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Classic Work of Painted Pottery

Most painted pottery in China was made some 3000 to 5000 years ago in the Yellow River Valley in Southwest Qinghai, Gansu and Shaanxi provinces and northern Henan Province. The classic one is Human Face and Fish Body Design Colored Pottery Basin, which was made in the Neolithic age (5000 to 10000 years ago) and unearthed in the 1950s in Banpo Village in Xi'an of Shaanxi Province.

The basin, 16.5 cm in height with a diameter of 38.5 cm, is made of fine-mud red ceramics and has a design of a human face holding fish at the corners of mouth. It is uniformly red in color and decorated with black pigment. At that time, the Banpo people had their potteries simply decorated, the most striking are the designs of fish that can be seen everywhere. The fish was finished in symbolic pattern. It is concluded that fish should be the totem of ancient Banpo people.

Primitive Chinese artists dipped their painting brushes into black, white and red colors to make drawings on red pottery utensils such as basins, jars and plates. The designs on painted pottery come in two types: abstract patterns and realistically drawn figures of animals, insects and humans.

There are a dozen patterns on Chinese painted pottery. The most common types are rippling, rotary, circular, saw-tooth and net-mesh designs. The lines are smooth and neat, symmetrical and balanced, and adhere to certain rules. In the painted pottery unearthed in Majiayao in Gansu Province, there are many rippling and rotary designs drawn with smooth and balanced strokes to engender a quiet and gentle mood. These designs shed precious light on life in primitive Chinese society, with men fishing and hunting, and women doing housework and collecting vegetables and fruits. It was a society free from class exploitation and slavery, and its painted designs, too, had a peaceful and harmonious beauty.

In the Banshan and Machang painted pottery, which were a little later than the Majiayao, the designs changed. More sawtooth, circling and frog-shaped strokes appeared, which look wild, bold and enigmatic. Chinese primitive society was breaking up during that period and social reforms were being carried out. The resultant turbulence and unrest were reflected in art designs. It is not simply a fanciful notion to read such meaning into the painted pottery designs as all paintings and drawing designs in later, and better-documented Chinese dynasties reflect the social moods and trends of their respective eras.

The realistic pottery designs look more attractive. The animal designs drawn on 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. These designs demonstrate that ancient Chinese artists were good at depicting the movement of animals. On a painted pottery basin unearthed in Datong County, Qinghai Province, there is the design of five dancing people standing in a line, hand in hand. This design can be seen both as an ancient picture and ornamentation.

The primitive artists of Banpo Village began using pictorial designs for decorative purposes and express abstract thoughts. For example, they divided the design of a fish into head, body and fins, alternating straight lines with curves, triangles and circles. This 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's body. According to archeologists, these patterns may have been used for decorating the utensils; but they may also have been used for sacrificial rites in the spring season to pray for a good harvest. If that were true, the Banpo pottery designs might be the earliest religious artwork in art history.

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