Origin of Southern China’s Kiln Industry

2020-04-27 14:02:11

Origin of Southern China’s Kiln Industry

Narrated by Zheng Hui (leader of archaeological excavation team of Mao’er Mountain Site, research fellow of cultural relics and museology)

The kiln cluster of the Shang and Zhou Dynasties on Mao’er Mountain is the first one found in China where different types of kilns are centrally distributed, well-preserved, and display stratigraphic successions. The archaeological expert group of the State Administration of Cultural Heritage believes that the discovery of elongated kilns on Mao’er Mountain has important research value by providing very rare physical information for exploring the development of kiln industry technology in southern China as well as the origin of dragon kilns and the birthplace of proto-porcelain.

FUZHOU, April 27 (Fujian Daily) – In the early time, the number of pre-Qin kiln sites found in Jiangsu, Zhejiang, Fujian, Jiangxi and Guangdong in southern China was limited, most kilns discovered are single-type, preserved with only some traces in the bottom but unclear in structure. It is difficult for experts and scholars to infer the development and evolution of the kilns from the discoveries, and the relevant researches were restricted. For this reason, the academic circles traditionally believed that round kiln system was the technical tradition of northern China and dragon kiln system was that of southern China. Representing the two major civilizations of the Yellow River Basin and the Yangtze River Basin, they were the products of different cultural environments.

 However, a comparative analysis of the stratigraphic successions, Carbon-14 dating, and unearthed specimens of the nine kilns excavated from the kiln cluster on Mao’er Mountain revealed that the Phase-I kilns are more than 3600 years old and fall under the category of up-draught kilns by structure; the Phase-II kilns date back to about 3580 years ago and are typical semi down-draft kilns; and the Phase-III kilns date back to about 3500 to 3400 years ago and are composed of a hearth, a flame path, a chamber, and a chimney, which are elements of the dragon kilns. There is a certain slope at the bottom and a chimney at the end. The slope of the kiln body and the chimney can generate draught to pump air into the kilns, creating higher temperatures, and making it easy to maintain a reducing atmosphere and improve the output and quality of ceramics.

The three periods of kilns on Mao’er Mountain display round, elliptical and elongated shapes among others. Judging from the perspectives of dating, and the stratigraphic accumulation, successions and breaking, the kiln industry technology in the northern Fujian area shifted from up-draught kilns to semi down-draft kilns and then to flat-flame dragon kilns. The time difference between the three types of kilns is less than a few dozens or hundreds of years, and they might coexist or evolve simultaneously. At the same time, it also confirms that southern China had diverse types of kilns in the pre-Qin period and developed its own independent kiln industry system, which allowed these kilns to independently develop dragon kilns with higher temperature, larger capacity, and more advanced technology. It provides important reference for the exploration into the technical development of China’s kiln industry.

The origin of dragon kilns and the birthplace of proto-porcelain are long-standing issues remaining unresolved in the archaeological community of China. Featuring long kiln floor, large firing area, high output, even flame circulation and fast cooling, the dragon kilns are suitable for firing porcelains. Many researchers believe that the stamped hard pottery and proto-porcelain widely distributed in southern China during the Shang and Zhou dynasties could only be fired in the dragon kilns.

However, the number of dragon kilns found in the pre-Qin period in southern China was very small in the past archaeological discoveries, and most dragon kilns date back to the mid to late Shang Dynasty to the Western Zhou Dynasty and the Spring and Autumn Period. The dragon kilns excavated in the kiln cluster on Mao’er Mountain, dating back to the early period of Shang Dynasty, are the most well-preserved and oldest kilns discovered in China so far, filling the gap in academic research and offering evidence that Mao’er Mountain is one of the origins of Chinese dragon kilns.

Black potteries appeared when ancient Chinese pottery transitioned to proto-porcelain. The products of kiln cluster on Mao’er Mountain are mainly black potteries fired between the Xia and Shang dynasties. It is the first and only kiln site discovered in China that fired black potteries in bulk.

Prior to this, a large number of black potteries were unearthed in Doumishan site in Shaowu, Maling site in Guangze County, Guanjiu Mound Tombs in Pucheng County of northern Fujian Province, Jiantounong site in Jiangshan of Zhejiang Province, Maqiao site of Shanghai, Sheshantou site in Guangfeng of Jiangxi Province and other ruins of the Xia and Shang period, but the origin was unknown. The kiln site on Mao’er Mountain is located in the region straddling the borders of Fujian, Zhejiang and Jiangxi. As a specialized kiln site of the Xia and Shang dynasties in southern China, the kiln cluster boasted high technology in firing potteries over two to three hundred years, and produced a large number of potteries of diverse types.

Therefore, we may infer that while meeting the local demand, the black potteries produced at the kiln site on Mao’er Mountain were sold to the surrounding areas as exchange products, which has offered the exact kiln source of similar pottery products at the kiln sites of the Xia and Shang dynasties in the regions of Fujian, Zhejiang and Jiangxi.

In addition, the clear stratigraphic successions, accurate periodization and dating and clear sequence of utensil development and change trajectory over time of the kiln cluster on Mao’er Mountain provide the evidence for the study on the origin, periodization, and dating of the mound tombs in the south of the Yangtze River.

The mound tombs discovered in Fujian Province are mainly concentrated in the northern region and those of the Xia and Shang dynasties mainly have such funeral objects as black potteries and stamped potteries. As the mound tombs are located on the ridge or the top of the mountains, there are no stratigraphic successions or breaking, and the potteries are grouped separately. It is impossible to acquire the dating evidence by stratigraphy. In the Guanjiu Mound Tombs in Pucheng County, the Phase-I potteries are identical to the Phase-II potteries from the kiln cluster on Mao’er Mountain, and the two sites are geographically close to each other. We may assume that these potteries originated from kilns on Mao’er Mountain during the Xia and Shang dynasties.

This major archaeological discovery of kiln clusters on Mao’er Mountain proves the existence of a kiln industry center in southern China in the early days and Pucheng was the birthplace of ceramic production and development in southern China.