In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Ceramics

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Guides to Sources
  • Collections of Source Materials
  • Translated Works
  • Periodicals/Serials
  • Technical/Scientific Studies
  • Connoisseurship
  • Ceramic Types and Classifications
  • Jingdezhen Studies
  • Cultural History
  • Institutional History
  • Economic History
  • Export
  • Potters
  • Collectors

Chinese Studies Ceramics
Ellen Huang
  • LAST REVIEWED: 22 April 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 April 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920082-0053


Since the mid-19th century the scholarship on Chinese ceramics in Western languages and in the Chinese language has proceeded in two main directions: (1) technical studies based on the use of scientific equipment and (2) catalogues published by museums and archaeological institutes. Both types of studies depend on object-based research. The prevalence of illustrated catalogues across the various sections in this article reflects this research emphasis. Such studies ultimately strengthen our understanding of ceramics by establishing a chronology determined by the period’s defining physical or visual characteristics. Essentially, the result is an academic field dominated by stylistic periodizations conducive to authentication, connoisseurship identification, and the necessities of the art market. The resurgence of world history in historiography, in part owing to the context of late-20th-century globalization and the end of socialist blocs, has also given rise to scholarly works about Chinese ceramics from various subfields in the historical discipline, including economics and trade, and collecting histories. Most if not all of these studies are in Western languages and use textual documentation from the European or American perspective. At times the cultural history of ceramics, including the study of collectors, coincides with economic histories of consumption, even given the changing social structures through which ceramics were consumed, from royal princely acquisitions to middle-class consumerism in the 19th century. Still, the scholarship about the reception of Chinese ceramics, whether from a collecting or a consumption perspective, privileges Western-language sources and Western collectors and tastes rather than the Chinese perspective, making world historical accounts of Chinese ceramics strangely negligent of Chinese voices and agents. Finally, a major influence on the direction of ceramic studies is mainland China’s 20th-century archaeological activity, through which new finds at uncovered kiln sites continue to revise our ceramic history. By combining these with imperial court records at the Number One Historical Archives in Beijing, scholars at the National Palace Museum in Beijing, such as Wang Guangyao (see Wang 2004, cited under Institutional History), produce interesting histories of how imperial commissions of porcelain operated at the level of aesthetic design.

General Overviews

The literature on Chinese ceramics is extensive. The history of ceramics in China spans more than ten thousand years and dates from at least the 8000 BCE Neolithic period. General surveys thus have an unstated tension between text-based and object-based research. Li, et al. 2010 provides archaeological sources accompanied by scholarly text and high-resolution images of some of the most important provincial- and municipal-level collections. Vainker 2005 (originally published in 1991) looks at the collections of the British Museum and continues to be one of the most concise, readable, and lucid accounts of ceramic history in China. Ye 2011 focuses mostly on mainland collections as reflected by drawings and color photographs. Although somewhat dated, Tong 1958 gives readers an idea of imperial and unofficial ceramics in all periods.

  • Li Zhiyan, Virginia Bower, and He Li, eds. Chinese Ceramics: From the Paleolithic Period through the Qing Dynasty. Culture and Civilization of China. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2010.

    This edited volume is part of the Culture and Civilization of China series produced as a collaborative venture between Yale University Press and Beijing Foreign Languages Press and includes high-resolution reproductions of important ceramic works from various collections around the world and translated texts from specialists from China, Japan, and the United States.

  • Tong Shuye 童书业. Zhongguo ciqishi luncong (中国瓷器史论丛). Shanghai: Shanghai renmin chubanshe, 1958.

    A collection of seven essays explaining early celadons, early Qing official porcelains, porcelain under the directorship of Tang Ying, and most uniquely the relationship between Guangdong porcelain and Jingdezhen in the Qing period. Although the work does not include illustrations, the author responds directly to Chinese historical textual sources, thereby referencing the most important primary sources about Chinese high-fired ceramics.

  • Vainker, S. J. Chinese Pottery and Porcelain: From Prehistory to the Present. Rev. ed. London: British Museum, 2005.

    Originally published in 1991. A highly readable and straightforward survey with pertinent examples chosen from the British Museum collection. Updates the 1991 edition with newly excavated ceramics and retains the very helpful glossary of basic ceramic terms and three appendixes summarizing clays, glazes, and kiln firing.

  • Ye Zhemin 叶喆民. Zhongguo tao ci shi (中国陶瓷史). Beijing: Sanlian shudian, 2011.

    Title translates as History of Chinese pottery and porcelain. Originally published in 2006. An extensive and detailed history of Chinese ceramics by a well-known scholar with many color illustrations, this work provides a history of ceramics from all periods while incorporating perspectives from archaeology.

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