National Palace Museum – Pottery through the ages 歷代陶瓷

We continue to look at ceramic and porcelains on display at the National Palace Museum. They have an extensive collection, but most of them were retrieved from the Forbidden City during the Chinese Civil War. So they are a bit weak in this department of pre-Ming pottery. Luckily you have sponsors.

The pottery exhibition, called “The Magic of Kneaded Clay”, is a permanent exhibition in National Palace Museum. It is divided into four themes. “Neolithic Age to the Five Dynasties” represents a long period of time when ceramics evolved from primitive beginnings to a more sophisticated stage.

Neolithic Age (7,000 – 2,000 BC)

Most of the items in the Museum from this period are stones and jadeite artefacts and relics. Very few pottery from the period were brought over with the Kuomintang army. So bulk of the collection was donated.

The Dawenkou Culture 大汶口文化 is a name given by archaeologists to a group of Neolithic communities who lived primarily in Shandong, but also appeared in Anhui, Henan and Jiangsu, China that existed from 4300 to 2500 BC. It was characterized by the emergence of delicate wheel-made pots of various colours; ornaments of stone, jade, and bone; walled towns; and high-status burials involving ledges for displaying grave goods, coffin chambers, and the burial of animal teeth, pig heads, and pig jawbones. Based on available data, the earliest white pottery 白陶 from the Haidai Region dates to 5000 to 4600 BP, as represented at late Dawenkou Culture 大汶口文化 sites, including Dawenkou, Yedian, Xi Xiahou, Lingyanghe, Dazhucun, and Yuchisi. 

新石器時代 大汶口文化 白陶鬹 
White pottery gui-pitcher, Neolithic Dawenkou culture, 4300-2500 B.C.E.

Archaeologically speaking, pottery production appeared in various places in Neolithic times, such as the white pottery of the Danwenkou Culture fired with clay having a high percentage of aluminum oxide. People at the time believed that the bird was the origin of their ancestors, so potters fashioned vessels similar to an abstracted bird form with its neck stretching out and crying to the heavens, also serving as a vessel for fine wine.

新石器時代 大汶口文化 白陶鬹 White pottery gui-pitcher, Neolithic Dawenkou culture, 4300-2500 B.C.E.

From currently available data, whitewares have both practical and non-practical uses. Some show evidence of use while others of small size demonstrate their symbolic use as mingqi 明器 or “spirit vessels.” Since whitewares of the Dawenkou cultural period have still not undergone scientific testing, estimation of their use or non-use depends on their shapes. As pointed out, Longshan period whitewares are limited to the gui– pitcher (白陶鬹) type which scholars tend to associate with water or wine. 

Painted (red painted) pottery was the most popular pottery type from early and middle phases of the Dawenkou Culture, yet this tradition also included the color white alongside black and dark red colours against a red pottery. Much of Neolithic pottery is decorated with geometric designs.  Although these designs appear purely abstract, some of them may be derived from forms in nature.

And then Bronze Age took over, and over the next 2,000 years a lot of bronze ware took over the ritualistic purposes. We will take a look at bronze ware collection in the museum in another post later.

Han Dynasty (206 BC- 9 AD)

Most of the Han Dynasty pottery was used in burial ceremonies. There’s a very good example in Sichuan Museum where there is an exhibition of pottery from a Han Prince’s tomb.

西漢 灰陶加彩神獸壺
Grey pottery hu-jar with painted decoration, Western Han dynasty, 206 B.C.E -9 C.E.

西漢 灰陶加彩神獸壺 Grey pottery hu-jar with painted decoration, Western Han dynasty, 206 B.C.E -9 C.E.

Grey pottery and colored wares appeared in the early Warring States period. The Qin and Han Dynasties were the first heydays of grey pottery and coloured works. This earthenware pot has a crimped mouth, a long neck, a round abdomen, and a high-ringed foot. It has head rings on both sides of the body. The whole vessel is decorated with complicated patterns, with nine layers painted from top to bottom, and the central main pattern is the cloud pattern of the gods and beasts. The gray pottery and colored works of the Western Han Dynasty often imitate the texture characteristics of bronze ware and lacquer ware in the shape and decorative patterns. As a substitute for valuable materials, the original ware has the meaning of imitating lacquerware. The shape is similar to this piece, but gray pottery decorated with thread carvings has appeared in the Spring and Autumn Period and Warring States Period. In the Han Dynasty, clay pots were used to store food during burial. Judging from the archaeological unearths, this vessel should have a cover. A clay pot of the same type was unearthed from the Han tomb in Shaogou, Luoyang. When the pot was unearthed, the millet and other food crops in the pot were still dry and intact.

