A Brief History of Porcelain in China & Japan

We’re just going to assume that you know what porcelain is and get right into the history part. Cool? Cool.

That’s Why It’s Called China

Examples of early, porcelainesque Chinese pottery dating as far back as 1600 BCE still exist, but the it was not until Eastern Han Dynasty (circa 206 BCE-220 CE) that the glazed ceramic material that we now know as porcelain was developed. By the time the Sui Dynasty rolled around (581-618 CE) porcelain was widely produced throughout the country. Soon after, Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE) porcelain made its way to the Middle East, where it was highly valued and sought after.

By the Song Dynasty days (960-1279 CE), porcelain production was widespread, and the artistry involved in making it continued to evolve. Highly organized production, with huge numbers of major kiln sites strewn about the country, was the order of the day.

Within a few hundred years, during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 CE), Chinese porcelain was being exported to and traded with Europe. The Silk Road helped the porcelain trade spread throughout Asia and into Africa. By the end of the 15th century CE, Portuguese and Dutch merchants were conducting direct trade with China by sea routes.

A MFin' Ming vase.

A MFin’ Ming vase.

What’s the Plan, Japan?

Japan was a major exporter of Chinese porcelain for centuries. However, they did not learn the secrets of making the material until a number of Korean potters were captured during the Japanese invasions of Korea in the late 1500s, which is hilarious. (The invasions weren’t hilarious—the fact that Japan couldn’t figure out porcelain until they kidnapped some in-the-know dudes is the funny part.)

These Korean potters invented an improved pottery kiln, and found a ready source of porcelain clay near Arita, in far southern Japan. Soon, multiple kiln sites were fired up in the area and were cranking out porcelain that, while not quite as good as the Chinese stuff, was more than sufficient for most purposes. Less expensive, lower quality porcelain goods made with this same process were still being made in Japan well into the 20th century.

Japan’s porcelain game had evolved enough by 1660 or so that they began exporting their wares to Europe via the Dutch East India Company. As civil wars and the collapse of the Ming Dynasty took their toll on Chinese porcelain production, Japan ramped up their production to fill the void. Uniquely Japanese styles of porcelain wares soon began to appear, many of them related to the country’s traditional textile designs.

By the second half of the 19th century, Japan had expanded their porcelain trade routes around the world, and export numbers grew exponentially. However, with higher demand came a significant decline in quality.

Photo credit: robennals via Foter.com / CC BY