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A Guide to Asian Pottery: Exploring the Rich History and Techniques

Pottery first emerged across Asia, particularly in regions like China, Japan and Korea, around 8,000 years ago. This long history has allowed for continuous innovation and refinement of techniques, leading to some of the most advanced and varied ceramic traditions in the world. For example, China’s development of porcelain, Japan’s internationally acclaimed Satsuma ware, and Korea’s impressive use of decorative techniques are notable contributions to ceramic art.

Rust-Red And Gold Nanking Cargo Mug. Circa 1752. M.S. Rau.

The Evolution of Asian Pottery Techniques

Asian potters were pioneers in high-temperature kiln technologies and glaze formulations. Chinese potters, for instance, mastered high-fired ceramics such as stoneware and porcelain much earlier than their counterparts in other regions. These advancements allowed for the creation of more durable, refined and aesthetically varied ceramics.

The selection and use of materials in Asian pottery are also distinctive. For example, the fine white kaolin clay used in Chinese porcelain production gives it exceptional translucence and strength. The local clays and natural ash glazes used in Japanese stoneware contribute to its unique textures and earthy colors.

Chinese Porcelain: A Pinnacle of Ceramic Art

Porcelain is a type of high-quality ceramic material known for its strength, translucence, and smooth, white surface. It is made by heating materials such as kaolin, a fine white clay, to temperatures between 2,200 and 2,600 degrees Fahrenheit. This intense heat causes the material to vitrify, or become glass-like, resulting in its characteristic durability and glossy finish. Porcelain has been highly valued throughout history for its beauty and functionality, often used for fine tableware, decorative art and tiles.

While Europeans didn’t figure out the recipe for porcelain until after the Renaissance, China had a thriving production dating back to the Tang dynasty in 618–907. Today, some still refer to porcelain as “china” or “fine china” due to its association with the region.

Key Periods in Chinese porcelain

Song Dynasty (960-1279 CE)

The Song Dynasty ceramics marked a golden age in Chinese porcelain, characterized by an emphasis on refined aesthetics and technical perfection. This period saw the emergence of several key styles and types of porcelain, including:
  • Ding Ware: Produced in Dingzhou, this type of porcelain was known for its thin, ivory-colored body and finely carved or molded decorations, often featuring floral and animal motifs. The glaze often pooled at the base, creating a distinctive effect.
  • Ru Ware: One of the rarest and most prized types of porcelain, Ru ware was made for the imperial court. It is distinguished by its subtle bluish-green glaze, fine crackles and soft, almost jade-like texture.
  • Jun Ware: Known for its thick, opalescent glazes that range from lavender to blue to purple, Jun ware pieces often exhibit striking, unpredictable color variations due to the kiln atmosphere.
  • Guan Ware: Produced in the imperial kilns, Guan ware is noted for its celadon glaze with a web of fine crackles, symbolizing the beauty of age and imperfection.
  • Ge Ware: Similar to Guan ware but with a more pronounced crackle pattern, Ge ware is often characterized by its grayish or yellowish tone and the intentional development of cracks in the glaze.

Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368 CE)

The Yuan Dynasty saw the introduction of blue and white porcelain, which became one of the most iconic and widely recognized styles globally. Using cobalt blue underglaze decoration on a white porcelain body, these works often featured intricate designs of flowers, dragons and scenes from Chinese folklore and history. The city of Jingdezhen became a major center for porcelain production during this period, a status it retains to this day.
Chinese Blue & White Floral Teacup. Circa 17th century. M.S. Rau.
Chinese Blue & White Floral Teacup. Circa 17th century. M.S. Rau.

Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 CE)

The Ming Dynasty brought further advancements and diversification in porcelain styles. Jingdezhen’s kilns produced vast quantities of porcelain for both domestic use and export. Key styles from this period include:
  • Blue and White Ware: This style continued to flourish, with increasingly complex and detailed designs. The Ming Dynasty’s Xuande period is particularly renowned for the quality of its blue and white porcelain.
  • Wucai (Five Colors) Ware: Featuring overglaze enamel decoration, wucai ware used a palette of red, yellow, green, blue, and purple to create vibrant, multi-colored designs.
  • Doucai Ware: Combining underglaze blue with overglaze enamels, doucai pieces are known for their delicate and harmonious color schemes.

Qing Dynasty (1644-1912 CE)

The Qing Dynasty saw the peak of Chinese porcelain production, with unparalleled technical and artistic achievements. During this period, several new styles and techniques were developed:
  • Famille Verte (Wucai): This style uses a predominantly green color palette, along with red, yellow, and blue, to create vivid, detailed designs.
  • Famille Rose (Fencai): Introduced in the early 18th century, this style features a soft, pastel color palette with a predominance of pink. The use of opaque white enamel allowed for greater detail and shading.
  • Blanc de Chine: Produced in Dehua, this type of white porcelain is noted for its purity and the smooth, creamy texture of its glaze. It was often used for sculptural pieces, such as figurines of deities and mythical creatures.
Chinese Canton Enamel Plate. Circa 18th century. M.S. Rau.
 Chinese Canton Enamel Plate. Circa 18th century. M.S. Rau.

