Porcelain is a ceramic and will sometimes simply be referred to as china as a reflection of its origins. Porcelain does originate from the country of China and boasts an ancient past. Early ceramics of the Shang Dynasty (beginning in 1600 BC) eventually gave rise to the more refined porcelain-type ceramics of the Han Dynasty (206 BC). Porcelain making became more widely pronounced during the subsequent Sui (581 AD) and Tang (618) Dynasties, but was widely revered as an art form by the Song Dynasty (960) when the production processes began to spread to Southeast Asia.
By the time of the Ming Dynasty (1368), the art of porcelain making became greatly refined and porcelain items were traded along the Silk Road. Porcelain reached all across Asia, of course, but also Europe and Africa. Once the production techniques spread, porcelain began to be made in other parts of the world where it took on nuances of the producing culture. Yet unraveling the secrets of porcelain art did not come quickly or easily; even by the sixteenth century, Europeans were still fumbling with the craft. In fact, it wasn’t until 1712 when a French Jesuit completely unlocked the secrets of porcelain making that the ceramic began to be produced in earnest in Europe. Toward the end of the century, porcelain making had reached England where manufacturers began to put their own stamp on the art as evidence by the invention of bone china, which employed different ingredients in the process.
Porcelain making is defined by three types: hard paste, soft paste, and bone china. The hard paste type is associated with Chinese porcelain; Chinese porcelain makers used Kaolin clay along with feldspar and typically quartz. Simplistically speaking, artisans formed vessels and objects from these materials before firing them. Historically Chinese porcelain did not require a glaze to be liquid-proof, but glazes and colors, of course, were used to render artistic details to the pieces.
Soft paste porcelain dates to the attempts of European ceramic artists to recreate Chinese porcelain. Today soft paste porcelain is produced, but at lower temperatures than hard paste porcelain; consequently, finished objects are more brittle. Bone china incorporates bone ash into the mix along with Kaolin clay and feldspars; it is characterized by strength and translucency. Major producers of bone china like Wedgwood and Minton’s grew to prominence in England and their wares are very collectible today.
Porcelains, in general, are often noted for their quality as well as their artistic decoration. Ming porcelains are sought after by museums and private art collectors around the world; some are deemed incalculably valuable. The beauty of the artistry might come from the item’s shape, the glazing, or often the painted decoration. Some celebrated Chinese porcelains include the extraordinary designs of blue on white of the Ming period or incredibly intricate details such as a dragon spout on a teapot. Of course, one of the defining features of porcelain, whether produced during centuries BC or today, is that items are associated with functionality (i.e. a pitcher, a plate, or even a ceremonial vessel) as well as artistry.