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Tang Tricolor Pottery & Ceramics (Tang Sancai): An In-Depth Guide

Tang Tricolor pottery, also called Tang Sancai, is a type of pottery that flourished in China during the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD). It is made of white clay and coloured using a glaze containing lead. The glaze uses metals such as iron, copper, manganese and cobalt as colouring agents and is fired at a low temperature of 750-850°C. The glaze has a range of colours like yellow, green, cream, brown, blue and black. As yellow, green and cream were the 3 main colours, such pottery is also known as ‘Tang tricolor’.

Tang Tricolor Camel
Tang Tricolor Camel

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The Achievements of Tang Tricolor

Tang Sancai not only broke through the limitations of the previous monochrome glaze, using a variety of glaze colours and techniques to achieve a magnificent and moving artistic effect, but also inherited and developed traditional modelling and decorative features with skill. This includes both realism and romanticism, uniquely changing the monotonous, rough and dull impression of the pottery of the past. This was a major step forward in the production of pottery, both technically and artistically.

Tang Tricolor Warrior
Tang Tricolor Warrior

The Decorative Art of Tang Tricolor

Some Tang Tricolor wares cleverly used the natural flow of glaze to present patterns; some had brushes dipped in glaze to create webs, dots or ribbon patterns; some had the surface first sealed with wax, then apply glaze as a whole, while the parts sealed with wax does not stick to the glaze, so that the original white body is retained, contrasting with other patterns of extra colourful effect.

Tang Tricolor Vase
Tang Tricolor Vase

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It is very common to apply a distinctive coloured glaze to the paste or moulded design of a Tang Sancai to give it a relief effect.

Tang Sancai Vase
Tang Sancai Vase

There are also gold-painted wares from the Tang Tricolor Collection, which appear magnificent. The most famous of these is the large number of horse-riding figurines from the tomb of Prince Yide of the Tang dynasty, unearthed in the 1960s in Qianxian County, Shaanxi Province, where the gold of the horse’s head is a real eye-catcher.

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Tang Sancai Horse
Tang Sancai Golden Horse

The various forms of Tang Sancai wares

From the Tang Sancai objects excavated, it was found that there were not only burial objects, but also jars, pots, lamps, bowls and plates, covering household utensils, models, figures and animals, showing all aspects of social life in the Tang dynasty.

Tang Sancai Tricolor Hunting Figurine on Horse

For example, this hunting figurine on horseback is only 43cm high, yet has many details. The horse stands upright and leans slightly forward in a gesture of desire to run. The rider is wearing a green robe, holding a hunting dog and the reins, looking ahead. This figurine is a vivid representation of the hunting customs of the northern tribes in China in the Tang dynasty.

How to make Tang Sancai wares?

Because of the plasticity of the Tang Sancai clay, it can be made in a variety of ways and is very rich in form. There are three main methods of production.

1. Bonding method

This method involves bonding pieces of clay sheets to create a form, and the objects are usually square or rectangular in shape, such as pillows and cushions.

Tang Sancai Pillow
Tang Sancai Pillow

2. The wheel method

In this method, the clay is placed on a rotating potter’s wheel and the object is shaped by hand with the power of the wheel’s rapid rotation. This method is generally used to produce bottles, jars, bowls, plates, etc. The objects are of uniform thickness and generally have a parallel wheel pattern on the surface and inside. An example is the parallel pattern on this three-legged dish.

Tricolor three-legged dish
Tricolor three-legged dish

This dish has a green glaze all over, with a carved lotus, bud and lotus leaf design in the centre of the dish, applied in yellow, green and white colours. This dish is a fine example of Tang Sancai ware, with its fresh and elegant palette and excellent production.

3. The mould method

The horses, camels, celestial kings, burial animals and human figurines in the Tang Sancai are generally made using the mould method. Clay is coated or made into clay sheets, then placed inside the model, and pressed into form then sculpted.

Tang dynasty black glaze horse
Tang dynasty black glaze horse

Tang Tricolor Wares Origin

The earliest and most numerous sites of Tang Sancai were excavated in Luoyang, Henan Province, China. There are currently known kiln sites for Tang Sancai in Shaanxi, Henan, Hubei and Sichuan, and hopefully more will appear in the future and wow us with more amazing pieces of Tang Sancai.

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