A completely new installation on the second-floor balcony surrounding The Metropolitan Museum of Art's Great Hall features more than 300 examples from the Museum's important and extensive collection of Chinese ceramics, which began with a purchase of about 1,000 pieces in 1879. The display focuses on the technological and historical development of Chinese ceramics from the sixth through the 18th century, including recently acquired pieces as well as works that are being shown for the first time. The Chinese works are interspersed with 100 comparative works from Korea and Japan, Southeast Asia, the Islamic world, Europe, and the Americas, to illustrate the seminal role played by Chinese pottery in global ceramic history from the eighth to the 21st century. This long-term display, which was completed this summer, is the first full re-installation of the Great Hall Balcony in more than three decades.
The display begins with the unprecedented growth of the Chinese industry during the period from the sixth to the ninth century, a phenomenon that can be traced to several factors including the development of high-fired stoneware, the discovery of porcelain, and the growing importance of drinking tea. The appreciation of the white-, brown-, black-, and green-glazed ceramics that were produced in hundreds of kilns throughout China at this time is often linked to the appearance of the whisked tea in bowls of these colors. In addition, the expansion of transoceanic trade and the simultaneous rise in demand for ceramics helped spur the development of the Chinese ceramic industry. Harder, denser, and more durable than ceramics produced elsewhere, more elegant, and more hygienic, Chinese ceramics were valued as trade items throughout East and Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and eastern Africa, and contributed to the development of new types of ceramics in those regions.
After the 14th century, most of the hundreds of kiln complexes that had been active in China disappeared. During that time, a single center of production called Jingdezhen (in the southeast province of Jiangxi) emerged, and a new product-porcelain painted with cobalt blue under a transparent glaze-began to dominate the Chinese ceramic industry. This development of "blue-and-white" remains the most important and influential event in world ceramic history. Cobalt is found in northeastern Iran and on the Arabian Peninsula. Although it was exported to and used in China as early as the eighth century, the flowering of porcelain painted with cobalt blue did not occur until the 14th century, under the control of the Mongol Yuan dynasty (1271 – 1368), when the strong familial, cultural, and economic ties to the Islamic world provided easier access to the precious ore.
By the 15th century, Jingdezhen, which has been dubbed "the porcelain city," housed the largest and most influential kilns in the world, making millions of pieces for the court, for domestic use, and for trade. By the 17th century, Japanese, Vietnamese, Persian, Turkish, and Mexican potters began to produce wares in response to the Chinese blue-and-white porcelains, the most desired and technically advanced ceramics in the world.
Technical refinements, including the use of a greater percentage of china clay (kaolin) in the composition, characterize Chinese porcelains produced at Jingdezhen in the 17th and 18th centuries. Enamel colors such as pink and white were added to the palette used to paint porcelain. Also, refinements in the composition and firing of glazes led to the creation of delicate hues that were often applied to small vases and other utensils made for the desks of scholars working at the court. These include shades of green and blue (derived from iron) as well as a range of reds (copper). Unique at the time, these high-fired glazes excited universal admiration and were often given evocative names such as celadon, moonlight, ox-blood, or peach-bloom.
By the 17th century, millions of Chinese and Japanese porcelains were imported into Europe, spurring an exchange of technology, shapes, and designs that remains unparalleled in world history. Chinese potters copied European wooden, glass, and metal vessels, while Chinese shapes, such as the teapot, were introduced to Europe. In addition, the rich visual languages of China and Japan, which included flowers and birds, mythical and natural animals, and narrative tales, were reinterpreted in ceramics made in Germany (which produced the first European porcelain in Meissen in the early 18th century), as well as in France and England.