In Neolithic China, pottery was made by coil building and then beating the shapes with a paddle; toward the end of the period (2nd millennium bc) vessels were begun using the handbuilt technique, then finished on a wheel.
At Gansu, in northwestern China, vessels from the Pan-shan culture, made from finely textured clay and fired to buff or reddish-brown, were brush painted with mineral pigments in designs of strong S-shaped lines converging on circles. They date from 2600 bc. The early Chinese kiln was the simple updraft type; the fire was made below the ware, and vents in the floor allowed the flames and heat to rise. Lung-shan pottery, from the central plains, was wheel made. Chinese Neolithic vessels include a wide variety of shapes-tripods, ewers, urns, cups, amphorae, and deep goblets.
Life-sized terra-cotta figures are a small part of the more than 6000 figures and horses that were made for the tomb of Emperor Qin Shihuangdi of the Chinese Qin dynasty in 210 bc. They were originally painted in bright colors. The burial mound, in the northern province of Shaanxi, was discovered in 1974. Except for the white pottery, all the Shang types continued in the Zhou period (1045?-256 bc). Coarse red earthenware with lead glazes was introduced in the Warring States era (403-221 bc); this ware also resembled bronzes. In the south, stoneware with a pale brown glaze was fashioned into sophisticated shapes.
The discovery in 1974 of the terra-cotta army of Shihuangdi (Shih-huang-ti), the first emperor of the Qin (Ch’in) dynasty (221-206 bc) - an imperial legion of more than 6000 life-size soldiers and horses buried in military formation-added new dimensions to modern knowledge of the art of the ancient Chinese potters. These handsome idealized portraits, each with different details of dress, were modeled from coarse gray clay, with heads and hands fired separately at high earthenware temperatures and attached later. Afterward, the assembled, fired figures were painted with bright mineral pigments (a procedure called cold decoration), most of which have now flaked.
Tomb figures and objects with molded and painted decoration continued to be made in the Han dynasty (206 bc-ad 220); these included houses, human figures, and even stoves. Bricks sometimes were decorated with scenes of everyday animal and human activity. Gray stoneware with a thick green glaze and reddish earthenware were also produced.
During the Six Dynasties period (ad 220-589), celadon-glazed stoneware, a precursor of later porcelain celadons, began to appear. (Celadons are transparent iron-pigmented glazes fired in a reducing kiln that yield gray, pale blue or green, or brownish-olive.) Called Yüeh (or green) ware, they were less influenced than earlier pottery by the shapes of cast bronzes. Jars, ewers, and dishes became more delicate of line and classical in contour, and some had simple incised or molded ornamentation.