The Zhou Dynasty lived in northern China, in the valley of the Wei river in Shenxi. As the Shang dynasty weakened, taken up as it was with fighting the barbarians, the Zhou grew more and more powerful. After taking power, Wu, the first king of the Zhou dynasty was magnanimous towards the family of the defeated emperor, and installed them as princes of the Song. He then distributed the conquered territories among his own family, his tutors and ministers.
Through their rule, the Zhou clan went through three major periods, the Western Zhou, Eastern Zhou and Warring States periods. The Eastern Zhou period is marked by instability as the royal family abandoned the capital in 770 BC and move to the eastern city of Luoyang for security reasons, due to the constantly feuding officials vying for power. The Warring States period was equally troubled by the same internal rivalries, but the spread of the technique of iron-casting in the mid-5th century BC gave considerable impetus to agriculture, industry and the crafts. Artisans were encouraged to improve and diversify their production to satisfy the taste for luxury of a more numerous and exacting class of client.
Under the Western Zhou, kilns were similar to those of the Shang. Those of the Warring States period, however, were larger and oval and cross-shaped, reaching proportions of 3.65 by 1.95 metres in plan. The fire ducts are arranged all round the heating chamber and lead into a chimney. Some more refined kilns have valves to control the heat. Often the pots made in these kilns have a number, the producer’s mark or the name of the proprietor.
Some of the first clay products under the Western Zhou were roofing tiles. They are semi-cylindrical in shape and made in wooden moulds lined with cloth. In the Warring States period the eave tiles were decorated in low relief with animal or geometric motifs. In the period of the Spring and Autumn Annals (722 – 481 BC) or Chungiu, the potters made not only tiles but also bricks for tomb construction. These were rectangular and decorated on one surface with geometric designs. At Houma, Shanxi, potters’ kilns have been discovered with numerous pottery moulds for bronze casting and for manufacturing of such bricks. In the Warring States period (453 – 221 BC) the moulds are very large, demonstrating that great progress had been made in techniques of manufacture.
From the archaeological discoveries, large quantities of grey earthenware were discovered in tomb sites. These pots were fired at a low temperature of 600 °C and were very porous and fragile. These so-called Mingqi wares, were made exclusively for the use by the dead in the afterlife, and a cheap substitute for objects made in more valuable materials such as bronze.
Most of the pottery made under the Zhou is a grey fabric of varying degree of fineness, little different from Shang pottery. The most usual forms are of the li and ding, guan, hu, dou, pou, bei and pen. Shapes were less stereotyped and more varied. The use of handles increased widely. Li tripods tended to be more rounded, with short legs and flat-rimmed mouths. Dou cups often had lids; these are also deeper and stand on a a very tall stem.In the periods of Spring and Autumn Annals (722 – 481 BC), fewer guan and li were made, but many of the long-necked bottles (hu), and lidded boxes (huo) were produced. Vases are often modelled in the shape of animals in a naturalistic style. Animal heads served as decorations for handles.
In general, in the Zhou period, the potters continued to produce wares in the Neolithic and Shang tradition, decorated with cord or cloth impressions, etc. But with the Eastern Zhou (770 – 256 BC), a new type of funerary vase in burnished grey pottery, decorated with mat motifs in reserve and scratched design called anhua (or discreet) designs. In the Warring States period, taking inspiration from the art of the steppes in the Near East, the potters at times sought to refresh and diversify their work. Among the most attractive devices of this period are the grey or red wares covered in slip and painted after firing in various colours, which have been found in tombs in the neighbouring Changsha, once the capital of the Kingdom Chu, and the little statuettes of very dark grey pottery, burnished and touched up with red paint, which have been found in tombs of the Warring States period at Huixian and at Fengshuiling, Shanxi. By this period, human sacrifice was virtually a thing of the past, and these statuettes perhaps served as substitutes, like the mingqi or other funerary objects deposited in the tombs. As a rule, these statuettes represent dancers, female musicians or servants.
In the region of Anyang, the previous capital of the Shang, the manufacture of white wares was completely abandoned. Stonewares or yingtao are extemely rare there; on the other hand, in the regions of Xi’an, Shanxi, as well as Jiangsu, Anhui, this type of pottery is frequently present. Did the potters flee southwards after the destruction of the Shang capital? If such is the case, it can be concluded that the rare pieces of Zhou stoneware found near Anyang were in fact imported.
These stonewares contain kaolin and were fired at a temperature of aboit 1250 °C. They may be considered proto-porcelain, for they are hard, non-porous and resonant when struck. They are, however, neither white nor translucent like true porcelain. They are decorated either with incisions, or with designs traced with a comb or impressed from a cylinder. They are sometimes covered in a shiny feldspathic glaze and have no trace of iridescence. Feldspar, like kaolin, is a mineral derived from decomposition of granite and pegmatites. Unlike kaolin, it is fusible when mixed with fluxes like lime and potassium. When fired in a an oxidizing atmosphere, the feldspathic glaze takes on a golden hue; in a reducing atmosphere it turns green. When spread evenly over the object, it runs under the effect of the heat and forms globules, sometimes quite thick ones. Some known examples are entirely covered in this glaze except for the bases – even on occasions, both inside and out, when the vessel has been immersed in the solution.