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Pottery and Jade

China - A World of Pottery and Jade.

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The production of Pottery and jade works during the prehistoric stage occurred and developed side by side with prehistoric farming. At the same time as primitive farming came about during the early Neolithic Age, early Pottery and objects made of jade also appeared. In the late Neolithic Age when primitive farming was flourishing, the production of Pottery and jade also had entered its prime stage of development. To meet the needs of the farming economy and with the conditions provided by the economy, pottery and jade production developed and great artistic achievements were made, becoming the pioneer of model art works in China.

Historically, pottery ware and jade articles differ from each other in that Pottery was primarily made for use in daily life while jade articles were mostly used in ritual ceremonies. As to the regional distribution of these products, most painted Pottery ware was produced along the upper and middle reaches of the Yellow River, and jade articles mostly produced in northeast China and the lower reaches of the Yangtze River, though both of them have been found among unearthed relics of the late Neolithic Age in various cultural regions. This difference is simply due to different resources. In the middle and upper reaches of the Yellow River, there is an enormous supply of Yellow soil for producing Pottery ware while deposits of jade are generally to be found in East China and the southeastern coastal areas. During the Neolithic Age, the "jade" was in fact any kind of stone that looked more beautiful than others. The phrase "millet in the north and rice in the south" is sometimes used when talking of the regional distribution of prehistoric farming. In a sense, we can also use the term “pottery in the west and jade in the east” for this period.

Here, we will not discuss the materials and skills used in the making of Pottery and jade products. Rather, we wish to use them as a carrier of cultural information, through which we can observe the social life, primitive Religion and primitive aesthetics during the late Neolithic Age and explain how they played their part in the ancient history of Chinese culture.

The shape of different kinds of Pottery was mainly chosen for practical reasons. For instance, one kind of bottle with a sharp bottom was made in the shape of the kernel of a date. The whole thing was slim and long with both ends tapering off. This was for ease of taking water from a shallow stream. A type of flask with a long neck and a small mouth was made with a potbelly in the mid section. This configuration was designed for containing water and to enable it to be carried easily. Ancient stemmed cups were de signed like goblets of the present day for holding. Such shapes were dictated by practical needs. Many of other designs were imitations of animals or plants, reflecting the life of that time. For example, the shape of one kind of bottle was copied from that of a bottle gourd, while another was copied from the shape of a section of knotted bamboo. A kind of earthenware, called gui, was designed in the shape of a dog ready to leap on something. Several other pieces of animal-shaped articles, produced with the head raised, mouth open and ears erect, standing firmly on its four feet, were vivid and lively models of dogs. This reflected the economic life of that time. Moreover, a historical background of Pottery ware can also be Seen from their shapes. Before the invention of pottery, fruit shells, bamboo-splint woven articles, cane and rope woven products had been used as articles for daily life, all of which had a round bottom. Pottery ware imitated this, also having a round bottom, sometimes having three legs attached. Some were specially decorated with rope or bamboo woven patterns, mirroring the historical relationship between the shaping of Pottery and articles produced earlier.

Compared with the shaping, the content of social life. Reflected in the decorations of painted Pottery ware, was richer and more varied. Fish, birds, deer and frogs were important decorations on some Pottery ware. Other earthenware was decorated with vivid depictions of frogs, salamanders and house lizards. Other decorations included seeds, sunflowers, leaves, trees and strings of beans. All these decorations present lively and varied scenes of nature. Some had highly developed pattern designs, such as beautiful and colorful hook-type leaves, passionate whirlpools, thunder, lotus, shells and dual hook-like curves; no one knows their original patterns, and so no consensus has been reached about their significance. Some believe that they were derived from realistic imitations of biological patterns, but others disagree. However, they were artistic products derived and extracted from natural phenomena. Imitating natural images at first, then infusing them with human feelings, people produced these wonderful works of art with skillful craftsmanship excelling over nature.

It is most interesting to find figurines designed on earthenware. Three examples will be given as follows: One is a painted Pottery basin, an unearthed relic in Qinghai Province, on the inside layer of which, three groups of dancers were drawn. In each group, five young girls wearing short plaits dance hand in hand, presenting a joyful atmosphere. With its outstanding theme, lively picture, and simple and bold sketch, this work is not only one of the most valuable piece of painted Pottery ware, but also a masterpiece of the earliest pictures of figures in China. Another one is a painted pot, an excavation also discovered in Qinghai. The shaping of its mouth is the head of a man, with an air of gravity and solemnity. Decorated with a lotus and shell pattern on the neck, and with a potbelly and two ears in the lower part and some semi-circular patterns, it looks like a tough warrior when looked at from the front, with a very strong artistic effect. The last one is a painted Pottery bottle, unearthed in Gansu Province. It was shaped as a pretty maiden's head on the section from its mouth to the neck, with trimmed and neat short hair and a quiet and elegant look. Its slender body is painted with black-colored and curve-lined triangles in a chain in three rounds. As a whole, it looks like a maiden in a beautiful dress. In the last two works, painting is combined with sculpture, giving a full third dimension.

