- Chinese Ceramics: From the Paleolithic Period through the Qing Dynasty ed. by Li Zhiyan, Virginia Bower, and He Li
There is no dearth of studies about Chinese ceramics, particularly ones of survey-length quality and scope. Chinese Ceramics, as the title confirms, is no exception: It presents the history of ceramics from China over a 14,000-year period, from the earliest excavated findings of the Paleolithic period through the end of the Qing dynasty. With more than six hundred pages of text and seven hundred illustrations, this book is the most recent installment in the Culture and Civilization of China series, published by a collaborative venture between Yale University Press and Beijing Foreign Languages Press. While it has a lavish coffee table feel to it, as an edited volume amassing scholarship from international experts from Japan, China, and the United States, the book will bring both the generalist and research-oriented individual up to date with the most recent studies of ceramics.
Relatively few books achieve the level of breadth and authority that they claim to do as does this volume. The book’s eleven chapters are organized chronologically and by dynasty. A great contribution of Chinese Ceramics is how it bridges the gulf between newly excavated ceramics from the past half-century in China and the wares that have been the foci of collectors over the last 150 years, the period during which scholarship about Chinese ceramics formalized. Thus, in chapter 7, the renowned pair of blue-and-white temple vases dated to 1351 famously referred to as the “David vases,” after the Percival David collection currently housed in the British Museum, are discussed alongside rarely reproduced fourteenth-century blue-and-white pieces now in such collections as those of the Hebei Provincial Museum and city museums in Jiangxi Province. In so doing, this massive book brings together recent archaeological data with collections that have become the pillars of studies about Chinese ceramics (located, for historical geopolitical reasons, either in the United States or Europe). Even those familiar with the rapid pace of development of provincial and municipal museums will learn new facets of ceramic history through the inclusion of examples from smaller collections, such as a wildly glazed Jun ware tripod from the early-fourteenth century housed at the [End Page 291] Inner Mongolia Museum (p. 339) and a Ming period polychrome porcelain jar from the Qingdao Municipal Museum in Shandong province (p. 434).
One of the most interesting contributions of the book is the last chapter, an essay concerning the authentication and forgery of Chinese ceramics. Through ten different subject headings, the author summarizes the great lengths to which forgers sought to create and deceive, including the use of sulfuric acid and sandpaper in order to age a piece, or the reconstitution of an entire vessel by combining an authentic base with a fake body. Such descriptions evoke the materiality of ceramics, as authentication often depends upon a tactile, firsthand experience. Vessels’ interior cavities are often examined for untrimmed seams, mold marks, and setter traces. This chapter also raises important questions about the historical nature of replicas during the imperial periods. Some examples include three almost identical Ge-type incense burners from the Song, Ming, and Qing dynasties, pictured on pages 606–607. As shown, imperial inscriptions by the eighteenth-century Qianlong emperor appear on the bases of both the Song and Ming period pieces, punctuating their status as imperially valuable objects. Taken together, their inscriptions and collective reproducibility suggest intentions behind their production as reproductions that go beyond deception. By the end of the chapter, it is clear that a study that distinguishes between forgery and replica would be a fruitful avenue of art historical research.
As a survey, the quantity of the information presented in the text is quite high, while the quality of the content lacks a certain amount of analytical rigor. Careful readers may note some misspellings in the...