Ceramics are among China’s greatest technological and artistic achievements. They include a wide range of objects made from fired clay, from simple pots to delicate porcelain vessels. For much of the world, ceramics represented the very idea of China. In imperial China’s trade with other cultures, ceramics were the second-most valuable export, after silk.
The mountains and valleys of China were blessed with an abundance of raw materials for making ceramics of high quality, including special clays and mineral pigments. For centuries, Chinese kilns perfected the techniques for firing and glazing ceramics, and the organisational skills to mass-produce objects. Chinese porcelain was considered a marvel: a pure white material that was thin enough to transmit light but durable enough to serve piping hot foods in.
The method of making and firing porcelain was for a long time a closely guarded commercial secret that helped the Chinese monopolise the trade of porcelain wares. Japan only cracked the code of firing porcelain around the early 17th century, and then Europe did so in the early 18th century. Chinese potters developed a wide range of decorative techniques to appeal to different markets, from the imperial court to overseas consumers. Kilns in various parts of China specialised in different forms and colours, and they would take special orders from overseas clients.