As a man-made product, pottery ware or jade articles must necessary reflect the subjective ideology of human beings while reflecting the objective world. Primitive Religion was the principal ideological form during the Neolithic Age. That was sure to be reflected in the Pottery ware and jade articles.

The rich and colorful decorations, however, were not used carelessly to describe various natural phenomena. In a certain area, some decorations would be used repeatedly on a number of painted Pottery ware. And they would be developed into many kinds of the same pattern. In such patterns, taking the image of an animal for instance, if it had been used in the whole course of development of a certain culture, the image, in most cases, could be regarded in relation to totemistic art. Earthenware of the Yangshao Culture of the middle reaches of the Yellow River was decorated with fish and birds. Images of fish were mostly used in the area west of Mount Huashan while birds were used as the chief design in the area east of the mountain. Around the periphery of the mountain, a combination of images of fish and birds were used. This suggests that fish were the totem of the Yangshao Culture clan society west of the mountain, while birds were the totem of the clan society to the east. Of course, the use of birds as a totem was not limited to the middle reaches of the Yellow River. But so far, we could have only dealt with the problem in this limitation in terms of the designs of Yangshao Culture.

The appearance of the totemistic system during the prehistoric stage can be confirmed by a large quantity of literature. It was a representation of primitive religion, functioning as a symbol to unite all the members of a clan society and was worshipped by the whole society. Thus, it is not surprising that it appeared on Pottery of that time.

A painted earthen urn was unearthed in Henan Province which was decorated with a large painting of a stork and a fish together with a stone axe. This rare, large painting of animals includes a white stork with a pair of wide-opened eyes, a big stiffened fish in its mouth, together with a well-decorated stone axe, full of mysterious fascination. Judged on the basis of time, region, and cultural background, the stork and fish were clearly the totems of two different clan communities. The stone axe symbolized their patriarchal ancestors. This painting was doubtlessly made in memory of the feats of their forefathers, reflecting their worship of ancestors.

According to ancient literature, the use of totems in relation to the ancestors of a clan was very common. For example, fish were used in relation to the ancestors of a clan named Zhou. It was re- corded that Houji (a god of agriculture, the founder of the Zhou clan in ancient China, who was skilled in the cultivation of a variety of grain crops) was cared for by a bird after he was born. When he died, he became half man and half fish. The mother of Daye, the ancestor of a clan called Qin, gave birth to him after swallowing the egg of a black bird. In all these records, birds and fish were symbols of divine ancestors. It seems certain that the stork and fish painted on the urn found in Henan were used to represent ancestor worship.

Since jade products were primarily used as ritual vessels, they are clear reflections of the primitive religious ideology of their time.

During the Neolithic Age, the most common jade articles used for ceremonial purposes were the Bi, Cong, and Huang. The Bi is a round, flat piece of jade with a small hole in the center. When the hole is larger, it is given a different name and is called Huan, and when the hole is larger still, it is called Yuan. The Bi were variously made as single pieces or in pairs or in chains of three pieces. Cong were long hollow pieces of jade with rectangular sides, like a hollow cylinder sheathed by rectangular columns. They are classified into two categories. The single-section Cong is made with a height shorter than its width in measurement. So it may be used as a bracelet. The multi-section Cong is made with a height taller than its width to become a rectangular pier. Huang is a semi-annular jade pendant, called” a half-piece of Bi."

As to their use, it is said "the blue Bi is used in ritual for paying homage to Heaven," "the Yellow Cong is used in ritual for paying homage to Earth," and "the black Huang is used in ritual for paying homage to the North." Each must have played a particular function in religious ceremonies. That a great deal of them were produced is the most telling witness to the popularity of Religion at that time.

