28 Nov 2019

The Beauty of the Tang Three-Color (Sancai) Glazed Ceramics

Sancai, or "Three-Color" is a term generally used to refer to multicolored or poly-chrome lead glazed earthen wear. Even though the "Three" is in the name, it does not indicate it's exactly three colors, but better understood to be more than two, or many.

Interestingly enough "Tang three color ware", or Tang Sancai, has only appeared regularly in more recent ceramic literature. It does not have appeared to have been dated back to the Tang era.

Many remains of the Tang three color ware kilns have been discovered in the Henan, Hebei, Shaanxi  and Sichuan province among many others. Archaeological finds concluded that these were large kilns that produced not just the Tang three-color ware, but a wide variety of ceramics and other pieces.

Two Types of Clay

There are two main types of Tang three-color ware: red clay resulting in red earthen ware and white clay (ganzi clay), which resulted in light-colored or white earthen ware.

Red Clay, Tang Figurine
Tang Figurine, White Clay

The red type uses a coarse clay with a deep red color, upon which glaze colors did not look beautiful. As such, most of these red clay ceramics were given a monochrome glaze.

The second, white clay version, on the other hand, had a refined and attractive body that would enhance the exquisite glaze colors, both monochrome or poly-chrome. Mixed colors looked more attractive on them - and hence these light-colored white clay were highly sought after by members of the Tang ruling elite. Soon, a wide variety of these wares were produced for daily-use items, ceremonial pieces, and often most common with funerary products.

The basic glaze colors for the Three-Color wares were usually blue white, green and amber. But because the proportions of these colors were always different, it led to many unique new colors that made each piece stand out differently.

Types of Sculptures

The Potters would sculpt the likeness of people from all levels of Tang society from ruling elites, merchants, military commanders and ministers of states. Figures of foreigners were also sculpted, indicating the residence of many from the West during this time.

Model pieces of household objects for funerary use were also mainly sculpted. Magnificent forces would feature additional colors as such eggplant purple and back to show the indomitable spirit of the Tang military.

Photo: Christie's

There were also sculptures of graceful court women and eminent women holding cherished pets.

Photo: Sotheby's

All these sculptures would serve to show the rich and diverse qualities of the lively and intriguing Tang upper class in their society.


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