Tang Dynasty Pottery - Ancient China
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Tang Dynasty Pottery

tang white porcelain cups
T'ang Dynasty cups (Musee Guimet, Paris)

May 2016 - About 700 AD in China, plain white porcelain pottery first begins to appear, like these cups and these bowls. Porcelain is a special kind of pottery; Chinese potters working under the T'ang Dynasty discovered that if you used a special kind of clay to make your pottery, it would have special qualities. The Chinese potters didn't know it yet, but what made this clay special was that it had a lot of kaolin in it. In addition, the Chinese potters fired this clay at very high temperatures, so hot that some of the clay melted and became like glass, shiny and translucent (light could shine through it).

tang white porcelain bowl

Chinese artists sold this porcelain to Silk Road traders, who brought it east to the Islamic Empire. Porcelain was a huge hit in Central Asia and West Asia, and even though it was fragile and heavy, porcelain became a big part of China's Silk Road trade.

tang pottery bowl

Porcelain wasn't the only T'ang pottery innovation though. Potters in both China and the Islamic Empire started to use glazes around 700 AD. They melted lead-based glazes over the dried white clay to make a shiny, glassy surface. People call this sancai glazing. The glazes make a more brightly colored surface than clay slips. Glazes also make it a lot easier to wash dried food off the dishes.

tang clay camel sculpture
T'ang Dynasty clay camel, ca. 650 AD
(Musee Guimet, Paris)

T'ang potters used mostly brown and green glazes. To get brown, they mixed in a little iron, and to get green, they mixed copper in. T'ang Dynasty artists also made a lot of small clay sculptures like this one of a camel.

The artists used clay slip to color this camel and his rider, but they used the new brown and green glazes to make this sculpture of a man riding a horse look brighter.

tang man on horseback sculpture
T'ang man on horseback, ca. 700 AD

Both the camel and the horse show the interest that the Silk Road traders had for Chinese artists (and for their customers) in the Early Middle Ages.

Learn by doing: go look at some porcelain in a kitchenwares store
More about medieval Islamic pottery
More about Tang Dynasty art
More about the history of pottery

Bibliography and further reading about Tang Dynasty art:

The British Museum Book of Chinese Art, by Jessica Rawson and others (1996). Rawson is a curator at the British Museum, and she uses the collection of the British Museum to illustrate this book. Library Journal calls it "easily the best introductory overview of Chinese art to appear in years".

Art in China (Oxford History of Art Series), by Craig Clunas (1997). Not specifically , but a good introduction to the spirit of Chinese art. Warning: this one is not arranged in chronological order. Instead, it has chapters on sculpture, calligraphy, and so on.

Arts of the Tang Court, by Patricia Eichenbaum Karetzky (1996). A brief introduction.

More Tang Dynasty art
Song Dynasty art
More about China in the T'ang Dynasty
Ancient China
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Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.
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