure clay is a chemical combination of silica, alumina and water.

Simple Glaze Recipes before the 19th century AD
Before the discoveries of Elements, Compounds, Atoms and Molecules made in 19th century Chemistry and Physics, full understanding of ceramic processes was not possible. Potters could only improve glazes by altering recipes and firing schedules, observing the fired results and then repeating this trial and error process countless times. The more accurate the testing and the more acute the observation and interpretation the greater the chance of achieving a stable, repeatable glaze. Many centuries passed before reliable stoneware glazes were achieved in China. With our present-day knowledge of glaze chemistry it is difficult for us to appreciate fully the uncertain, puzzling and often frustrating occupation glaze-making must have been for potters without the scientific knowlege and tools we have today.

A Reminder:
Very Basic Glaze Chemistry:

Simple Low fire Glazes about 1000°C
High% flux(Lead or Alkali)+(silica+alumina)=Glaze

Simple High fire Glazes about 1200°C
Low% flux(Calcia + Alkali)+(silica+alumina)=Glaze

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Tutorial No. 11. - Image Kilns 01

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Cave Kiln


Tutorial No.11. - Image Kilns 02

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Cave into Climbing Kiln


Tutorial No.11. - Image Kilns 03

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Tutorial No.11. - Image Kilns 04

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Tutorial No.11. - Image Kilns 05

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Tutorial No.11. - Image Kilns 06

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Multi-Chamber Climbing Kiln


The Multi-chambered Climbing Kiln

Multi-Chamber Climbing Kiln

As the pots in the chamber nearest the firebox reached maturity, the firebox was sealed and firing in the higher chambers continued by unpluging the stokehole in the first chamber, feeding chopped wood sticks through the hole( high up in the chamber). When the second chamber reaches the desired temperature, the first hole is plugged and the one above unplugged... etc. until the last chamber has reached temperature.

    Four Books/Manuals of interest:

  • The Kiln Book by Frederick L. Olsen

  • Kilns by Daniel Rhodes

  • The Japanese Pottery Handbook by Penny Simpson and others

  • A Potter's Book by Bernard Leach

  • Use Google Search and Websites

    Use key words such as "Climbing Kiln" Ancient Chinese Kilns " Ancient Dragon Kiln" " Anagama Kiln" - Japanese version of the dragon kiln

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Chinese Puzzles
Confusing changes - spellings and terms

Wade-Giles to Pinyin - sometimes old, sometimes new
You must have noticed that occasionally I have a problem with some anglicised equivalent of a Chinese name. When I was a student(long ago) Song was Sung, Beijing was Peking, etc., etc. We have been encouraged or told to accept new english spellings, One tries to remember the new Pinyin version with the changes of vowels and "ch"s To "zh"s and "x"s and so on, but still many words in the earlier Wade-Giles still appear in books and museum lables so you must expect either spelling I'm afraid. I often give both!

Older ceramic names & terms replaced
Glaze description is often a source of confusion. The museum labelling varies. Some curators change long-used and widely understood terms such as "celadon ware" into "green-glazed ware" - because they have learned that an equivalent chinese term has been used in China from the T'ang dynasty. I find green-glazed is even less informative than celadon to describe the range of colours possible from a clay/ash/lime glaze on stoneware.

The qualites and variable colour and texture of the jade minerals are the nearest you get to describe this variable glaze. "Jade" as a glaze colour term would be better, because these clay/lime ash glazes on stoneware have about the same colour variation as the variable jade minerals.
And we come to this particular tutorial where there are so many variants for the names of the stoneware produced in the Zhejiang(Chekiang) province in an ancient region called Yüeh or Yüe and in the kingdom of Wu during the 3rd century AD. In any National museum collection which contains stoneware pots from the later Han to the early T'ang Era, you will find such terms as Yüeh, Yu or Yüe ware or Proto Yüeh ware sprinkled about on the pot labels. This means: clay/ash/lime glazed pot from one of the kilns in northern Zhejing province (If no date or Dynasty is given, it was probably sometime during 3rd to 6th century AD)

The Clay Body
The first requirement is a clay body which would mature at a high temperature unlike common red clays which often melt into a glaze before 1150ºC. China is alone in having vast areas of refractory loess which enabled crisp heat resistant bronze moulds to be made. Loess deposits contained high amounts of silica and feldspar minerals with less than 20% clay material. In some areas, especially toward the plains and the coast, there are a range of finer deposits containing more clay. The characterics of most of these bodies is that they are low in iron. Red clays are not so common. Grey or paler buff clays are common and these are different types of what in english we would call Stonewares.

