Victor Bryant ©1994,2004

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Prehistoric Pottery in China

by Victor Bryant
Last revised 24th October 2004

PART II   Tutorials 1. - 6. CERAMICS IN CHINA

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2.1 Prehistoric Pottery in China
Pre- and Proto-Chinese

Quick Find Topic List

Neolithic Origins
Migration and Settlement

Map of China
The archeological evidence suggests that by 8000BC the vast area of what is today the Chinese Republic was gradually populated from both the north and the south-west by a succession of different races and cultures. Probably before 6000BC groups of migrating stone age hunter-gatherers had formed small communities within the great river systems of China. These settlers learned new crafts, becoming fishermen, herdsmen and agriculturalists. In the north they grew millet as a staple crop; in the wetter south they planted rice.

Earliest Pottery in Northern China
ca. 6th millennium BC

Neolithic Cultures in Northern ChinaPerhaps before 5000BC simple bonfired pottery bowls, bottles and other utensils began to be made in China. Pottery-making settlements appear along the rich agricultural areas bordering - the two great river systems , the Huang-he(Yellow River) in the north and the Yangtze in the south. These developments parallel what had happened along the Nile in Egypt, the Tigris and Euphrates in Mesopotamia, the Ganges in India etc.

Click on pic for larger image.9001 Small buff clay bottle. Peiliang, Honan ca. 5000BC
This little bottle was found in Honan province and thought to be a very early example from around the 5th millennium BC. Many small food bowls, bottles, and other shapes, made from red or buff clay, pressed and coiled by hand appear to be made about this time. Some pots have been scratched with marks, impressed with cord patterns or decorated with painted slip, before being bonfired.

Click on pic for larger image.9002 Red clay bottle pointed base. Yang-shao Culture. Ht:30.5cm. ca.4800BC. GMP.
A small storage vessel handbuilt by coiling. A corded paddle smoothed out the coils during building. This produced the ridged texture/pattern.

Click on pic for larger image.9003 Similar storage bottle, with "V" painting. Yang-shao Culture. ca.4800BC. BML.
Although worn, this similar example appears to have an inverted "V" decoration in brighter slip around the shoulder. The loop rings low down are for a carrying cord. The pointed base would be pushed into the dirt floor. They were almost certainly valuable grave gifts.

Neolithic Ceremonial Pottery
Some Distinct Styles

Yangshao and Lungshan Cultures in Northern ChinaBeyond making simple food bowls and utensils there appear to have developed a few quite different methods of making and ornamenting ceremonial or ritual earthenware. Modern understanding and archeology of China's prehistory can be said to have only really begun in the 1920s. Two distinctly different styles were soon recognised by archeologists and then classified using the village names where each of these groups of pottery was first discovered: Yang-shao village in Shensi province and Lung-shan village in Shangtung Province. Graves in Pan-Po village in Kansu province yielded particularly fine examples of painted funerary pottery, so the Kansu style became recognised as perhaps the finest sort of Yang-shao painted ware.

Yang-shao pottery appears earlier than Lung-shan and is mostly found in the North-western provinces. Lung-shan pottery is mostly found in the Eastern provinces, particularly Shantung, but there seem to be considerable overlaps with earlier Yang-shao sites.(see maps)

Three Prehistoric Ceramic Styles
Recognised in the 1920s

1. Yang-shao Ware
Handbuilt red earthenware bowls and dishes, brush decorated with slip. ca 5th-2nd Mill BC
Click on pic for larger image.
9004 Deep red clay bowl painted with triangles and lines.Handbuilt. Pan-p'o, Shensi.Yang-shao Culture. Diam:15.5cm. 5-4th mill.BC.

2. Kansu Ware (Yang-shao)
The finest examples of elaborately slip painted Yang-shao Ware, particularly funerary urns come from the Kansu Province ca 3rd-2nd mill. BC.
Click on pic for larger image.
9018 Funerary Jar Pan-p'o Kansu Province ca.2500 BC. GMP.

