Classic Work of Painted Pottery

Most painted pottery in China was made some 3.000 to 5.000 years ago in the Yellow River Valley in Southwest Qinghai. Gansu and Shaanxi provinces and Northern Henan Province. A classic piece is Human Face and Fish Body Design Colored Pottery Basin from the Neolithic age (5.000 to 10.000 years ago). which was unearthed in the 1950s in Banpo Village. Xi`an of Shaanxi Province.

The basin. 16.5 cm in height and a diameter of 38.5 cm. is made of mud ceramics with a design of a human face holding fish at the corners of the mouth. It is uniformly red in color and decorated with black pigments. At the time. the Banpo people decorated their pottery simply. and the most striking designs are images of fish. which are ubiquitous. The fish. which were arranged in symbolic patterns. must have been totems of the ancient Banpo people.

Primitive Chinese artists used black. white and red paint to decorate red pottery utensils. such as basins. jars and plates. The designs on painted pottery comes in two types: abstract patterns and realistically drawn figures of animals. insects and humans.

There are a dozen patterns depicted on Chinese painted pottery -- the most common being rippling. rotary. circular. saw-tooth and net-mesh designs. The lines are smooth and neat. symmetrical and balanced. adhering to specific rules. The painted pottery unearthed in Majiayao in Gansu Province. reveals many rippling and rotary designs drawn with smooth and balanced strokes that engender a quiet and gentle mood. The designs shed precious light on primitive life in Chinese society of men fishing and hunting. and women doing housework and collecting vegetables and fruits. The early society was free of segregation and slavery. and its painted designs. too. embodied a peaceful and harmonious beauty.

The Banshan and Machang painted pottery. which succeeded the Majiayao. had changed. More saw-tooth. circling and frog-shaped strokes appeared. appearing wilder. bolder and more enigmatic. Chinese primitive society was breaking up during that period and social reforms were in progress. The resulting turbulence and unrest were reflected in the designs. It is not simply a fanciful notion to read such meanings into the painted pottery designs since all paintings and drawing designs in later. and better-documented Chinese dynasties. reflect the social moods and trends of their respective eras.

Realistic pottery designs are more attractive. Animal designs on the painted pottery unearthed in Banpo Village in Xi`an. Shaanxi Province. have simple but descriptive patterns. such as swimming fish. running deer and barking dogs. The designs demonstrate that ancient Chinese artists were skilled in depicting the movement of animals. On a painted pottery basin unearthed in Datong County. Qinghai Province. there is an image of five dancing people in a line. hand in hand. The design can be viewed as both an ancient picture and ornamentation.

Primitive Banpo artists began using pictorial designs for decorative purposes and expressing abstract thoughts. For example. they divided fish designs into separate parts the head. body and fins -- alternating straight lines with curves. triangles and circles. The innovation was a significant step in the development of Chinese painting. On a painted pottery basin from Banpo Village. for instance. we see the design of a human face with a fish body. According to archeologists. such patterns may have been used for decorating utensils or for sacrificial rites in the spring season for a good harvest. If this is the case. Banpo pottery designs would be the earliest religious artwork in all of art history.