Sancai, meaning three-coloured, is a polychrome ceramic ware that was produced during the Tang dynasty which ruled China from 618 to 907 AD. Archaeological evidence shows that initially Sancai was exclusively manufactured for the Imperial elite who used the pieces as tomb objects.
The original funerary pieces were often made in the form of animals such as camels and horses, as well as human figurines. The style is figurative and the lead-glaze is highly coloured. Other forms included a variety of vessels such as bowls, vases and incense burners, and these were often decorated with stylised flowers.
Manufactured in kilns located in northern China, in most cases these low-fired pieces were made with a white clay containing high levels of kaolin. Craftsmen then mixed lead glaze with metal oxides such as copper and iron to create green, red and yellow hues. Less frequently, cobalt was used to create blue. The pieces were fired for a second time after the application of the final glaze.
The ceramics have a characteristic ‘running’ finish, with the colours mingling and flowing together creating an effect much loved by connoisseurs.
Sancai pieces were also made for export along the Silk Road and influenced ceramics later made in a variety of places including Syria, Italy and Cyprus. Japanese and other East Asian potters were also influenced by the Sancai style.
Later, in the mid-period of the Tang era, Sancai was mass-produced. There is an unresolved controversy as to whether vessels made in this period were used for every-day purposes or reserved for ritual offerings.