The Origin of Yixing Ceramics

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The rolling hills[1] of Yixing, shaped over the millennia by ocean currents and later carved by the tributaries of the Yangzi River, have supplied ceramic artist with the raw materials of their craft for more than 2,000 years. The river and its tributaries attracted, fed, and supported many of the earliest settlements in China, aiding the rise of Chinese civilization and remaining its largest population center[2].

Yixing has held four names throughout recorded history: in the Warring States period (481 – 221 BCE) it was called Jingxi (荊溪); in the Han dynasty (206 – 221 BCE) it was called Yangxian (阳羡); in the Jin dynasty (265 – 420 CE) it was called Yixing (義興, different characters!); and finally in the Song dynasty (960 – 1279 CE) it was called Yixing (trad: 宜興, simplified: 宜兴), which remains its contemporary name. Ming and Qing authors frequently referred to Yixing by its Han dynasty name “Yangxian” in literature and poetry, while ceramic artists and craftsmen more commonly used the names “Jingxi” or “Yixing” (Song dynasty characters) on seals and inscriptions.

Archeological excavations have confirmed the presence of kiln sites in Yixing and the surrounding areas dating to the Qin (221 – 206 BCE) and Western Han (202 BCE - 9 CE). These early kilns made high-fired stoneware out of refined clay with good control over the kiln atmosphere (generally domestic ware, such as jars and bowls); shards from the Han period found at QingLongShan (青龙山) and JunShan (军山) have grey or brown bodies and are unglazed. Fragments of proto-Zisha[3] wares, fired in a dragon kiln[4], have been dated to the Song dynasty (960 – 1279 CE); the ancestry of Yixing’s artistic heritage is visible on these fragments – the Song dynasty wares and vessels were hand-built from sheets of clay (rather than being thrown on a wheel) and the wares are unglazed. The development of Yixing ceramics takes us from the origin of teapots, the development of contemporary zisha ceramics in the Ming, to the present day.

[1]Ceramic centers throughout China concentrated in hilly areas (for clay deposits) with river systems for transport and nearby forest for firing fuel; they also needed to be close enough to farmland supported population centers to supply a customer-base.

[2]The Yangzi River Delta is currently home to approximately 150,000,000 people; Yixing is almost equal distance between Hangzhou, Nanjing, and Shanghai.

[3]Wares made from the same or similar ore processed and fired to a lower level of refinement.

[4]A dragon kiln (龍窯) is a type of single or (later and more commonly) multi-chambered climbing kiln; kiln-types are discussed in detail in a later chapter of this book, “Firing of Yixing Clay”.