The High-fire Kiln
The first steps were made in the Shang and Chou age. The ability to make kiln

The First High-fire Glaze
The accidental discoveries were made in the Shang and Chou age. The next stages occurred in the Chou and Han Dynasties. The evolution of a true applied high-temperature glazee was achieved by the second century AD. From then on potters experimented with the common materials they had, producing a range of glazed surfaces which had in common calcium from clay or ash or lime and in most cases a very small amount of iron and a small amount of alkali(potash). Experienced potters can learn and repeat, and pass on to another generation, a recipe and a firing pattern to produce particular glaze qualities. We can see the evolution and the variations of this clay/lime/ash glaze through these centuries.

China: A World First - Twice!
(1) Earliest High-fire Pottery
(2) The Craft of Pottery becomes an High Art Form

An Undocumented Story
Unfortunately little or nothing was written about the processes and development of pottery-making until ceramics became recognised as an art form. Scholars at the time didn't consider bronze or ceramic craft techniques important enough to mention when, and where important craft developments occurred, discoveries made, who invented or initiated this or that. Such things were rarely recorded. We may never know for certain the details and exact times of great changes, but when we reach the 6th century AD, it is evident that high temperature ceramics had become a major industry in China and at least some of its products of such high aesthetic quality to be valued as a High Art.

To the south of the Yangtse river, along the estuary around Hang-chou in northern Zhejiang/Chekiang province are the remains of many ancient kiln sites from this time along the southen banks of the Ch'ien-t'ang River from the the estuary westwards to Hang zhou city. Unfortunately all the kiln remains found so far in too ruined a condition to tell us much about structure or firing. All the indications however are that the Shang and Chou high-fired stoneware tradition continued to develop as the Eastern Han glazed stoneware tradition and by the third century AD glazed stoneware was fired in single or multiple chambers. No only were articles for daily use, such as pitchers, jars and dishes being made in quantity, but more refined glazed stoneware for ritual and burial use were rapidly replacing bronze castings during this time.

By examining examples of chinese pottery in sequence from Chou times to the approach of the T'ang Age, we can follow this momentous chapter of development in ceramics. from a kiln-glazed Chou pot to glazed stoneware masterpieces in the sixth century AD.

A Potter's View
My take on all this for my Ceramic History for Potters is to consider much of the high-fire pottery being made in the kilns of Zhejiang province during the six centuries Han Dynasty to end of the 5th century (when the Sui and the T'ang Dynasties reunited China) as the increasing refinement of ash/lime glazes on increasingly refined and paler stoneware bodies. Which climaxed in the superb examples of what has now become called green-glazed ware but until recently in the West called celadon ware .

Ceramic Technical Achievements
Early Imperial China

A number of important technical developments in ceramics reach maturity in the Han era and were refined further during the next centuries.

Lead Glazed Ware
During the early Han Era potters in the central area of China began to explore deeper the use of lead compounds mixed with clay slip to produce rich glossy low temperature glazes. By the 1st century AD in Eastern Han they had achieved a stable richly high-gloss lead glaze on red earthenware (usually covered with a white slip) and fired in non-smoky (oxidised atmosphere) kilns at 850-1000°C. There were two popular coloured Han lead glazes: One contained iron oxide to produce warn yellows ambers and red-browns and the other contained copper oxide to produce a range of leaf greens light to almost black. In different ways these both echoed bronze. Much of Han Lead-glazed ware is press-moulded, immitating funerary bronze forms.the

High-Fire Glazed Ware
An understanding of how to make, apply and fire a smooth reliable high temperature glaze - fluxed with ash and lime; and the flow controlled with clay. Colour - primarily from a trace to 10% of iron oxide - yellow-greys, green-greys, ochres, brown and black colours produced with increasing amounts of iron( mostly from clays) and fired to at least 1200°C with careful kiln atmosphere control (oxidation / reduction). In other words, simple glaze mixtures of clay slip-ash-lime painted on the leather hard grey stoneware, then dried and fired to at least 1200°C.