Chinese painted enamel, also known as Canton enamel, derives its name from its primary production site, Canton. Introduced to China in the 18th century, likely by French missionaries, this technique builds upon the enamel methods developed in Limoges, France around 1470. Consequently, the Chinese refer to it as "foreign porcelain."

Modern Era

In the modern era, Chinese porcelain continues to be highly valued and collected worldwide. Contemporary Chinese artists and potters draw on the rich heritage of traditional techniques and styles while also incorporating modern influences and innovations. The legacy of Chinese porcelain remains a testament to the country's enduring artistry and technical mastery in ceramics.


Earthenware is one of the oldest forms of pottery, with a rich history that spans across many Asian cultures. Characterized by its porous, slightly coarse texture and relatively low firing temperatures (typically between 1,000 and 1,150 degrees Celsius or 1,832 to 2,102 degrees Fahrenheit), earthenware has been used for millennia to create both functional and decorative objects.

In China, earthenware dates back to the Neolithic period, around 5000 BCE, with notable examples found at the Banpo Village site near Xi'an. These early pieces often featured simple, utilitarian shapes and were adorned with painted or incised designs. As Chinese civilization progressed, earthenware techniques became more sophisticated, leading to the development of more refined forms and glazes, such as the famous Tang Dynasty sancai, or three-color glazed pottery.

Tang Dynasty Pair Of Striding Camels. Circa 7th-10th century CE. M.S. Rau.
 Tang Dynasty Pair Of Striding Camels. Circa 7th-10th century CE. M.S. Rau.

Japanese Pottery: Tradition and Innovation

In Japan, earthenware also holds a significant place in the cultural and artistic heritage. The Jomon period (approximately 14,000 to 300 BCE) is renowned for its pottery, which is among the oldest in the world. Jomon pottery is distinguished by its intricate cord-marked patterns and flame-like decorations.

These early Japanese pots were primarily used for cooking and storage, reflecting the daily lives and rituals of the Jomon people. Moving into later periods, such as the Heian (794-1185) and Kamakura (1185-1333) eras, Japanese earthenware evolved to include more sophisticated forms and glazing techniques, influenced by Chinese and Korean pottery traditions. This period saw the rise of the distinctive Satsuma ware, which became a popular export in the Meiji period.

Satsuma ware

Satsuma pottery, originating in Japan, is renowned for its exquisite craftsmanship, detailed decoration and historical significance. The history of Satsuma pottery begins in the early 17th century, during the Edo period (1603-1868), when Korean potters were brought to Japan by the Shimazu clan following Japan's invasions of Korea. These skilled Korean artisans settled in the Satsuma domain (present-day Kagoshima Prefecture), where they introduced advanced ceramic techniques and laid the foundation for what would become a distinctive and highly prized form of Japanese pottery.

Pair Of Satsuma Vases Decorated With Samurai. Circa Meiji period. M.S. Rau.
  Pair Of Satsuma Vases Decorated With Samurai. Circa Meiji period. M.S. Rau.

Early Satsuma ware, known as "Ko-Satsuma" or "Old Satsuma," was characterized by its rustic, dark clay body and simple, understated glazes. These early pieces were typically used for practical purposes, such as tea ceremony utensils and everyday household items. However, the true transformation of Satsuma pottery began in the late Edo period and continued into the Meiji era (1868-1912), when the aesthetic and technical qualities of the ware evolved significantly.

During the Meiji era, Satsuma pottery gained international acclaim, especially at world exhibitions such as the Paris Exposition of 1867. This period saw the production of the finely decorated, ivory-colored Satsuma ware that most people are familiar with today. Artisans began to focus on intricate hand-painted designs featuring rich polychrome enamels and gold leaf. Common motifs included scenes from Japanese mythology, landscapes, detailed figural compositions and floral patterns.

These designs were often applied over a finely crackled glaze, adding to the texture and depth of the pieces.
One of the defining features of Satsuma pottery from this era is its detailed and meticulous decoration, which reflects the high level of skill and artistry of its makers. The pottery was highly sought after by Western collectors and connoisseurs, leading to a thriving export market. The Western demand influenced the styles and themes depicted in Satsuma ware, with many pieces created specifically for export, featuring designs that catered to Western tastes and interests.

Ryozan Satsuma Vase With Cranes And Butterflies. Circa Meiji period. M.S. Rau.
  Ryozan Satsuma Vase With Cranes And Butterflies. Circa Meiji period. M.S. Rau.

In addition to its aesthetic appeal, Satsuma pottery holds cultural and historical significance. It represents a fusion of Korean ceramic traditions with Japanese artistry and innovation, reflecting the broader historical interactions between these cultures. The ware also illustrates the impact of Japan's opening to the West during the Meiji period and the subsequent cultural exchanges.

Today, antique Satsuma pottery remains highly prized by collectors and museums around the world. Modern artisans in Japan continue to produce Satsuma-inspired pieces, maintaining the traditional techniques and motifs while also exploring contemporary interpretations. The enduring legacy of Satsuma pottery is a testament to its beauty, craftsmanship and historical importance in the world of ceramics.

Looking to add Asian pottery to your home? Browse our stunning selection at M.S. Rau today.


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