The generic term "china" explicitly acknowledges the
country's preeminence in the art of ceramics, in which
early and continuous innovation culminated in the
development of porcelain. Chinese potters were
significantly aided in their endeavors by their country's
richness in the raw materials required for ceramics.
Ceramics can be divided into two basic categories: low-fired wares, called earthenware or pottery, which are relatively soft and porous; and high-fired wares, or stonewares, which are hard, dense, and impervious to water. These high-fired ceramics, when white-bodied and fired to a state of translucency and resonance, are called porcelain.
Neolithic China has so far revealed only earthenwares, but stoneware appeared as early as the Shang period (ca. 1600-ca. 1100 BCE). Improved control of kiln temperatures and growing knowledge of how to refine and combine raw materials led to the creation of porcelain, the earliest examples of which date from the sixth century, over one millennium before its production in the West. Although low-fired wares were eminently suited for funerary vessels and tomb sculpture, high-fired wares, with their hard bodies and glazes, were more durable and hence well-suited for daily use. Glazing techniques also developed in the late Bronze Age, probably inspired by accidental glazes occurring when ash liquefied on the surface of a ceramic inside the hot kiln. During the post-Han Period of Disunity (220-589), potters at the Yue kilns in Zhejiang Province learned to apply liquid glazes to their wares before firing. These early greenish glazes were the forebears of a long line of increasingly fine green glazes on wares popularly known in the West as Celadon. High-fired white wares, with a clear glaze over a white body, were a later development, originating before the beginning of the Tang dynasty (618-907).
The classic wares of the Song dynasty (960-1279), monochromes glazed in green, white, or blue, are characterized by elegant simplicity of form, subtlety of decoration, and exquisite, softly colored glazes. Contemporaneous connoisseurs deemed the green-glazed stonewares equal to jade, which was the Chinese touchstone of perfection. At the same time, livelier, slip-decorated stonewares were made at the Cizhou kilns for a wider audience.
Beginning in the Yuan dynasty (1279-1368), the concept of fine ceramics underwent a fundamental change, as decoration became the most important aspect of a ceramic vessel. The Jingdezhen kilns in Jiangxi Province developed a porcelain with a very white body that offered an ideal ground for painted decoration. Meanwhile, the importation of cobalt from central and west Asia and experiments with copper as a coloring agent provided brilliant blue and red hues, respectively, both for monochrome glazes and for painted designs covered by a clear glaze. The range of available colors was vastly expanded during the early Ming dynasty (1368-1644), when overglaze enamels joined monochrome glazes and underglaze-blue painting in the repertoire of ceramic decoration. Color shading was perfected during the Qing dynasty (1644-1911), allowing ceramic decorators to reproduce on porcelain the effects of painting on silk or paper. Technical mastery made possible a spectacular and seemingly limitless stylistic virtuosity.