Victor Bryant ©1994,2004
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2.1 Prehistoric Pottery in China
Neolithic Ceremonial Pottery
9004 Deep red clay bowl painted with triangles and lines. Pan-p'o, Shensi. Diam:15.5cm. 5th-4th mill. BC. Yang-shao Culture.CG.
A small food bowl made from light red clay, by pressing and coiling. After smoothing the surfaces it was brush decorated with a dark red-brown slip. The painting slip was brushed on, then burnished to produce the shiny finish. After drying such bowls were then bonfired. The dark slip covers the light coloured clay in slanting bands leaving exposed fine pale-coloured parallel lines and triangles of the body clay. This "negative" painting technique was often used.
9005 Shallow red earthenware bowl from Pan-p'o, Shensi. Yang-shao Culture. Diam:44.5cm. 5th-4th mill.BC. CG.
A large red earthenware basin decorated with black slip painting. The thick rim is emphasised further by the covering of black slip. Bold "convict arrow" shapes (of the red body underneath) are allowed to show through. This gives a sparkle to this strong black frame around the intriguing drawing inside the bowl.
9006 Detail: face mask painted in black slip.
Detail: A fine black slip brush drawing shows, on the left, a circular face mask and head-dress. Two fish are attached to the head as if whispering in its ears. Does this represent a man or a God? Is he sleeping, dreaming or dead? On the right is a larger fish drawn facing the man. An immensely intriguing drawing. Similar scenes appear in other dishes which have been found. Whatever its exact meaning, it indicates the importance of fishing to this community.
9007 Detail of similar bowl: More elaborate head-dress.
Pan-p'o, Shensi. Yang-shao Culture. Diam:44.5cm. 5th-4th mill.BC. CG.
This detail from another dish has a similar theme but somewhat different details. There are no whispering fish; the Man's head-dress is slightly different. What may be a fishing net is now on the right. These designs may be connected with a fish catch and serve a religious ritual purpose. Bowls with similar ”convict arrow” painted rims have been found in other sites in the Kansu province and the wider Yang-shao region but this imagery is singularly different from any later Chinese Bronze Age style.
9008 Figure painted bowl with tapered base.
Yuan-chi, Shansi. Yang-shao Culture. 5th-4th mill BC. CG
Lines and painted shapes seem to whizz around this bowl. Could they perhaps represent human figures - running, or in boats? Whatever this represents, it is lively symbolism. The upward flare of the narrow base raising and supporting the bowl also adds to the confident style of the maker. The black slip was made from an iron red clay probably including minerals containing manganese.
9009 Small slip decorated bowl, Honan, Yang-shao Culture 5-4th mill.
The upper part of the outside of this small red clay bowl has been brushed over with a thin covering of buff-white slip. A thicker brown or black slip was used for painting the curving lines and patterns. Not only is this quite sophisticated decoration, it also shows meaningful symbols - which, regretfully, are now beyond our knowing.
9010 Small slip decorated bowl, Honan, Yang-shao Culture ca.5-4th mill.
This little bowl appears also to have been covered with a thin white slip and burnished before the curvilinear design was brushed on with black slip. Comparing the patterns and motifs drawn on this bowl with those on the previous two bowls there seem to be some shared elements: a circle bisected by two lines and edged by two big dots. Certainly these patterns must have had symbolic significance to contemporaries. You may remember an earlier tutorial showing decorated pots from the Pre-literate Near East which were also communicating ideas using such images and symbols. All of which was a step towards devising a written language.
9011 Red Painted deep bowl. Simple geometric designs.
P'ei-hsien, Kiangsu. Dm:33.8cm.late 4th-3rd mill. BC. CG.
This rather crude decoration, less imaginative, static and stark, may mark the decline of the Yang-shao culture in eastern Honan and Kiangsu. The rim was painted white and then marked with black lines and arrow heads. Around the outside of the bowl is a row of eight pointed star shapes painted in white outlined in black.
The most refined and richly decorated Yangshao funeral ceramics have so far been found somewhat later in the 3rd mill. BC. at sites in this more remote North-western province, Kansu. The area is roughly defined in the top left corner on this map.
9012 Painted vase, Lan-chou, Kansu. Ht:18.3cm Late 3rd mill.
The gloss of the finish results from the burnishing of the leather-hard clay before firing. Though worn there can be seen clusters of tiny raised blobs of thick slip forming rosette patterns. They are painted over the fine linear decoration in black. The deeper red beneath much of the painting may be due to a thin brushing of red slip over the somewhat paler body before the black slip(iron and manganese) lines and bands were drawn. Towards the top, on the right, the buff coloured body shows through where the coloured slips have worn away.