3. Lung-shan Ware
Typically, fine, fast wheel thrown ware with smooth fine black finish and wide variety of shapes but no slip 3rd-2nd mill BC.
Click on pic for larger image.
9019 Lung-shan blackware Urn with lid. Wheelmade.Ht:26.6cm. Shantung 3rd-2nd mill.BC

These three styles of prehistoric Chinese pottery were recognised and classified in the early 20th century. They are still the bulk of Prehistoric Chinese Ceramics on show in the world's greatest museums. However, our understanding of Prehistoric China continues to evolve. In the last decades of the 20th century more discoveries and detailed excavations have caused archaeologists to add to the number of the prehistoric cultures considered to have existed in China. Such discoveries suggest that ethnically and culturally China's prehistory was very complex and much not related to the well-known historical Shang culture which throughout Chinese history has been considered the single origin and basis for the "Chinese" culture. This centralist single culture theory is now challeged by the most recent discoveries in various parts of this vast territory. The 21st century should produce more important ceramic finds and further speculation about China's cultural origins in prehistory.

The Wide Range of Painted Pottery
Early Painted Examples from 5th-4th mill.BC

From Pan-p'o, Shensi Province

Click on pic for larger image.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.

Click on pic for larger image.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.

Click on pic for larger image.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.

Click on pic for larger image.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.

From Yuan-chi, Shansi
(Eastern Yang-shao Culture)

Click on pic for larger image.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.

From Honan Province
(South-Eastern Yang-shao Culture)

Click on pic for larger image.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.

Click on pic for larger image.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.

From P'ei-hsien, Kiangsu Province
South-Eastern Yang-shao

Click on pic for larger image.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.

From Kansu Province
3rd Mill. BC.
(Western Yang-shao Culture)

Yangshao and Lungshan  Cultures in Northern ChinaThe 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.

Click on pic for larger image.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.

Click on pic for larger image.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.

Click on pic for larger image.9014 Kangsu Yang-shao jar painted in black 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.

The Finest Yang-shao Painting
3-2 mill BC. Kansu Painted Funeral Urns

Click on pic for larger image.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.
Click on pic for larger image.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.

Click on pic for larger image.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.

Click on pic for larger image.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.

Click on pic for larger image.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.

Click on pic for larger image.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 ...

Click on pic for larger image.9021 Detail: Previous Funerary Jar
... you can see the method used to give a clarity and sparkle to the design. The dark purple-black iron-manganese slip was used to paint the thick brushed diamond and triangle shapes. Care was taken to leave a small space between the iron red lines so that the lighter body could show. The final sparkle to this was given by using a fine brush and the black slip to produce the tiny stitch or thorn-like strokes out of the thick black shapes.

Late Kansu Painting
2nd-1st Mill. BC

Click on pic for larger image.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.

Three Legged Cooking Pot

Click on pic for larger image.9023 Drawing - Three pots form one Ting cooking pot
This shape may possibly have developed out of the need to warm food and drink over a low fire by resting three similar cone shaped pots against one another with their mouths touching - in a sort of pyramid shape over the charcoal embers. One pot with three points or legs will straddle a pile of embers and allow the heat to warm the pot better and is more stable than three pots just touching. Anyway, however it originated, the tripod shaped pot became popular in China and in historical times was called a ting.

Click on pic for larger image.9024 Pale terracotta three-legged Cooking Pot Qijia Culture, Kansu 2000-1500BC MGP.
This pot looks as if it really could have been a cooking pot: it looks strong and in very good condition. Nevertheless it was found in a grave and used as an offering. Hand built mostly by coiling three conical shapes and these then blended into one pot with three points. Next the flared rim was built out and then the two strap handles added before scraping and finishing the whole shape. The regular comb-like scratches are probably made by the serrated edges of a small shell used for scraping smooth the surface. There is no slip nor any other decoration. The body looks somewhat coarse, giving it good resistance to heat shock when used for warming food over the embers of a fire.