From a ceramic viewpoint we see a surge of development and innovation in both low fire and high fire ceramics throughout this long period. Most of the important ceramic techniques had been learned but now many were further exploited and refined: moulding, use of the wheel, expert kiln building and firing to high temperatures, decorating, refinement of bodies and glaze experiments. It seems probable that pottery villages or towns in central China specialised in terracottas with the new low temperature lead glazes. There may be traditional or material supply reasons for this. Highfire ceramics seem to have become well-established in the South and eastern coastal provinces even before the Han Era. This is where I believe the hill or cave kiln was invented. Kiln development

For various economic and, cultural reasons pottery in all its forms increasingly replaces bronze tomb furnishings. Ceramic objects become more acceptable as important grave gifts - and eventually are considered very desirable art objects. During this period ceramics begins to be recognised as an important art form as well as a versatile material for building and domestic utensils. Changes in fashion and taste and, above all, the attractive qualities of the new ceramic techniques, materials and coloured paint and glazes contributed to the rapid growth in the status of ceramics during the Han Empire and beyond.

changes in fashion and taste and, above all, the attractive qualities of the new ceramic techniques, materials and coloured paint and glazes contributed to the rapid growth in the status of ceramics during the Han Empire.

Potters. What evidence there is points to an expansion of opportunities for potters and the pottery industry during the Han dynasty. The was relative stability, expanding trade within China andnow much more with the outside Western World via the various parts of the "silk Route. to the West( Middle East/Mediterranean World).A range of aristocrats, merchants and civil servants were the market for new, fashionable, colourful goods to furnish increasingly elaborate tombs. During the next 400 years potters produced A variety of figures, models and ceremonial vessels, many previously made in bronze; available first in painted earthenware and later in rich glossy lead glaze in ambers browns and deep greens. Much of this work was I believe made in kilns in the central area of Han China where the First Emperor had establish a large ceramic industry around the Yellow river. These kilns were primarily earthenware updraft kilns.

The death of the first Emperor in 210BC, there was a period of internal conflict and social revolution. Liu Pang (probably the son of a village headman, who had been en-nobled as Prince of Han) found his authority as leader of the growing band of insurgents. In 206-207BC he led his troops against the Ch'in army and defeated them.


In 202 Liu Pang eliminated his rival and after a short civil war, proclained himself Emperor of a new dynasty, called Han, with his capital at Ch'ang-an (present-day Sian or Xian).

He resolved or reversed many of the changes which had contributed to the social revolt. Some power was restored to the feudal chieftains and the harsh levees for communal work demanded of the peasants were reduced. The teachings of Confucius and others were now allowed and many of the harsher aspects of the previous dynasty were modified if not lifted.

However, much of the Ch'in centralising changes and innovations such as improvements in road and bridge building defencive walls and standardising of weights and measures and written language were not reversed by the Han Emperors.

The Han retained much of the Ch'in administrative structure but retreated a bit from centralized rule by establishing vassal principalities for the sake of political convenience.

After 200 years, Han rule was interrupted briefly in AD 9 to 24 by Wang Mang, a reformer. Unfortunately his admirable and necessary reforms were not popular and he was deposed ending the short Hsin Dynasty 12-23 AD. The Han Dynasty was restored in a capital further east and struggled on for another 200 years.


The Han rulers, however, were unable to adjust to what centralization had wrought: a growing population, increasing wealth and resultant financial difficulties and rivalries, and ever-more complex political institutions. Towards the end of the second century AD the Han Empire began to fall apart as the large landholding families, taking advantage of the weakness of the imperial government, established their own private armies. This is when the era of disunity began Riddled with corruption often in the Palace, within Royal Family or officials this decay is characteristic of Chinese dynastic cycle, by AD 220, the Han Empire collapsed.

Era of Disunity - (AD 220 to 618 -- 399 Years)

The earlier, "unofficial" part of the period, from 190 to 220, was marked by chaotic infighting between warlords in various parts of China. Towards the end of the second century AD the Han Empire began to fall apart as the large landholding families, taking advantage of the weakness of the imperial government, established their own private armies. This is when the era of disunity began - towards the end of the first century AD in the Eastern Han

Three Kingdoms and Western Chin Period (219-316)

Finally, in 220 the son of Tao Tao seized the throne and established the Wei Dynasty (220-265). Soon, however, leaders with dynastic aspirations sprang up in other parts of the country. The Shu Dynasty (221-263) was established in the southwestern China, and the Wu Dynasty (222-280) in the southeast.

The middle part of the period, from 220 and 263, was marked by a more militarily stable arrangement between three rival states, Kingdom of Wei (魏), Kingdom of Han and Kingdom of Wu. The later part of this period was marked by the collapse of the tripartite situation: first the destruction of Shu by Wei (263), then the overthrow of Wei by the Jin Dynasty (265), and the destruction of Wu by Chin (280).