Jade articles were produced without paintings. But decorations were carved on them to match their shapes harmoniously. Jade decorations were more standardized than Pottery paintings, and their style was more mysterious. Bi found from the prehistoric period are plain and without any decoration, but Cong and Huang are carved with animal faces. A Cong excavated among relics of Liangzhu Culture (a Culture of the Neolithic Age in China, dating back to about 2,200 to 3,300 BC. In 1936, it was first discovered in Liangzhu Town of Yuhang in Zhejiang Province) on the lower reaches of the Yangtze River is the best example. One found among relics in Yuhang may be called "the king of Cong." It has a bow-like crown on top, and under the crown there is a reversed ladder-type man's face with a pair of double-circular eyes, a flat nose, a wide mouth and a row of neatly engraved teeth. Around the brim of the crown are many swirling cloud patterns and at its top are spread feathers. The man's upper arms stretch out straight, while the forearms turn inward. A pair of animal's eyes is set in the center of his chest. The ridges of the animal's eyebrows and its nose were made in low relief together with straight and whirling lines. From its wide-open bloody mouth protrude four ferocious teeth. The man's feet are crossed under the animal's face. At first glance, the design appears to be a forbidding animal's face with an unlively man's face on its forehead. But on closer inspection, one can find that the ears of the animal may be taken as the arms of the man and his feet as the beard of the animal. As a whole, it may be taken as either a figure of man or a pattern of an animal's head. This man-animal combination may also be Seen as a god of war with a shield in hand or a jade craftsman, holding a piece of jade, providing a design of man-god combination. Similar, but less elaborate, designs may also be found on other pieces of jade from the relics of Liangzhu Culture.

Many valuable works of art have been discovered from the earthenware and jade articles produced in the ages of Yandi and Huangdi. These works of art had the budding characteristics of China's modeling art, representing the trend of development of Chinese art traditions. For instance, the Tradition of freehand brushwork in Chinese modeling art began to appear in Pottery and jade art works. The model of many Pottery and jade articles was not simply a copy of natural phenomena, since it also stressed the relationships between man and other things or between one thing and another. Through modeling, the expressed theme was not things themselves, but man's ideas about nature, his imagination, feelings and ideals.

While the decorations of Cong and Bi embodied man's ideology, the images of birds, animals, fish and grass painted on earth enware also reflected man's ideas. The most famous example is the Banpo human-mask motif and fish design in which two lively fishes were painted on both sides of a man's mouth. Such an image is not Seen in daily life, but it was completely in conformity with the people's ideas at that time. In the final analysis, it fully accorded with the reality of the social life at that time. After 5,000 years, people still marvel at such a design that is comprehensible even today. Since motif is the first thing in the design, man's ideas and emotions are injected into the images of all kinds of things of the world, such as birds, fish, animals and plants, as well as sailing clouds and running water. The communication between man's ideas and feelings and natural phenomena and their evolution presented many designs full of wit and fantasy.

Pottery articles produced around the Yellow River and the Yangtze were designed with straight and level lines, suggesting a feeling of neatness and gravity and still-life. China's painted earthenwares are mostly designed with curves, arcs, and round points, giving a feeling of movement. The uninterrupted lines of whirl patterns, painted on the upper part of a water pot unearthed in the upper reaches of the Yellow River, for instance, can be viewed as pelting waves from the front, but overlooked as surging waves. The bird design on a pot unearthed in the middle reaches of the Yellow River features a series of variations. The pattern of the bird's three feet and two raised wings in the front develop into round points and curved triangles. The side pattern of the open-mouthed and tail raised bird turns into a round point and three curved lines. It gives a very strong feeling of the smooth and graceful flight of a bird. The continuation and repetition of the patterns give a full presentation of the rhymes and styles of movement as if a duet is being performed. As to such abstract designs as clouds, thunder and double hooks, the implications and styles of movement still remain, though the origin of the patterns is still at issue.

The high aesthetic value of Pottery and jade articles is closely related to their shapes. Although the ancient craftsmen could not explain their art on a theoretical plane, their works themselves serve as a thesis relating their understanding of the beauty of modeling art.

Using techniques of contrast, they distinguished the principal patterns in the design, and made the image of the theme more attractive and harmonious. Under the same motif, they also added some detailed variations to achieve an effect of fullness and implication. The continuation and repetition of a certain design create an echo effect and produce a profound impression. The style in the design of patterns in the overlapped part of two adjoining pat- terns produces a dual function of the same curve and round point. They also made the same pattern intercross in the design so as to make the whole design centered around a central point, which suggests a feeling of cohesion and pulsation. They set one pattern within another and a flower amidst others to promote a sense of tiers, producing a feeling of magnificence and depth.

China's jade art has now lasted for more than 7,000 years, an event never Seen before in the world. The art of Pottery has developed into the art of porcelain, becoming an ever-blossoming flower in Chinese art. The art of bronze works, appearing in a later period, inherited the traditions of the art of Pottery and jade articles in terms of variety, shape and design.

More about Traditional Chinese Art and Crafts

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