Form Follows Function: The Story of Chinese Neolithic Pottery

Form Follows Function: The Story of Chinese Neolithic Pottery

Throughout the development of all civilisations, human ingenuity would devise tools to serve the needs of the people, as necessity proves to be the proverbial mother of invention. Edie Hu discusses the origins of Neolithic pottery forms and the story they tell us about prehistoric cultures in China.
Throughout the development of all civilisations, human ingenuity would devise tools to serve the needs of the people, as necessity proves to be the proverbial mother of invention. Edie Hu discusses the origins of Neolithic pottery forms and the story they tell us about prehistoric cultures in China.

T he Neolithic age followed the Palaeolithic, marking the transitional period when nomadic hunter-gatherers became sedentary farmers thereby adopting a change in lifestyle that “required a more conscious utilisation of natural resources,” according to Regina Krahl, independent researcher and scholar of Chinese art (Regina Krahl, Chinese Ceramics from the Meiyintang Collection, vol 3, (Paradon Writing Ltd., London, 2006), p.1). Farming and domestication of animals began in the early 7th millennium BCE, a practice which progressed into the dawn of the Bronze Age, at about the 2nd millennium BCE, and continues into the present day. With the rise of Neolithic cultures in what is now China, came the need to create wares to hold water, grain, food, and fermented grain alcohol. These functional vessels would in time assume a devotional purpose for use in rituals. Artefacts that have lasted for thousands of years give us a glimpse into the life of early humans as well as a peek into the mind of the creator, the potter.

Sotheby’s Hong Kong presents a selection of the Neolithic pottery collection of Ronald W. Longsdorf, whose interest in forming his collection comes from his background as a product designer. Longsdorf himself has expressed his lifelong fascination with “the way these forms were conceived, engineered, decorated and produced.” (Ronald W. Longsdorf, The Pottery Age: An Appreciation of Neolithic Ceramics from China Circa 7000 BC - Circa 1000 BC, (CA Book Publishing, Hong Kong, 2020) p.19) As a collector, he offers a unique perspective informed from a design standpoint, along with a thorough reading of academic art historical research based on archaeological evidence.

The Yangshao culture (c. 4800 - 3000 BCE) in the Yellow River Basin is considered the cradle of Chinese civilization. The named area in central China encompasses what is now Henan, Shaanxi, and Shanxi provinces. Since we do not know what Neolithic cultures would have called themselves, they take the modern appellations of the sites from which the settlements were found. It was not until 1922, when the Swedish archaeologist Johan Gunnar Andersson discovered and excavated a village in Yangshao, that the story of the Neolithic people in China began to be deciphered. The earliest pieces in the collection date from the Yangshao culture during the Banpo phase (c. 4800-4300 BCE).

The practical yet elegant amphora, with tapered ends and two loop handles, appears to be a relatively common vessel designed to be lowered into the water by cords attached to the handles and neck. Longsdorf conducted his own experiments with this piece and concluded that the vessel was indeed worked as it was engineered. By using the cord attached to the handles, it could be brought to a horizontal position and gradually filled with water, turning upright, then sinking down and completely filling up. It then could be removed from the water by the neck cord. These vessels may have also held an alcoholic grain beverage like beer.

Neolithic vessels with human depiction are extremely rare and offers a portrait on how the potters saw themselves or their fellow man. The red pottery vessel with a human head has a bulb-shaped mouth at the top of a narrow neck and a globular-shaped body. The face has pierced holes for eyes and mouth, a raised ridge for the nose and balls of clay representing curly hair on the top. A slightly later period vessel also with a humanoid head on the neck of the vessel from the Machang phase (c. 2200 - c. 2000 BC) of the Majiayao culture (c. 3800 - c. 2000 BC) located in Gansu province, depicts a sculpted human head adorned with painted parallel lines running across the face. It can only be speculated what the symbolism of the head with stripes on the face means, but one explanation might be that the head represents a shaman with tattoos or paint on his face.

Neolithic culture is best known for its painted pottery, especially ones that come from the Majiayao culture, which incidentally was also discovered by Andersson in the early 1920s. These well-painted vessels demonstrate the early mastery of the technique of applying lines on the ceramic surface with a paint brush which is later seen in almost all Chinese visual art forms. The forms range from a large open-mouth jar to footed stem bowls and broad shouldered jars. The tall jar in this collection was likely used as a water vessel, and the curved, painted parallel lines on the shoulder and body can be interpreted to symbolise water. These types of containers have loops on the side for ropes which assisted in filling, transporting, and handling. The recessed neck allowed for a cover to be tied over the mouth.

Embellished painted pottery takes Neolithic pottery to another level of complexity. A jar in the collection inlaid with small shells is an excellent example of the technical planning and design forethought that go into making one of these pots. The recesses in the pot had to be made in the soft clay after potting. Then the vessel was painted and fired. The inlaying came after an adhesive was applied to the recesses. The fact that the original inlays are still intact after four millennia is a testament to the quality of their craftsmanship.

