Chinese Glass

In the past ten years or so, there has been an explosion of glass research in China, particularly concerning the origins of glass wares and glass technology. For much of the twentieth century, most Western sources agreed that glass and glass technology spread to China from the West. This was based primarily on a comparison of glass characteristics rather than chemical compositions. Recent research in China has now tried to identify the compositional types of Chinese glass and to compare them to Western sources to figure out their origins. One of the largest questions in Chinese glass research is whether the technology originated in China or came from elsewhere. Another large question is: If the technology is local, how did its invention occur?

The Objects

In general, the articles I’ve read talk about vessels (bowls, plates, cups), beads (generally Indo-Pacific, eye, gold and silver foil, and possibly mention of gadrooned beads), and ear plugs or ornaments. There is also mention of bi discs, ritual plates, and swords with glass inlays that are indicative of the earliest Chinese glass. Another set of objects are faience eye beads and frit objects, which I haven’t really seen before.

Distribution

Glass objects range across China, but most of the research focuses on the various branches of the Silk Road. As is made very clear in these articles, the Silk Road is not a single road, and actually includes four major paths connecting Asia to the West. They are known as the Northern (Steppe) Silk Road, the Northwestern (Oasis) Silk Road, and Southwestern (Buddhist) Silk Road, and the Southern (Sea) Silk Road. On the whole, these roads ran through most of ancient China, meaning that the material analyzed in these studies comes from nearly every part of China itself.

These studies also cover glass dating from the Western Zhou Dynasty to the Tang Dynasty (~1000 BC to ~1000 AD), though some use glass sources from earlier periods (c. 1500 BC). In general, however, the primary focus on glass in China lies in the Warring States, Han, and Wei Dynasties, with some discussion of glass in the Spring and Autumn Period (~500 BC – ~500 AD).

Technology

The only manufacture techniques mentioned were blowing and mold blowing. No technique for bead manufacture appeared in anything I read, which is odd. Francis (2002) often says that wound beads are explicitly Chinese, and I would have expected some mention of winding manufacture.

One interesting point was the idea that glass in China was used primarily to imitate jade. Since jade was precious, and glass was cheaper/easier to make, glass was considered a jade alternative. I’ve seen this in other regions of glass imitating amber, rock crystal, or obsidian/jet. One article claimed that the focus on using glass to imitate jade actually hindered its development in China, particularly in relation to coloration and style, and that it wasn’t until Western samples came into China that Chinese glass began to use other colors. I wouldn’t say that the Chinese couldn’t have made other colors, since they could figure out how to make the blues and greens and could therefore figure out other colors if they wished. But there was definitely a preference for imitating the color of jade. It is also very clear that the objects made with glass are also objects made with jade, and the two industries are essentially parallel.

Chemistry

There are many chemical types of glass in China, only one or two of which appear elsewhere in significant quantities. The earliest glass types belonged to the silica-soda-lime group, like the Islamic and Egyptian glasses (m-Na-Ca and v-Na-Ca). Most scholars think these types were traded to China from the West during the Spring and Autumn and Warring States periods. The most common type seems to be a lead-barium-silicate glass, which appeared during the Han Dynasty. Another type is a potash-silicate glass that also appeared in the Han Dynasty. Beginning in the late Han Dynasty and continuing to the late Song Dynasty, scholars believe another type, (Na2O-K2O-CaO-MgO-SiO2), was traded from the Islamic kingdoms in the West. During this time, two other glass types, a lead silicate (PbO-SiO2) and a potash-lead-silicate (K2O-PbO-SiO2) were made in China and traded to Korea and Japan. So of the six major glass types found in China, four seem to be of Chinese origin: 1) a lead-barium-silicate glass (PbO-BaO-SiO2); 2) a potash-silicate glass (K2O-SiO2), 3) a lead silicate glass (PbO-SiO2); and 4) a potash-lead-silicate glass (K2O-PbO-SiO2).

One question that comes out of this is whether the potash-lead-silicate glass might not be a mixture between the potash-silicate and lead-silicate glasses, but the dates seem a touch off. Another more pressing question concerns the unique combination of minerals in Chinese glass. Three of the four unique types contain lead, while two of them contain potash. There is a lot of lead and potash in the Chinese glass industry, which I haven’t seen as much of elsewhere. So while the original glass specimens and certain technologies may have some from the West, China clearly created its own glass technology and industry.

Social Structure

One large point is that the Silk Road, aside from being more than a single route, did not begin or end in China and in fact continued to Japan and Korea. This is important simply because it establishes strong trade connections not only between Japan, Korea, and China, but also between Japan, Korea, and various Western groups. It also connects Japan and Korea to South and Southeast Asia via the Southern Silk Road, or Sea Silk Road.

Another large point to make is the uniqueness of China’s glass recipes. This is important for two reasons. The first is that it argues against a strong Chinese connection to the glass in any other region – including South or Southeast Asia – because the recipes are so different from one another. The other is that the use of lead and the connection of lead and other metal ores with China’s glass industry suggests that its origins may lie in the metal industry itself. Both of these points would lead to or stem from large differences in the social structure of the Chinese glass industry and its relationship to glass industries in nearby regions.