北齊 灰陶加彩陶騎士俑 加彩陶武士俑
Figurines of a mounted man painted with colors, Northern Qi (550-577)

北齊 灰陶加彩陶騎士俑 加彩陶武士俑 Figurines of a mounted man painted with colors, Northern Qi (550-577)

唐 三彩馬球仕女俑 
Pottery figure of lady playing polo game in sancai tri-color glaze, Tang dynasty (618-906 C.E.)

唐 三彩馬球仕女俑 Pottery figure of lady playing polo game in sancai tri-color glaze, Tang dynasty (618-906 C.E.)

Lavish funerals became popular in the Tang dynasty, with grave goods being exceptionally resplendent. Various figurines of different sizes were fashioned from clay and then covered with yellow, white, green, and brown low-temperature glazes, creating a beautiful and dazzling effect.The lady is riding on a yellow horse with a colorful saddle. The horse is robust, its four strong legs standing on a rectangular stand, as if waiting for a command. The lady turns to the side with her head slightly leaning forward. Her left hand holds a halter and the right a polo stick. The entire piece was done on a yellowish-gray biscuit to which a white slip was applied and then the “tricolor” colors of yellow, green, white, and ochre were added, creating a colorful and beautiful dripping effect. 

Robustness was a mark of feminine beauty in the Tang dynasty, and ladies were often shown wearing the nomadic garb of turndown collars, narrow sleeves, and soft boots, being dressed in light attire ready to engage in various horseback activities. The Persian game of polo was a favorite among upper classes in the Tang dynasty.

唐 灰陶加彩仕女俑 
Painted low-fired pottery figure of a standing lady, T’ang dynasty (618-906)

唐 灰陶加彩仕女俑 Painted low-fired pottery figure of a standing lady, T’ang dynasty (618-906)

During the Tang dynasty, particular emphasis was placed on elaborate funerary ritual which often included large quantities of grave goods. These were intended both to provide for the dead in the afterlife and to glorify the wealth of the deceased’s family. As a result, Tang burial frequently included large numbers of earthenware tomb figurines. This female figure is one example. 

The young woman has a plump figure; long, attenuated brows and lashes; a small peach-shaped mouth; round face; and a composed expression. These features were precisely the ideal qualities of Tang feminine beauty. The woman wears a long, broad robe, with her right hand held up before her chest and her left hand extended slightly down. Pointy-tipped shoes protrude from beneath the hem of her robe. Her casual and relaxed manner reveals a sense of stately, self-assured ease. Her tall, elaborate hairdo, with descending strands that encircle her cheeks, is a hairstyle that was particularly popular in the late Tang. The figure displays the realistic style of Tang art, embodying for us the natural appearance of Tang noblewomen.

唐 刑窯 白瓷穿帶壺
White porcelain vase with loops Xing ware, Tang dynasty, 618-907

唐 刑窯 白瓷穿帶壺 White porcelain vase with loops Xing ware, Tang dynasty, 618-907

The Xing kilns were an important producer of Northern white wares located in the NeiQiu and Lincheng regions of modern-day Hebei province. The ceramics manufactured by these kilns are characterized by their fine clay bodies and pure white glaze, which early connoisseurs compared to silver and snow. Looking at the present vase, perhaps you can understand why they chose these metaphors.  

Carrying flasks were commonly used in the Tang for holding water and were produced in particularly large quantities by the Xing kilns. Their shape resembles that of the water flasks crafted from metal and animal hide carried by the nomadic peoples of the north. The shallow grooves on either side of the flask, flanked above and below with small rings, were used for securing a rope that would have been tied longitudinally around the vessel. The Xing kilns were located rather close to regions inhabited by the northern nomads, and it is possible that vessels of this type were produced for nomadic consumers.

Song to Yuan Periods

During the Song, Jin and Yuan dynasties from the tenth to fourteenth centuries, the firing of stoneware are widespread. Famous stonewares were named after the locations at which they were produced. Various kilns in different places came to establish their own independent styles as each excelled in the forms, glazes, skills for decorating and techniques of production for which they became known.

