After the Rise of Celadon ware during the Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220 AD), it was white porcelain that took the spotlight during the Sui Dynasty. In this period (581–618), ceramic artists successfully fired white porcelain, which was largely based on the method of celadon production.
Note: White porcelain from this period my also be called white ceramic or simply white ware as according to the Western definition it’s not yet true porcelain. This is because ware from this period where not fully white and translucent. Technically speaking, the secret of firing white ware was mainly a matter of raw material innovation and higher temperature firing. Compared to celadon, the white porcelain glaze contained very little iron, preventing the glaze from darkening.
We will use the terms white ware, white porcelain and white ceramic interchangeable in this publication.
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The Appearance and Rapid Development of White Porcelain
Archaeological sources show that white porcelain was successfully fired in the Sui Dynasty. This was confirmed following the discovery of white ware in the Zhang Sheng and Li Jingxun tombs.
Zhang Sheng Tomb
In 1959, the Institute of Archaeology of the Chinese Academy of Sciences found a batch of white porcelain at the tomb of Zhang Sheng (595 AD) of the Sui dynasty, excavated in Anyang, Henan province.
Although these white porcelain pieces still have some of the characteristics of Eastern Han celadon, they are much better than the white porcelain excavated from the tomb of Fan Cui in the Northern Qi Dynasty (575 AD).
The iron content in the glaze was reduced, the firing temperature was increased, and the glazing technique was improved, thus increasing the whiteness and hardness of the wares. The variety of porcelain forms is also much richer than before, suggesting a marked improvement in ware-forming techniques.
Li Jingxun Tomb
In the suburbs of Xi’an, the white porcelain excavated from the tomb of Li Jingxun of the Sui dynasty (608 AD) shows a white and clean glaze, with no trace of yellow or green in the white. This was significant as earlier pieces always had a green/yellow shade.
30 Years of Rapid Development
Starting with the early white porcelain excavated from the tomb of Fan Cui in the Northern Qi Dynasty (575 AD) and ending with the discovery of Li Jingxun’s tomb (608 AD), we can conclude that the development of white porcelain has matured rapidly in just over 30 years! Peace during the Sui Dynasty was a great contributing factor.
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Types of white Porcelain from the Sui Dynasty
In 1982, archaeologists discovered a white ware kiln site from the Sui Dynasty at Jia Village, on the border between Neqiu and Lincheng in Hebei Province, China. More discoveries followed in the recent years as archaeologists have also identified a number of kiln sites from the Sui and Tang dynasties, again in Neiqiu.
Characteristics of Sui dynasty White Porcelain
The white porcelain produced at the Jia Village kiln and the Neiqiu kilns was divided into two main categories: coarse white porcelain and fine white porcelain.
Coarse white porcelain is generally a greyish white. In order to increase the whiteness, a layer of “make-up clay” was applied first applied, followed by a layer of translucent white glaze. This kind of coarse white porcelain has a yellowish appearance.
On the other hand, fine white porcelain is generally whiter. There is no “make-up clay” between the body and the glaze, the production is also more refined than the coarse white porcelain.
Besides fine white and coarse white ware, archaeologists have also found a type of white porcelain at the Sui dynasty kiln site at Neqiu with high whiteness and transparency of its glaze. Due to its transparency, such ware comes closer to the Western definition of porcelain. Although in small quantities, it proved that white porcelain had developed in this area and reached a certain height in the Sui dynasty before the the rise of more refined white porcelain of Xing kilns in the Tang dynasty.
Chemical Composition of Sui Dynasty White Ware
The results of the Shanghai Institute of Silicate, Chinese Academy of Sciences, show that the alumina content of the material is as high as 26.8%, while the iron oxide content is only 0.34%, reflecting the high aluminium and low iron characteristics of northern Chinese white porcelain. The substantial increase in the content of alumina indicates that it was fired at temperatures over 1300°C.
This type of white porcelain proves that the Sui dynasty was already skilled in high-temperature reduction firing, laying the foundation for the further development of white porcelain in the Tang dynasty.
Sui Dynasty White Porcelain Pieces
Here are two amazing white porcelain pieces from Sui dynasty.
The above picture shows a white glazed high-footed cup, Sui dynasty. 10.2 cm high, 5 cm in mouth diameter, 4.4 cm in foot diameter, with the mouth slightly turned in, the belly bulging and the foot flared.
The interior and exterior are covered in white glaze, the sides of the foot unglazed, and the glazed surface has a fine flake pattern. This nicely shaped and finely glazed cup can be seen to be a true white porcelain when compared with the early white porcelain of the Northern Dynasties.
A white glazed jar, Sui dynasty. 19.2 cm high, 9.7 cm in mouth diameter, 15.2 cm in base diameter. Mouth flared, no neck, sloping shoulders, and straight from the shoulders down to the foot, with unglazed flat foot.
The base clay is white and relatively sturdy. The interior and exterior are glazed except the foot. The glaze is thin and even, purely white and flawless, covered with a very fine flake pattern. The shape of the jar is simple yet elegant.
Thus, during the Sui Dynasty, innovation in raw material composition as well as the further improved firing techniques, allowed for the rise for white ceramic. This establishes the groundwork for the more refined white ceramic/porcelain to be made during the Tang Dynasty. Especially white ware from Xing kiln during the following Tang Dynasty were more refined, whiter and starting to become more translucent. You will learn more about the Tang period in a future publication!
Marissa Lewan.September 20, 2021 at 7:24 am
It looks primitive to what we can do today, but how amazing given that it’s such a long time ago. Without the ovens we have today, and all the tools. While I’m an experienced ceramic artist myself, I wouldn’t be able to make these things without the technology we have today.
OmariOctober 16, 2021 at 7:03 am
It’s indeed all about technology. Every time there’s a new improvement in material development or baking technology, the quality of ceramics work takes a leap forward.