9013 A tall stemmed vase with spiral painting. Majiayao, Kansu. ca 2700BC. GMP.
Rather worn, but the spirited spiraling decoration is quite clear. This "negative" painting style produces dark solid background and fine swirling shapes and lines from the exposed pale body.
9014 Kangsu Yang-shao jar painted in black Ht:15cm.ca.3rd mill.BC. SMFEA.
Another example of negatively decorated, black pottery. This pot has survived in a better condition than the previous one. The body may first have been covered with a white slip before decorating. The spiralling petals of a flower-like shape dominate the design. This decoration is enclosed at the top with three broad black bands around the neck, which are separated by narrow bands of the exposed lighter body colour. Below, towards the foot, the flower design is bordered by narower and equal bands of light and dark; these bands somehow add more "lift" to the pot. Notice the witty? repetition of circles - lugs and flower centre. Only simple techniques were used but they have producing a striking piece of pottery painting.
9015 Earthenware Funerary Jar Kansu Yang-shao ca.2500 BC. VAL.
This displays the characteristics of the style at its best. A well-preserved funerary jar which has retained its glossy shine. The curvilinear design encloses bold chequered pattern medallions; the vessel may have been slipped and burnished before decorating. The body when fired is light buff-orange - see the bottom part of this pot. The basic paint was made from a fine red clay slip. The red colour due to the high amount of red iron present. The dense black slip was probably produced by adding to the red slip materials containing iron, manganese and other flux minerals. A firing technique using a smoky reduction atmosphere could also have contributed to the smooth black finish.
9016 Detail: A detail shows better the technique of allowing the lighter body to emphasise the black and red lines, further highlighted by the tiny stitching marks in black.
9017 Earthenware Funerary Jar Kansu Yang-shao ca.2500 BC. VAL.
These rich curvilinear patterns in black and a dark plum purple colour are probably the most inventive decorations in prehistoric China. Such strong stylistic patterns may provide clues to trade and migration routes of Neolithic people. Certainly there are general curvilinear similarities to be found in contemporary prehistoric styles in eastern Europe, Russia and the Mediterranean regions. However the specific motifs and arrangement of the patterns are characteristic of this culture alone. In many similar pots the neck is painted with a regular net-like pattern of fine lines. The main design covers only the upper part of the rounded shape; passing beyond the widest part and ending at the point where the lugs are fixed.
9018 Funerary Jar Kansu Yang-shao ca.2500 BC. GMP.
A similar funerary jar, but one which has an even more complex spiral decoration. At the centre of each spiral(there are three around the pot) is an elaborate chequered linear design inside a round medallion. Notice the "tail" to this medallion. It has a black feather-like pattern made from tiny curved brush strokes.
9019 Detail: Funerary Jar Kansu Yang-shao ca.2500 BC. GMP.
This detail shows a variety of carefully drawn brush strokes. At the top right are some of the curved brush strokes. Notice the short black stitch-like stokes which are painted over the buff body colour and across the iron red strokes. The rectangular netting patterns show great brush control too. In this detail you can also see small solid black rectangles which on closer inspection turn out to be silhouette drawings of fish. Remember, this was made in an age before written language, so we have no record of the meaning of these symbols. But such motifs and patterns would have great meaning to the people who made and used them. To us they appear just decorative but such designs almost certainly contain complex ideas, incantations, prayers etc.
9020 Earthenware Funerary Jar Kansu Yang-shao ca.2500 BC. GMP.
The central design is based on a lattice of curved lines to produce the familiar diamond pattern. I would speculate that the red-purple iron slip was first used to mark out the narrow curved lines around the pot. First in one direction and then the other. This sets the overall pattern. When you look more closely ...
9022 Painted earthenware jar Ma-ch'ang, Kansu 1700-1300BC.BC MGP.
Ma-ch'ang pottery continues the Kansu painted style into the next millennium, but the designs have become more linear; circles and diamonds crammed with checks and zigzags. The decoration is now monochrome. The bold curving rhythms, clarity and colour of the earlier Kansu decorative style has lost its strength and become a pale shadow of its former richness.
9023 Drawing - Three pots form one Ting cooking pot
The Maps show that the geography of Eastern China is markedly different from the desert or mountainous Western Regions. Hopei, Shantung, Kiangsu and Chekiang provinces are low lying regions which form the vast delta of the two great river systems of China. The north eastern province of Shantung apears to be the centre of the great changes which began around the end of the third millennium. For reasons which are still far from clear, prehistoric pottery in the North-eastern provinces differs considerably from the styles of the North-west. Painted decoration is rare, but quite complex hand made pottery was made. A much wider range of clays was available in this delta region. Coarse particled and fine particled and a wide range of white, buff, yellow, and darker clays too.