The Three Kingdoms period is one of the bloodiest in Chinese history. A population census in late Eastern Han Dynasty reported a population of approximately 56 million, while a population census in early Western Chin dynasty (after Chin re-unified China) reported a population of approximately 16 million. Even taking into account the inaccuracies of these census reports, it's safe to assume that a large percentage of the population was wiped out during the constant wars waged during this period.

In 265 a powerful general of the Wei Dynasty, usurped the throne and established the Western Chin Dynasty (265-317) in North China. By 280 he had reunited the north and south under his rule. Soon after his death in 290, however, the empire began to crumble. The Chin could not long contain the invasions of the nomadic peoples. Invasions began in 304, and by 317 the tribes had wrested North China from the Chin Dynasty. In AD 317 the Chin court was forced to flee from Luoyang and reestablished itself at Nanjing to the south - on the south side of the Yangsi River.

Eastern Chin Dynasty and five Principalities (317-419)

For almost three centuries North China was ruled by one or more non-Chinese dynasties, while the south was ruled by a sequence of four Chinese dynasties. None of the non-Chinese dynasties were able to extend their control over the entire North China plain until 420, when the Northern Wei Dynasty did so.

Southern and Northern Dynasties

NAN-PEI-CH'AO I 420-500

NAN-PEI-CH'AO II 501-580

These two dynasties was an age of civil war and disunity, but there were technological advances - Gunpowder was invented, techniques in medicine and cartography.

During this period the process of sinofication accelerated among the non-Chinese arrivals in the north and among the aboriginal tribesmen in the south. In 534, the tribal chieftains, pushed beyond their endurance, rebelled and the dynasty toppled. For the next 50 years, North China was again ruled by non-Chinese.

Sui Dynasty (581-618)

The Sui Dynasty followed the Southern and Northern Dynasties and preceded the Tang Dynasty in China. It ended nearly four centuries of division between rival regimes.

In 589, China was again reunited under the rule of the Sui Dynasty (589-618). The first Sui Emperor was a military servant who usurped the throne of the non-Chinese Northern Zhou in 581. During the next eight years he completed the conquest of South China and established his capital at Changan (now Xi'an). The brief reign of the Sui Dynasty was a time of great activity. The Great Wall was repaired at enormous cost in human life. A canal system, which later formed the Grand Canal, was constructed to carry the agriculture of the Yangtze to the north. Chinese control was reasserted over the tribes of the north and west. A prolonged campaign against the kingdom in southern Manchuria and northern Korea, however, ended in defeat. With its prestige tarnished and the population impoverished, the dynasty fell in 617 to rebels led by Li Yuan who began the Tang Dynasty. Despite the political disunity of the times, there were notable technological advances. The invention of gunpowder and the wheelbarrow is believed to date from the sixth or seventh century. Advances in medicine, astronomy, and cartography are also noted by historians.

The Sui Dynasty, founded by Emperor Wen, or Yang Jian, held its capital at Chang'an (present-day Xi'an). It was marked by the reunification of Southern and Northern China and the construction of the Grand Canal, though it was a relatively short Chinese dynasty. It saw various reforms by Emperors Wen and Yang: the land equalization system, initiated to reduce the rich-poor social gap, resulted in enhanced agricultural productivity; governmental power was centralized, and coinage was standardized and unified; defense was improved, and the Great Wall was expanded. Buddhism was also spread and encouraged throughout the empire, uniting the varied people and cultures of China.

This dynasty has often been compared to the earlier Qin Dynasty in tenure and the ruthlessness of its accomplishments. The Sui dynasty's early demise was attributed to the government's tyrannical demands on the people, who bore the crushing burden of taxes and compulsory labor. These resources were overstrained in the completion of the Grand Canal--a monumental engineering feat-- and in the undertaking of other construction projects, including the reconstruction of the Great Wall. Weakened by costly and disastrous military campaigns against Goguryeo which ended with defeat of Sui in the early seventh century, the dynasty disintegrated through a combination of popular revolts, disloyalty, and assassination.

Buddhism and the Sui Dynasty
Buddhism was popular during the Six Dynasties period that preceded the Sui dynasty, spreading from India through Kushan Afghanistan into China during the Late Han period. Buddhism gained prominence during the period, when central political control was limited. Buddhism created a unifying cultural force that uplifted the people out of war and into the Sui Dynasty. In many ways, Buddhism was responsible for the rebirth of culture in China under the Sui.

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That was the last illustration.
I hope you have found Tutorial No.10 interesting and perhaps useful.
The next Tutorial No.11 is the third tutorial of eight on Chinese Ceramics.

That was the last illustration in this tutorial

revision date at the top of page
Victor Bryant ©1994,2006

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