During the Majiayao culture, the use of the potter’s wheel allowed the artisan to turn a pot with a symmetrical profile and even walls. The surface was often scraped and burnished to remove the radial lines of the wheel-turned surface. Before the invention of the wheel method, the preferred way of making pots was the coil-built method of layering thin “snakes” of clay on top of each other and using a paddle to beat and smooth the sides.

In the collection, an example of a piece created by the coil-built method is a large painted jar with two registers of circle decoration painted on the shoulder and trunk. The slightly imprecise painting of the circles with minor corrections shows that the potter was not following a pre-determined layout and was free to make adjustments along the way. Most of these jars have decoration only on the top half of the body. A possible explanation is that these vessels were only meant to be seen from the top and were secured in shallow pits dug in the ground so they did not tip over when being used for storage.

The use of the potters’ wheel, as mentioned earlier, allowed greater control in shaping the thickness of the walls of the vessel. The potter’s wheel is said to have been invented during the middle phase of the Dawenkou culture (c. 3550-c.3050 BCE) and becoming progressively faster in the succeeding the Longshan culture (c.2500 - c.2000 BCE). In the 3rd millennium, elegant black pottery stem cups began to be produced by the Dawenkou culture located in Shandong Province. The walls of these cups got thinner and thinner as the technology improved. The faster wheel in the Longshan culture allowed the cups to have ‘eggshell’ thin walls, some measuring as fine as only one millimetre in thickness.

A rather unusual pottery form from the Majiayao culture was the low boot vessel. Some have described the shoe as a ‘nesting bird shape’ form, which might take a little imagination to see, but could be interpreted as the potters being inspired by nature. There are similar vessels in other collections that are clearly made in the form of a human foot with toes.

The ability to control the oxygen level in the kiln environment was another technological advancement. Neolithic potters discovered that by closing the air vents of the kiln, the oxygen-starved air would be draw out of the clay body resulting in denser and stronger vessels. The smoke inside the kiln gave this ware its signature black body which was later burnished.

These cups were likely used in rituals, as they are still too fragile for everyday use. The collection has four stem cups in this sale including a couple of miniature cups. Two elegant stem cups are masterfully potted with narrow apertures cut into the stem to allow airflow so the stem does not warp or crack during firing. They are extremely lightweight at 128 and 172 grams. The ergonomic design of the globular stem on one piece has been noted by Longsdorf as “surprisingly very comfortable to hold by grasping the globe in the palm of the hand.” (Ronald W. Longsdorf, The Pottery Age: An Appreciation of Neolithic Ceramics from China Circa 7000 BC - Circa 1000 BC, (CA Book Publishing, Hong Kong, 2020) p.176)

The tripod shape ewer is another form that is characteristic of Chinese Neolithic culture and carries into the Bronze Age. Beginning in the Dawenkou culture, the closed form vessel with three hollow tapered legs forming the round body and rising to a narrow neck and spout appears in use. These vessels are also attached with an ergonomic handle that has a channel down the middle for the thumb placement and some even have a tab at the bottom of the handle for resting the little finger or leverage for tilting. The tripod shape maximises the surface area and allows for even heat distribution and maintaining oxygen flow when firing over a flame to heat its liquid contents.

Two vessels in the sale illustrates the development of this form. The Dawenkou culture example has a squatter body and stylised resemblance to birds with outstretched necks and a beak-like spout. The 2nd millennium ushered in the early Bronze Age and by this time the tripod form had evolved to being more cylindrical, losing the round belly. The hollow tapered legs also became increasingly elongated. The shape of the vessel is almost completely closed and comes with a small removable lid that is attached to the handle with a thin cord. The use of the strut on the underside of the handle to reinforce strength is also another technological advancement.

The collection includes fascinating examples of potting tools. One is a hollow conical implement in the shape of a large bullet, shaved down at the base dating from the Qijia culture (2050-1700 BC). This is believed to be a mould for making the legs of the tripods, where clay would be wrapped around the tool and shaped giving the tripod uniformed legs. Other theories claim that this instrument was used as a plumb bob for construction, where a cord could be tied to the end and hung pendent creating a straight vertical line.

While these vessels may have originated millennia past, they would not look out of place in a contemporary setting amidst Mid-Century Modern furniture and abstract contemporary paintings. The timeless simplicity and elegance of these classic early pottery designs may be sometimes overlooked by the casual observer, especially at auction when it is usually just the lone Neolithic piece that would appear alongside the more elaborate and colourful glazed Chinese ceramics that developed thousands of years later in history. Ancient Civilisations is a rare event that presents an impressive curation of 30 pottery masterworks from the Neolithic cultures of China, not only illustrating a distinct artistic tradition in prehistory, but also a timeless sensibility that to the modern eye would be easily understood as fine art.

Chinese Works of Art

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