9026 Piglet-shape red clay jug, Ningyang, Shantung. CG.
In common with many other early pottery cultures world-wide, we can find functional pots in the form of quite naturalistic creatures - here, a piglet jug.
Clay pots and Metal Forms?
9027 Tripod Jug or Water Pitcher, Dawenkou site, Shandung 5th or 4th mill BC.
This striking three-legged jug is an extraordinary object. Three conical shapes form the base. Their open ends are blended together forming a bowl with a circular opening. Then to cover this opening an inverted dish or bowl shape was used. However, before fixing this on, it had a large circular hole cut in it for an enormous conical spout to be luted on. This whole ’lid with a spout’ shape was then luted onto the three legged open bowl. A rolled handle completed this complex form. Whoever first evolved such a ceramic shape was an most inventive artist as well as a talented craftsman. The body is whitish and coarse grained.
9028 Detail of Jug.
Although the jug is badly cracked and poorly restored this closer photo shows some details which appear to emulate beaten metal joining techniques: 1. A luted join where the inverted bowl meets the open top of three legged pot is covered by a thin raised clay coil ridge. 2. A round opening in the top the pot has a conical spout fixed to it and joined at a very sharp angle. 3. The handle made out of a thick roll of clay has its top end blended, smoothed and curved into the conical spout but at the bottom is flattened and angular then fixed into the raised ridge around the pot. These details suggest metalwork techniques rather than pottery making techniques.
9029 Three Legged Pottery Water Pitcher(kuei) Weifang, Shantung. 3rd or early 2nd mill BC. CG.
This pot had elements in common with the last but lacks the boldness and abstract clarity of that previous example. However, this pot contains parts which also intrigue me. The sharp curved beak-like spout, the sharp angular join of the round lipped rim of mouth of the pot to that great beak spout; it is easy to imagine this in copper or gold.
9030 Three Legged Pottery Water Pitcher(k'uei) Weifang, Shantung.3rd or early 2nd mill BC. CG.
This third example of prehistoric pottery jug or kuei has even more "metal-worked" qualities. A metal jug this shape would quite naturally be roll-joined and riveted.
9031 Detail of Jug.
Look at the handle. It's made of half-a-dozen lengths of thin clay rolls, pressed together and twisted. It reminds me of ancient fine metalworking techniques with wire. Look at the rolled edge of the top rim, then down to the clay shoulder underneath the handle; it appears to be studded with large round rivet heads. Of course it's all clay, but the whole thing could be made in sheet copper or precious metal.
The arrival of the fast throwing potter's wheel in any coil-building pottery community must have been dramatic. Perhaps as amazing as the arrival of the motorcar to people who knew only the horse and cart. Probably few of the older coil-building potters ever learned to use a fast throwing wheel. If,as seems possible, it was the women who usually made the coiled pottery in China, as occurred in the Middle-East, then the same change of role is likely to have also happened in China - pottery-making on a larger scale with the fast wheel became a male occupation. For more ino. see Tutorial 2.
9033 oBlack earthenware stem bowl(tou), Lung-shan Culture, Shantung Ht:18cm 3rd 2nd Mill BC. MGP.
This stem bowl was made in pieces on a fast wheel, joined together and then finished of on a wheel. Perhaps the most striking thing about the Lung-shan pots is the high quality of this dark-bodied thrown ware. Apart from throwing lines, the only ornament is holes cut into the stem.
9034 Black finished Eathenware bowl on stem(tou) Lung-shan Culture, Shantung Ht:14.7cm 3rd-2nd mill.BC.
This Lung-shan tou is a highly finished thrown vessel. Presumably ceremonial but certainly practical. The smooth black shine is characteristic of the best Lung-shan ware. The wheel-based band of grooves the only decoration.
This list below shows the many significant ceramic changes now occurring here in NE China. This must reflect other great changes taking place in the way of life of this society.
9035 Black tripod Lung-shan warming pot or ting, Shantung Province. VAL
This black cooking or warming pot is a bold statment. As we saw in a previous ting, three breast or udder-like shapes are welded together to make one larger pot which could stand securely astride the embers of a fire. You will have seen already such tripod pots from other prehistoric sites. However, this ting pot is covered in a dense black colour, probably clay slip paint - a finish particularly associated with the Lung-shan culture. The two handles above curve outwards and upwards to the rim counter-balancing the narrowing and then widening of the neck as it reaches the mouth of the pot.
9036 detail of pot
A textural pattern of fine parallel scratched lines covers the pot - probably made with the sharp comb-like edges of a small shell. These vertical lines contour and emphasise the three generous globular shapes. Where these blend into one, a more deeply scratched linear band has been deeply scratched around the pot and a sprig-like short strip with raised buttons. The whole form and decoration suggests a sensitive and subtle maker.