Click on pic for larger image.9025 A decorated three-legged bowl. Honan 3rd mill.BC (called a Ting in historical times).
This prehistoric example found in Honan and dated as 3rd millenium BC is of interest for a number of reasons. Such a little vessel would have been a grave gift. The spiral pattern is no doubt significant. Women in some pre-literate cultures painted their breasts with this pattern. The three main shapes which comprise the main form of the pot are close to the form of an udder or breast. Were these forms an indication that this offering contained life-giving milk to sustain the dead person? Such symbolism is certainly a possibility as such bowls are not an uncommon grave find. This tripod form is one of the very few distinctive prehistoric ceramic shapes which survived into historic times in China.

Prehistoric Pottery in North East
(The low lying parts of Shantung province) -
ca. 5th-2rd mill BC.

Kansu, Yang-Shao and Lungshan Cultures in Northern China plus Province Names

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.

Animal Forms

Click on pic for larger image.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?
Another Prehistoric China Puzzle

Before the arrival of the wheel potters modelled, pressed and coiled pottery in a manner we recognise. In early cultures where metal had arrived we can sometimes see the influence of metalworked shapes on their pottery. Sharp angled joins, ultra-thin edges, unusual handles. Precious metal articles could sometimes be copied in clay and become substitutes as Grave Gifts.
5012 & 5013
In Tutorial No.5. I included these Mycenaean Greek examples from the 3rd-2nd mill BC. You can see a clear link between the metal and the clay form. Notice that the clay copy is often too fragile to be anything other than a symbol grave gift, albeit much cheaper!

In the following examples of Chinese late prehistoric pottery I find unmistakable signs of such metal influence. However, without any equivalent metal vessels yet discovered is only a supposition. Future archeological exploration may confirm my beliefs. In any case, such strangely shaped pots are well worth examining...

Some Stylised or Abtract Forms

Click on pic for larger image.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.
Click on pic for larger image.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.

Click on pic for larger image.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.

Click on pic for larger image.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.
Click on pic for larger image.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.

Transitions during 3rd and 2nd Mill BC.
Between Handbuilt Yang-shao and Wheel-made Lung-shan

Click on pic for larger image.9032 Red Earthenware bowl tou, Tazza. Yang-shao ts'un Honan Ht:22cm 3rd Mill BC. MFFAS.
In Honan there a numerous sites where the styles and shapes are found to be transitional between those of the Yang-shao and Lung-shan. Among these are the open bowls supported on tall spreading stems(called a tou in China and a tazza in the West). This example from Honan Province is coiled and handbuilt, not thrown. There is no painted slip decoration. The only ornament consists of pierced circles in the hollow stem. The pot was burnished and low-fired. I would guess that the Yang-shao potter who made this had seen a similar but thrown tou made in a Lung-shan village. In effect this Yang-shao pot was a copy of a wheel-made tou such as this next example below.

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.

Click on pic for larger image.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.

Click on pic for larger image.
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.

Great Changes

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.

  • The Arrival of the FAST Potter's Wheel.

  • Greater control of kilns and firing.

  • Wide range of thin walled shapes.

  • Black, smooth finished, thrown ware.

  • Turned ridges and linear relief decoration.

  • Very few coloured slip painted pots.

We still know practically nothing of actual events, but copper tools were appearing and bronze casting must have been introduced or invented by the beginning of the 2nd mill BC. Such a variety of great technical and artistic developments heralds the close of prehistory in China.

LUNG-SHAN Black Ware
3rd to early part of 2nd mill.BC

Click on pic for larger image.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.

Click on pic for larger image.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.

Click on pic for larger image.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.

Click on pic for larger image.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.

Click on pic for larger image.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.

Click on pic for larger image.Click on pic for larger image.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.

A Postscript:
Neolithic Pottery during the Early Bronge Age

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.

The Dawn of History in China

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.

Tutorial No.10. Shang Era to Han Dynasty
we examine
Ceramics from the first historical period of China: The Shang Dynasty to the Great Han Empire

Tutorial No.10.(China 2.) Shang Era to Han Empire

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

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