The History of Porcelain from Ancient China to Europe

The history of porcelain and what it is used for

An insight into the history of porcelain and its origins
An insight into the history of porcelain and its origins. Getty

 What is porcelain?

Porcelain is fine white clay made up of a combination of ceramic elements, however there is one substance that all porcelain contains in common and that is the clay mineral kaolin. Kaolin contains varying amounts of metals such as alkali metal and aluminium amongst other materials. There are many things that set porcelain apart from all of the other clays, including the fact that it is very white in color and almost translucent, plus, it’s very tough.

Porcelain is known to have a ‘paste like quality’. It’s completely different to work with and feels almost elastic in texture. Its pure whiteness means if you are working with it, you must make sure to keep all of your surfaces very clean. Porcelain fires at a very high temperature, around a maximum of 2, 252 degrees Fahrenheit (1, 400 degrees Celsius). Porcelain is also vitreous when fired, meaning it develops an almost glass like appearance.

What is the difference between porcelain and china?

Porcelain and fine china have many of the same properties, both are porous and vitreous, but it’s the firing process, which makes them different. Porcelain fires at a higher temperature and fine china is softer in texture and fires at a lower temperature, around 2, 192 degrees Fahrenheit (1, 200 degrees Celsius). Porcelain is also more durable. Bone china is completely different and is often made from ground cow bone then mixed with either ball clay (a sedimentary clay that contains kaolin) or kaolin itself.

When was porcelain first discovered?

Porcelain is said to date back over 2, 000 years and some of the first evidence of porcelain pieces have been traced back to the Eastern Han Dynasty in China. At this time Celadon, China’s famous jade green glaze that was often found on the porcelain, was very popular.

Following the Eastern Han Dynasty in 25 – 220 AD was the Tang Dynasty (618 – 907 AD) and the rise in popularity in the art of tea drinking. Ceramics wares including plenty of teacups were touted all along the northern Silk Road, which ran from Xian and up along the Hexi Corridor. One of China’s most famous areas for the production of porcelain was Jiangxi Province, due to its rich supply of kaolin. Kaolin actually got its name from this area, and roughly translates as ‘tall hill’.

How was porcelain originally used?

As well as being used for teacups in the Tang Dynasty, plates were a common use for porcelain. Another huge use for porcelain was for creating beautiful statues. Materials World has written how ‘China closely controlled the porcelain supply to Europe, Asia and Africa’, but all this changed when the Dutch ‘captured a Portuguese cargo ship bearing thousands of porcelain pieces’. They brought the pieces back to Europe and they were sold in auctions. It was from this discovery that European potters started trying to create their own porcelain, as the clay was not as easily found outside of Asia. It was German physicist Ehrenfried Walther von Tschirnhaus that finally cracked it in 1704.

For many years porcelain was still a rarity and very much treasured. And, it wasn’t until 1771 when the book L’art de la Porcelaine was published that the secret was well and truly out. Porcelain factories then sprang up all over Europe, including the famous Meissen factory in Germany, which is still open to this day. It was in working out how porcelain was made in China that so many different ways of creating the clay was discovered.

What pieces is porcelain commonly used for?

Today porcelain is used widely, although it still has something very special about it, as its rich history suggests. It is a dream to use for ceramicists, as its results can be so fine and delicate and versatile. It also holds glaze in a very different way and can look quite ethereal. It’s often used in tableware, jewellery and tiles.

Given that it is also the hardest of the ceramic wares, it is also commonly used for laboratory equipment and for electric insulation. Porcelain is also used for porcelain enamel for home items such as a bathtub.