9037 A Museum case of Lung-shan Pottery, Shantung province.
A variety of shapes but all with the characteristic black burnished slip finish. By the late 3rd millennium BC a greater diversity of techniques and forms appear in the Shantung province (See Maps). Such pottery was of exceptional quality. Although the fine grained dark body was used for the black finished pottery, there is also a greater range of clay material in Shantung and other eastern provinces compared with the westward Yellow River basin. The vagaries of the great rivers and the immense delta area probably contributed to the deposition of widespread pockets of different clay material containing varied mixtures of minerals and a range of particle sizes. Potters in the eastern provinces exploited this situation to produce a number of different types of bodies: a rather pale yellowish or white body; a rough sandy grey; a fine grained reddish-brown; a coarse grained reddish-brown; a fine grained very dark body. There was also this unique Lung-shan black body with exceptionally fine particle size. Pots made with it were often very thin walled structures when fired.
9038 Wheelmade dish on high ring cut feet - p’an - 3rd to early 2nd Mill. BC
The pottery with a polished black exterior was never painted, and is almost always without decoration. As we have already seen, some styles and shapes are derived from the Yang-shao but such patterns become considerably altered in the Lung-shan culture. This is a very different sort of three legged pot, one made using a fast potters wheel - not slowly coiled and shaped by hand. It was used for ceremonial washing. This type of a shallow dish on a high ring - the p’an - anticipates bronze versions cast during the later Shang and Western Chou dynasties.
9039 Lung-shan blackware Urn with lid 3rd-2nd mill.BC
It was probably the fast turning potter's wheel that made the fundamental difference. It appears here in China for the first time. This type of lidded urn shape with handles must have been made in quantity for domestic use. It was expertly made using a fast potter's wheel. However, This one came from a grave site and was probably made from a smoother, darker body, as it was for ceremonial/funerary use. The black finish has a smooth shine. A fine dark iron slip was probably used on this dark body to produce the surface quality but a smoky reduction firing cycle would have contributed to this quality. Though not essentailly very different from the simple Mycenaean-Greek updraft kilns, kiln management must have been of a high standard in these Lung-shan potteries to regularly achieve high quality. Remember, this is still in pre-literate China.
9040 & 9041 Two Black potter stem-cups. Lungshan Neolithic period, Weifang, Shantung
These two examples of stem goblets illustrate a skilled and most creative use of the fast turning potters wheel at the close of the prehistoric period in China. The complex forms and the thinness of such fine thrown pots are quite exceptional. They are ceremonially functional as drinking cups or bowls, the design of both of them is complex in detail but somehow calming, even austere, with their tall,thin silhouettes. They are fine examples to end this tutorial covering prehistoric pottery in China.
The southern regions of China, too, had a neolithic culture, and shows the influence of both Yang-shao and Lung-shan styles. Southern neolithic pottery styles developed later and remained longer than in the north. These various prehistoric southern cultures are not yet very well understood, although sites have been found well up the Yantse River (in Kiangsi and Hunan) as well as in the east in Chekiang, Fukien, and in Kuangtung as far as Hong Kong. While most of such coarse pottery was hand-made with pad and beater, the wheel was also used. These pots continued to be made well into the early Bronze age, for the greater part of the population went on living in near neolithic conditions despite the sophistications accompanying a flourishing metal culture.
Sometime after 2000BC a form of writing was invented in China. Slowly the mist of a preliterate time begins to clear. From now on we can know with a little more certainty some names of deities and rulers, some rituals, some beliefs. But there are still many unanswered questions and unsolved puzzles about China at this eventful period around 2500-1500BC. In the next tutorial our study of ceramics in China shows a sharp change. The richly decorative Yang-shao styles and the refined sculptural forms of thrown black Lung-shan are gone. A great change has occured. We come to this in the next tutorial.
A Few Books of Interest:
The Penguin Atlas of Ancient History: Colin McEvedy.
Patterns in Prehistory: R.J.Wenke O.U.P.
The Art of China Korea & Japan: P.Swain Thames & Hudson
The Search for Ancient China: C.Debaine-Francfort, Thames & Hudson
China, An Integrated Study: Cotterell & Morgan, Harrap Lomdon
The Chinese Potter: Margaret Medley.
Ceramic Art of China: Honey,Faber & Faber London
This is the end of the first tutorial in
Part II 1 - 6 Ceramics in China.
Adapted from the original versions which were written for my series of weekly illustrated lectures to ceramic students including those on the Harrow Studio Pottery Degree Course, Westminster University and The Central School of Art & Design, London UK from 1973 - 1994
Victor Bryant ©1994,2004