What is Porcelain?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Porcelain is a very hard, translucent-white ceramic that has been manufactured in China since the 600s, and in Europe since the 1700s. Because it was associated with China and frequently used to make delicate plates, cups, vases, and other works of fine art, it is sometimes known as “fine china.” Some artisans make the distinction between hard paste porcelain, made in the traditional Chinese style, and soft paste porcelain, claiming that only soft paste is true china, but the terms are used interchangeably by most of the rest of the world.

A piece of feldspar, which can be used to make bone china.
A piece of feldspar, which can be used to make bone china.

Clays have been used to form dinnerware and fine art for centuries, and the roots of porcelain began in the Han Dynasty, when Chinese craftspeople first combined white kaolin clay with a type of ground granite and fired it at extremely high temperatures. The result was a resilient, translucent, resonant, beautiful piece of pottery. The technique was further refined during the Tang dynasty, around 6oo AD, to create strong, thin walls that were truly translucent. European adventurers were captivated with the unique and beautiful material, which looked drastically different from the stoneware then in production, and attempted to replicate it.

Coffee in a porcelain cup.
Coffee in a porcelain cup.

Early European results at duplicating the ceramic resulted in china, soft paste porcelain made with clays and silicates. In the 1700s, a German pottery company successfully made bone china, which closely resembles true porcelain, by mixing calcified bones, clay, and feldspar. Bone china is extremely durable and relatively easy to make, and has become a popular choice in many English speaking nations, although true porcelain is preferred in much of Europe and Asia. Britain and Germany both manufacture large amounts of both for use in Europe and for export to other nations.

Many toilets are made of porcelain.
Many toilets are made of porcelain.

Porcelain starts with a pale clay, such as china white, which has small, tight grains that are further ground so that they are even. Materials like glass, feldspar, and granite are ground with the clay before water is added to the mixture so that it can be worked. The clay is formed into the desired shape before being fired in a bisque kiln at moderate temperatures. After being bisqued, glazes are applied and the item is fired at a high temperature, resulting in a fused, strong piece of pottery that is delicate, translucent, and highly useful. In addition to being used for dinnerware, porcelain is also used to make electrical insulators, tile, bathroom fixtures, and false teeth.

Tea pots may be made of porcelain.
Tea pots may be made of porcelain.
Porcelain is often used to make electrical insulators.
Porcelain is often used to make electrical insulators.
Porcelain has been manufactured in China since the 600s.
Porcelain has been manufactured in China since the 600s.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments

anon320641

Who used porcelain in ancient china?

anon241112

How did westerners adapt it?

anon166010

How is porcelain made today?

anon73047

how did porcelain change life in china?

anon43615

very good!

anon37670

what is the best way to know that the tile is porcelain not ceramics???? very important.

besides the idea that the clay should be white and the clay for ceramics is red. Please i need one real sign. thanks a lot. --mohd qasem jordan

anon26809

how was porcelain made?

Ariana

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