The development of ceramics during the Tang dynasty (618 – 907) was an important episode in the history of Chinese ceramics. The ceramics industry was flourishing. The reason for this was not only political stability and social-economic prosperity, but also the development of international trade.
The foreign exports of ceramics during this period, whether in terms of quantity or quality, had far surpassed that of the previous dynasties. Like silk and tea, the export of ceramics was also of great significance to China’s overseas trade. Besides economic activity, this also resulted indirectly in political relations and cultural exchange.
Main Routes of Foreign Exports of Chinese Ceramics
Maritime traffic between China and foreign countries has become increasingly frequent since the Tang Dynasty. A wide variety of commodities and tributes were imported into China by sea and land, including ivory, rhino horn, incense, clove, glaze, white sandalwood, cloth, musical instruments and so on.
The goods exported to the outside world from China included gold, silver, silk, tea, and ceramics. Chinese export ceramic ware was shipped by sea to Central Asia, West Asia and Europe. There were several important ports for sea transport, but the port of Guangzhou was the largest port of departure for foreign trade.
In the middle of the ninth century, the Arab merchant Sulagman wrote a travelogue saying,
“The Chinese can make everyday objects out of clay, transparent as glass, with wine inside, which can be seen from the outside.”Sulagman
Since the ceramics produced at this time were appreciated by foreigners, it was natural that Arab merchants at the time could make a lot of profit by trafficking such ceramics to different countries.
After the end of the Sui Dynasty and the beginning of the Tang Dynasty, maritime transport and trade flourished, and Arab merchants came to China to do business, and some of them lived in Guangzhou. During this period, Chinese ceramics were exported by Arab merchants through the port of Guangzhou to the countries of the South China Sea, and trans-shipped to countries around the world.
South East Asia
The earliest records of merchants from China arriving in the Philippines were of the Tang dynasty, together with the presence of some Tang ceramics in Borneo, suggests that there was early commercial contact between China and the areas of Southeast Asia as early as the ninth century.
Another route for foreign trade in ceramics during the Tang dynasty was the overland ‘Silk Road’ through Xinjiang to Persia, where Persian merchants transited to Syria to reach the trading ports of Mediterranean countries (such as Lebanon and Palestine).
Countries and Regions where Chinese Tang Ceramics were Found
In recent years, ceramics from the Tang dynasty have been found in ancient cultural sites in various countries.
The amount of Chinese ceramics found in Japan from the Tang dynasty is remarkable. Many of Tang Sancai ceramics (tri colore ceramics) have been unearthed, with objects including Tang Sancai long-necked vases found at ancient sites such as Okinawa, and at temple sites in Nara, with over thirty types of Sancai pottery pillows alone.
The Korean peninsula was in close contact with the Tang dynasty in China, and a large number of Yue kiln celadons were imported into the peninsula. Fifteen Yue kiln celadon bowls with jade base were excavated in Buyeo; fragments of Yue kiln celadon were found at the site of Mile Temple in Iksan, along with pottery with the inscription ’12th year of Daejung’ (858); and there were tri-coloured three-legged pot unearthed in Gyeongju, similar in shape and colour to those unearthed in Yangzhou, China.
Chinese ceramic-making techniques were also introduced, and in the early tenth century Korean craftsmen succeeded in firing Koryo celadon ware similar to that of Yue kiln in the Tang dynasty.
For more information about Yue ware: The Invention of True Celadon in the Eastern Han Dynasty
The ruins of the city of Fustat, on the southern outskirts of Cairo, Egypt, were a very prosperous city in the ninth century. By the twelfth century it was in ruins. Thirty years ago many fragments of Chinese Yue kiln celadon were unearthed in the ruins. This type of Yue kiln ware was exported to Egypt in the ninth century, during the late Tang Dynasty, when the city was flourishing and when Chinese foreign traffic was booming and Guangzhou was an important port for foreign trade, from which Chinese produced ceramics and other items were exported in exchange for overseas spices and treasures. The ceramics exported from China to Egypt included celadon, white porcelain and Tang Sancai. The overseas transport route at this time was from the port of Guangzhou, where they were exported to the Persian Gulf, and from there they were transferred to Egypt. Also unearthed were a large number of fragments of celadon and Tang Sancai porcelain that were copied by artisans of the time.
A large city in the seventh century, Braminlabad in Pakistan was in ruins in 1020 as a result of an earthquake and was excavated in the mid-nineteenth century, resulting in the recovery of ceramic pieces, later identified as celadon from the Yue kilns of China and white porcelain from the Xing kilns. Both where made in Tang dynasty style.
The Mysore State Museum in India has a collection of Yue kiln celadon and Changsha kiln ware from the late Tang and Five Dynasties, and fragments of Yue kiln celadon dishes from the late Tang and Five Dynasties have been excavated in southern India, and a large number of Chinese ceramics have been found in Sri Lanka, including fragments of Yue kiln celadon bowls.
Chinese porcelain from the Yue kilns of the Tang dynasty has also been found at a number of sites in Persia (now Iran). The site of Samarra, for example, was excavated twice, in 1910 and 1913, and fragments of Yue kiln ware were found there. The site became a ruin in 838. The pieces found at Samarra are, according to most studies, identical to those found at Yuyao, Zhejiang Province, China.
The celadon from the Yue kiln system and Changsha kiln painted plates of the Tang Dynasty have been excavated at Neshabur (near Mashhad), Minab (near Hormoz) and Rai (near Tehran).
Ancient Chinese export ceramics have also been found in Africa in Mogadishu, Brava, Zanzibar, Mafia Island, the Kilwa Islands, Gedi, Tanganyika and Pemba Island.
At last, we would like to discuss the significance of Changsha kilns (also known as ‘Tongguan Kiln’). There are Changsha kiln ware from the Tang dynasty found in many more countries and regions than mentioned above; from East Asia, Southeast Asia, South Asia, West Asia to East Africa, with Japan and Iran having the richest items.
The ware from the Changsha kilns found abroad was exported later than that from Yue and Xing kilns. What is important is that the shape and decoration of the wares were adapted to the needs of the countries to which they were exported. This export oriented local customisation made the Changsha kilns one of the main kilns producing ceramics for export trade during the Tang dynasty.
Changsha (Tongguan) Kiln Style
The underglaze painting of Changsha kilns is very rich in subject matter, with figures, birds, flowers, plants and various animals. Among the various motifs the painting of birds and flowers is the most distinctive, with the painted birds generally having large heads, thick necks and short tails, most of them leaping in the grass.
In addition, the use of poetry of varying lengths as decoration on the ware is also a feature of underglaze painting at Changsha kilns. In addition to this, moulded and appliquéd decorative techniques were often used.
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