Jingdezhen, Jiangxi

Editing: Jackson Harvey
Research: Khamo Kyi
Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage
[Catalog No. CFV11257; © 2019 Smithsonian Institution]

Chinese porcelain is a durable, beautiful, and historically significant example of ceramic art. It serves as an important industry in China and is greatly admired around the world. The basic recipe for producing porcelain consists of four steps: forming a piece, glazing, decorating, and firing. The firing takes place in a kiln at extremely high temperatures above 1260 degrees Celsius (or 2300 degrees Fahrenheit). The finest porcelains are white and translucent thanks to the presence of kaolin—a soft, white clay that is bountiful around certain Chinese rivers. Artisans have mastered the right proportions of kaolin with other materials such as feldspar, ball clay, glass, or bone ash to achieve the effects of color and translucence. Artisans during the Shang dynasty (ca. 1600–1050 BCE) made the first proto-porcelains. Improved techniques came during the Eastern Han dynasty (25–220 CE), and the white, translucent porcelain we know today came during the Tang dynasty (618–907). By the time of the Ming dynasty (1368–1644), porcelain was being exported to Europe.

Questions for Discussion

  • What is the difference between porcelain and other kinds of ceramics such as stoneware? Look at the dishes or other objects around you and see if you can find an example of porcelain. What does it feel like to hold and touch?
  • Read about the Chinese blue and white porcelain ceramics on view in the Peacock Room at the National Museum of Asian Art here.
  • Why has Chinese porcelain been so highly valued around the world for hundreds of years? Research the history of the porcelain trade to find out.