Ancient Chinese pottery


PREFACE


China is a huge and diverse country, where old and new co-exist and where the old partially explains the new. The symbolic distance between the West and China has decreased enormously since we live in a connected world. However, much remains to be discovered and understood, especially for those who have had enough contact with Chinese civilization to have their curiosity awakened.
As for every civilization, knowing its roots is crucially relevant in the process of understanding it. Reading China's history? This may help, although it is a rather dry exercise. By contrast, the objects left behind by generations long gone and brought to life by archaeologists do carry that specific load of emotional truth that no book alone, about years, wars and dynasties, can.
For those who want to understand more about this part of the world, an interesting journey of discovery lies ahead. Processed and fired clay is the oldest artificial material produced by mankind. Turning clay into shapes and forms which made their lives easier, ancient humans left behind indestructible proofs of their abilities and skills, their lifestyle and needs, their imagination and artistic taste. The preparation of the clay and the techniques of pottery-making progressed through time. Ancient pottery displays a large variety of shapes, colors and decoration. How telling are these variations? Looking more and more at these objects opens a whole new world of questions. What determined the way they were made? Where have they been found? Who made them? Who used them and how? Even if the answers will never be definitive, observing these early ceramics is a way for getting a sense of how China's ancient peoples lived. Moreover, through these objects connections and interactions can be seen which shed some light on the way in which the early Chinese cultures evolved and influenced each other over time and space. This is a fascinating topic, especially knowing that these cultures eventually coalesced into the oldest known state-society on earth, one that has existed and flourished from more than three thousand years ago up until today.
But then there is an even simpler reward in the process of attentive observation: pure aesthetic satisfaction. With every new contact with the silent old ceramics, jades and bronzes, drawings and paintings, their voices begin to sound clearer. Without doubt, they have a specific aesthetic that may not be striking to the western eye at the first glance. I had the chance to observe these objects in museums, collections, books and galleries again and again, and I was more and more attracted by their subtle message and their surprising modernity. I learned again that the understanding of a new aesthetic space is a progressive and recursive process.

These are just two arguments for why getting some insight into Chinese ceramics is a rewarding exercise. May the overview in this book help to bring some of their hidden beauty to light.

CONTENT


This book started out as a simple web catalog of the JPOB collection of Chinese ceramics. But soon it became clear to me that a better understanding of the historic context is a mandatory prerequisite for deciphering and appreciating the pieces in the collection. I started by writing a birdís-eye view of the evolution of Chinese ceramics from the earliest times.
This seemed, naively, a summary exercise, since the assumption was that 'brushing the top' would suffice. Soon this assumption turned out to be wrong. Even the minimum amount of information that was necessary to get a feeling for the subject was overwhelmingly large.
The only way to succeed at this point was, in fact, to find a new way of organizing the information so that I wouldn't get lost in the sea of cultures, styles, regions and years. Despite knowing that a rigid organization can strip away some of the important nuances, I thought that in this case the advantage of clarity through systematization prevailed. Therefore, I started out from the top, diving further, level by level, into the details. The advantage for a beginner like me was an easier and faster way to understand the development of these cultures and the aesthetics of their ceramics.
The objective of this book is to shed light on the hidden beauty of the pieces in the collection. This is meant both in the literal sense, since objects that have been mostly hidden in tombs or in deeper layers of archaeological strata for hundreds of years are revealed to our eyes. It is meant as well in the symbolic sense, since these objects reveal their meaning and their message through the historic context in which they have been embedded.

Volume 1, "The Journey of Chinese Ceramics", deals with the evolution of Chinese ceramics in a historic context:
  • Part 1- "Prehistoric China" focuses on the prehistoric time: the Paleolithic, The Neolithic and the Bronze Age.
  • Part 2- "Dynastic China" will cover the times of accomplished social organization from the first Emperor (the Qin dynasty) to the modern times of the Qing.
Volume 2, "Catalog of the JPOB Collection of Chinese Antiquities", contains the description of the roughly 180 pieces of the collection and enables a better understanding and appreciation of them through references to the historic backdrop detailed in Volume 1.
To be sure, I have no reason to assume that this short introduction to such a vast subject like the evolution of Chinese ceramics is in any way comparable to the hundreds of excellent books, studies and articles written by archaeologists, dealers, art historians, diplomats and scholars, but I am grateful for having had access to their outstanding work. I tried to find the latest articles and communications, unfortunately in any other language but Chinese.

This part, Volume 1- Part 1, has no other ambition than to organize access to this information in a new way, mainly for beginners who, like myself, may have felt at times insecure and confused when confronted with understanding the greater outline of China's complex history.


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