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T'ang pottery: 7th - 9th century

T'ang is the first dynasty from which sufficient pottery survives for a Chinese style to become widely known in modern times. The surviving pieces are almost exclusively ceramic figures found in tombs. They represent the animals (particularly horses, but also camels) and the servants and attendants needed by the dead man in the next life.

The eclectic nature of Chinese religion is well suggested in the range of attendants considered helpful. A general by the name of Liu Tingxun, buried at Loyang in 728, is accompanied by two Confucian officials, two Buddhist guardians and two ferocious-looking earth spirits of a more Daoist disposition.

Vigorously realistic in style, with bright and often dappled glazes, T'ang horses and tomb figures are among the most delightful and recognizable of styles of pottery.

But the T'ang potters make another contribution of much greater significance in ceramic history. They discover the technique of the thin white translucent ware known as porcelain. There is much argument about the date of the first porcelain, for there is no precise agreement on how to define it (it is most commonly described as white china so thin that it is translucent and makes a ringing sound when struck). Other definitions involve the relative proportions of ingredients such as kaolin and porcelain stone.

Wares produced in north China during the T'ang dynasty, from as early as the 7th century, have the characteristics of porcelain. From the start they are widely appreciated. In a summer palace of the 9th century, far away on the Tigris at Samarra, broken fragments of T'ang porcelain have been found. The earliest known example of a foreigner marvelling at this delicate Chinese ware derives from the same century and region.

In 851 a merchant by the name of Suleiman is recorded in Basra, at the mouth of the Tigris, as saying that the Chinese have 'pottery of excellent quality, of which bowls are made as fine as glass drinking cups; the sparkle of water can be seen through it, although it is pottery.

Islamic pottery: 9th-12th century

The first sight of T'ang pottery and porcelain, reaching Mesopotamia in the 9th century AD, seems to have brought home an obvious truth, always known in the far east but largely forgotten in the west since the days of classical Greece - that pottery can provide objects of great beauty as well as practical items for everyday use.

Tradition dates this discovery to a day when some T'ang bowls are presented to the caliph Harun al-Rashid in about800. Certainly fine ceramics begin to be produced in Baghdad soon after this date. And Islamic potters of the 9th century rediscover an ancient technique, that of tin enamel, which is of great significance in the history of ceramics.

Tin enamel is a form of glaze, containing an oxide of tin, with which earthenware is coated before being painted with colours. When fired, the glaze and the pigments fuse to give a bright and glowing appearance. The technique is first discovered in this same region, Mesopotamia, nearly two millennia before the days of Harun al-Rashid.

Tin glazes are used by Assyrians and Babylonians, from the 9th century BC, for their famous figurative wall tiles. But the technique appears to have been forgotten until Islamic potters in Mesopotamia reinvent it, in an attempt to imitate the richly coloured T'ang earthenware arriving from China.

During the following centuries tin glazes spread through the Muslim world during a very creative period of Islamic pottery. They are used in the prosperous and lively western extremity of Islamic civilization, that of medieval Muslim Spain, and from here they eventually reach Christendom - inspiring great interest in Renaissance Italy.

The route of that last leg of the journey gives tin-glazed wares their first European name. In about 1400 they are exported from Spain to Italy by merchants of Majorca. They become known to the Italians as Majorca-ware, or majolica.

Pottery of the Song dynasty: 10th - 13th century

Of the many arts which thrive in China at this time, Song ceramics are outstanding. The simple shapes of the pottery and porcelain of this dynasty, and the elegance of the glazes (usually monochrome), have set standards of refinement admired in subsequent centuries throughout the world.

Among the best known of these wares are the celadons, with their thick transparent green glazes, which are made at Longquan, near the southern Song capital of Hangzhou. Also influential are the black wares known as temmoku, popular with Buddhist monks for the tea ceremony and exported in large quantities for this purpose to Japan.

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