南宋 龍泉 青釉鳳首瓶 
Vase with phoenix-head handles in celadon glaze, Longquan ware, Song dynasty (960-1279)

南宋 龍泉 青釉鳳首瓶 Vase with phoenix-head handles in celadon glaze, Longquan ware, Song dynasty (960-1279)

This mallet-shaped vase, with its tray-shaped mouth and straight neck and body, exhibits a definite two-piece design. The neck has two handles in the shape of phoenixes or dragons in a style that emerged in the early Song dynasty. The simple lines provided by the straight sides of both the neck and the body give the piece an unaffected feel, but also represent the perfect unity of practicality and stability. The partially three-dimensional modelled phoenix handles lead the eyes to the tray-shaped mouth above them, with its slightly protruding outer rim and lustrous surface where the glaze has accumulated, giving the mouth a stately, majestic appearance. This particular design, in all sizes, was used in the periods beginning from the Song to the early Ming dynasties, but it was during the Song dynasty that it reached the heights of beauty of design and color of glaze.

南宋 官窯 青瓷簋 
Gui ritual vessel with celadon glaze, Guan ware, Southern Song dynasty, 12th-13th century

南宋 官窯 青瓷簋 Gui ritual vessel with celadon glaze, Guan ware, Southern Song dynasty, 12th-13th century

The shape of the vessel imitates the bronze gui 簋, with a slightly oval constricted mouth, a large abdomen, a flat bottom, and a slightly higher ring foot. The mouth and feet are worn and inlaid with copper edging, the lower mouth is decorated with two string patterns, and the two sides of the abdomen are decorated with a scallop-shaped ear, and the lower ears are flattened to expose the black-gray carcass. The fetal bone is thick, the whole body is covered with a thick green glaze, the glaze is pinkish blue, the glaze is covered with ice cracks, and the edge of the glaze is slightly pink. During the Shaoxing period of the Southern Song Dynasty, the ruling and opposition parties brewed the thought of reviving the culture of the Northern Song Dynasty, making “Xuanhe Bogutu” a model for the reconstruction of ritual utensils. As far as the influence is concerned, a type of imitation bronze ware appeared in the Southern Song Dynasty official kiln ware. This product is one of the examples. Similar artifacts were also unearthed at the official kiln site of Tanxia in the suburbs of Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province and the Taimiao area of the Southern Song Dynasty.

北宋 定窯 十二世紀 白瓷劃花蓮瓣盤(「彥瞻」銘) 
Dish with carved lotus petals, incised design and yanzhan mark, Ding ware, Northern Song dynasty, 12th century

北宋 定窯 十二世紀 白瓷劃花蓮瓣盤(「彥瞻」銘) Dish with carved lotus petals, incised design and yanzhan mark, Ding ware, Northern Song dynasty, 12th century

Wide shallow plate, short circular foot-rim, carved lotus petals on the outer wall, incised leaves and flowers decoration on the inner well, and gilded with copper on the rim. The decoration is very gorgeous. The whole plate is glazed, the plate is like a lotus flower in full bloom – this is a masterpiece of Ding Kiln in the late Northern Song Dynasty. The engravers of Dingyao are good at scribing smooth lines with oblique knives. The two characters “Yan Zhan” are inscribed on the bottom of the plate, which should be the name of the artisan. The kiln site of Ding Kiln is located in Quyang County, Hebei Province today, and white porcelain has been produced there since the 9th century.

宋-金 北方窯場 烏金釉碗 十二至十三世紀 
Bowl with black glaze, Northern kilns Song to Jin dynasty, 12 th -13 th century

宋-金 北方窯場 烏金釉碗 十二至十三世紀 Bowl with black glaze, Northern kilns Song to Jin dynasty, 12 th -13 th century

Wide mouth, deep well, round bottom, short circle feet. The body form is thin, and the whole body is covered with black glaze. The bottom feet are all exposed gray pottery. The rim of the bowl is gilded with a copper edge.

金至元 鈞窯 天青釉紫斑如意枕, Ruyi-shaped pillow in sky-blue glaze with purple spots, Jun ware, Jin to Yuan dynasty, 12th -13th centuries

Ruyi-shaped pillow in sky-blue glaze with purple spots, Jun ware, 鈞窯 天青釉紫斑如意枕, Jin to Yuan dynasty, 12th -13th centuries

This porcelain pillow is in the shape of the ruyi” 如意 symbol. High at the back and sloping down towards the front, the top of the pillow is slightly indented towards the centre. Both sides of the pillow have gourd-shaped holes, revealing a hollow inside and thick walls. The whole piece is covered in a thick sky-blue glaze extending down to, but not quite reaching, the base, with glaze “tear-drops” near the bottom where the thick glaze has run during the firing process. In places where the glaze is thin on the corners and around the rim, the brown color of the ceramic body under the glaze can be seen. The surface of the glaze exhibits crackling, with purple-red spots appearing on the sky-blue glaze due to the addition of a copper-red glaze, adding a naturalistic, aesthetic feel. There are also very clear examples of “palm eyes” often seen on Jun ware, which again reveal the color of the body under the glaze. This type of “ruyi” shaped pillow was already seen during the Song dynasty (960-1279), with extant three-color pieces as well as white-glazed pieces incised with floral designs.

