What is porcelain and when was it developed?

Covered jar with fish in lotus pond, 1368-1644. China; Jingdezhen, Jiangxi province. Porcelain with underglaze cobalt decoration and overglaze multicolor decoration. The Avery Brundage Collection, B60P78+

Recently our curators of Chinese art were discussing the vexing problem of the term porcelain, which is understood differently in China and in the West. What follows summarizes some of their discussion.

Porcelain, according to one dictionary definition, is “a ceramic material made by heating raw materials, including clay in the form of kaolin, in a kiln to temperatures between 1,200°C (2,192°F) and 1,400°C (2,552°F).” The toughness, strength, and translucence of porcelain arise mainly from the formation of glass and the mineral mullite within the fired body at these high temperatures.

That seems clear enough, but the term has historically been applied in an unsystematic fashion to include substances of various types that share only surface qualities. In Chinese texts (and Western texts that follow Chinese terminology) all high-fired wares are known as ciqi (in contrast to taoqi or low-fired wares).

Western scholarship has added to the confusion by introducing terms such as “proto-porcelain,” and “porcelanous wares” in discussions of Chinese ceramics. Western texts also employ terms like “soft-paste porcelain,” “bone-china,” and so on for materials that look like porcelain but are not high fired or lack other characteristics of the more narrowly defined term. Such terms imply a linear history of ceramics development, with porcelain as the ultimate goal.

In its broad definition, porcelain was developed in China during the Han dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE),  or even earlier – sometime in the late Shang or early Zhou dynasty (roughly 1050 BCE) – according to the broadest Chinese definition of ciqi. Unfortunately, that definition is so broad that it serves no real purpose in tracing post-Han developments in ceramic technologies or the discoveries of new types of raw materials.

Narrower definitions, however, have their own limitations since the development of porcelain in China was based on a combination of technological advancements (the ability to create and maintain very high kiln temperatures, the control of kiln atmosphere, new glaze chemistry, and so on) along with discoveries (such as sources of the raw materials necessary for a true porcelain body). Under this narrower definition, if a kiln site did not have access to the proper raw materials, it could not produce porcelain, no matter how technically developed the kiln was.

One way out of the conundrum of how best to apply the term porcelain is to divide ceramics into the categories of low fired, high fired and porcelain, and then to further divide these broader categories into more precise definitions based on chronology, region, and primary use. Following such a typology, “porcelain” would be limited to those wares developed at kilns in or around Jingdezhen, along with their later competitors. Using this definition, porcelain was developed in China around 900 CE.

What do you think of this way of looking at the term? We’d love to hear your thoughts.

One Response to “What is porcelain and when was it developed?”

  1. ken  on January 29th, 2010 at 9:20 am

    it’s amazing to know that they were able to create this material.

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