Base of the pillow, inscription of Emperor Qianlong’s commentary

It has a flat base on which a poem written by Emperor Qianlong in 1776 is inscribed. Emperor Qianlong (r. 1736-1795) commented that this piece “appears to be from the Northern Song dynasty,” but this is probably more from his liking of ancient things. In fact, when compared to examples dating from the Song dynasty to today, this particular piece is simpler in design and decoration, and distinctly shows the corners of the pillow. Also, this pillow is slightly more elongated in width, and shorter lengthwise, making it slightly squarer in shape. All of these conform more to the Yuan dynasty style of ceramic pillow.

元 霽青單把杯 Single-handled cup with cobalt blue glaze, Yuan dynasty, 1271-1368

Single-handled cup with cobalt blue glaze 霽青單把杯 , Yuan dynasty, 1271-1368

Two-piece cup and tray, the cup is a funnel-shaped body and a single handle with a T-shaped strip corner on one side; the tray is folded along the shallow well. The cups and pans are covered with indigo blue jade glaze, and traces of gold and silver remain on the glaze; both of them have no ring feet, flat and unglazed. Cobalt blue was a new glaze in the Yuan Dynasty. The works are rarely passed down to modern day.

Ming Dynasty

Ceramic production was an important state affair in the Ming dynasty. In early Ming, the ceramics industry was mainly based at the Longquan kilns in Zhejiang province and the Jingdezheng kilns in Jiangxi province. Their products not only circulated all over China but also reached overseas markets. Furthermore, both of these kiln sites produced official wares.

明 龍泉窯 青釉玉壺春瓶 
Yuhuchun vase with celadon glaze, Longquan ware, Ming Dynasty (1368-1644)

明 龍泉窯 青釉玉壺春瓶 Yuhuchun vase with celadon glaze, Longquan ware, Ming Dynasty (1368-1644)

It has a slender neck, a pear-shaped belly, and round feet. The whole body is covered with celadon glaze, the glaze is bright yellow and green, and the lower abdomen is brown and transparent. The abdomen is decorated with dark-flowered peony patterns, from the neck to the shoulders, there are banana leaf patterns, back patterns, grass leaf patterns and continuous cloud head patterns, and the circle feet are used as back patterns. Celadon glaze is applied on the bottom, the feet are exposed, and ochre sauce is applied.

清 乾隆 粉彩、琺琅彩陶瓷
Fencai and Falangcai polychrome enamel porcelains, Qing dynasty, Qianlong reign (1736-1795)

清 乾隆 粉彩、琺琅彩陶瓷 Fencai and Falangcai polychrome enamel porcelains, Qing dynasty, Qianlong reign (1736-1795)

Left to right

  • Bowl with Indian lotus scrolls on black background – Falangcai (琺瑯彩) polychrome enamels porcelain.
  • Garlic head-shaped vase with rendering of willows and swallows – Falangcai (琺瑯彩) polychrome enamels porcelain.
  • Covered twin-shaped co-joined vase with birds and flowers pattern – Fencai (粉彩) polychrome enamel porcelain.

A majority of the collection before Song dynasty were donated by collectors or purchased by the Museum during the economic boom when Taiwan was one of the four dragons of Asia. These days, the museum depended mainly on donors.

About the National Palace Museum

The National Palace Museum (國立故宮博物院) was originally founded within the walls of the Beijing Forbidden City in 1925, the present-day National Palace Museum moved to Taipei’s Shilin District following the Republic of China government relocation in 1949 with an official opening for the public in 1965.

Over 600,000 of the most precious artefacts within the collection were moved to Taiwan to prevent their desecration during and after the Chinese Civil War. 

Due to the enormous numbers of collection spreads over 4 floors and 2 exhibition halls, the museum’s exhibits continuously rotate, as only a small percentage of the museum’s collection can be displayed at a given time to prevent wear and tear, so there will always be a new series of collection being exhibited on each visit! 

National Palace Museum
No.221, Sec. 2, Zhishan Rd., Shilin Dist., Taipei City 111001, Taiwan (R.O.C.)
Tel : 886-2-2881-2021

Date Visited : Oct 2018

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