References

An, Jiayao
2009    Glasses of the Northern Wei Dynasty Found at Datong. In Gan Fuxi, Robert Brill, and Tian Shouyun, eds. Ancient Glass Research Along the Silk Road. New Jersey: World Scientific. Pp. 379-386.
2009    Glass Vessels of the Tang Dynasty and the Five Dynasties Found in Guangzhou. In Gan Fuxi, Robert Brill, and Tian Shouyun, eds. Ancient Glass Research Along the Silk Road. New Jersey: World Scientific. Pp. 387-396.

Brill, Robert H.
2009    Opening Remarks and Setting the Stage: Lecture at the 2005 Shanghai International Workshop on the Archaeology of Glass Along the Silk Road. In Gan Fuxi, Robert Brill, and Tian Shouyun, eds. Ancient Glass Research Along the Silk Road. New Jersey: World Scientific. Pp. 109-148.
2009    The Second Kasuo Yamasaki TC-17 Lecture on Asian Glass: Recent Lead-Isotope Analysis of Some Asian Glasses with Remarks on Strontium-Isotope Analyses. In Gan Fuxi, Robert Brill, and Tian Shouyun, eds. Ancient Glass Research Along the Silk Road. New Jersey: World Scientific. Pp. 149-164.

Fu, Xiufeng and Fuxi Gan
2009    Multivariate Statistical Analysis of Some Ancient Glasses Unearthed in Southern and Southwestern China. In Gan Fuxi, Robert Brill, and Tian Shouyun, eds. Ancient Glass Research Along the Silk Road. New Jersey: World Scientific. Pp. 413-438.

Gan, Fuxi
2009    Origin and Evolution of Ancient Chinese Glass. In Gan Fuxi, Robert Brill, and Tian Shouyun, eds. Ancient Glass Research Along the Silk Road. New Jersey: World Scientific. Pp. 1-40.
2009    The Silk Road and Ancient Chinese Glass. In Gan Fuxi, Robert Brill, and Tian Shouyun, eds. Ancient Glass Research Along the Silk Road. New Jersey: World Scientific. Pp. 41-108.

Gan, Fuxi, Huansheng Cheng, YongQing Hu, Bo Ma, and DongHong Gu
2008    Study on the most early glass eye-beads in China unearthed from Xu Jialing Tomb in Xichuan of Henan Province, China. Science in China Series E: Technological Sciences 52(4):922-927.

Gan, Fuxi, Huansheng Cheng, and Qinghui Li
2006    Origin of Chinese ancient glasses – study on the earliest Chinese ancient glasses. Science in China Series E: Technological Sciences 49(6):701-713.

Jiang, Jie
2009    Glass Materials Excavated from the Kiln Site of Tricolor Glazed Pottery at Liquanfang in Chang An City of the Tang Dynasty. In Gan Fuxi, Robert Brill, and Tian Shouyun, eds. Ancient Glass Research Along the Silk Road. New Jersey: World Scientific. Pp. 359-366.

Lee, Insook
2009    Glass and Bead Trade on the Asian Sea. In Gan Fuxi, Robert Brill, and Tian Shouyun, eds. Ancient Glass Research Along the Silk Road. New Jersey: World Scientific. Pp. 165-182.

Li, Qinghui, Fuxi Gan, Ping Zhang, Huansheng Cheng, and Yongchun Xu
2009    Chemical Composition Analyses of Early Glasses of Different Historical Periods Found in Xinjiang, China. In Gan Fuxi, Robert Brill, and Tian Shouyun, eds. Ancient Glass Research Along the Silk Road. New Jersey: World Scientific. Pp. 331-358.

Li, Qinghui, Weizhao Wang, Zhaoming Xiong, Fuxi Gan, and Huansheng Chen
2009    PIXE Study on the Ancient Glasses of the Han Dynasty Unearthed in Hepu County, Guangxi. In Gan Fuxi, Robert Brill, and Tian Shouyun, eds. Ancient Glass Research Along the Silk Road. New Jersey: World Scientific. Pp. 397-412.

Lu, Chi
2009    The Inspiration of the Silk Road for Chinese Glass Art. In Gan Fuxi, Robert Brill, and Tian Shouyun, eds. Ancient Glass Research Along the Silk Road. New Jersey: World Scientific. Pp. 265-274.

Ma, Bo, Xiaoni Feng, Menghe Gao, Fuxi Gan, and Shifang Shen
2009    Study of the Ancient Glasses Found at Chongqing. In Gan Fuxi, Robert Brill, and Tian Shouyun, eds. Ancient Glass Research Along the Silk Road. New Jersey: World Scientific. Pp. 439-456.

Qian, Wei
2009    On the Glass Origins in Ancient China from the Relationship Between Glassmaking and Metallurgy. In Gan Fuxi, Robert Brill, and Tian Shouyun, eds. Ancient Glass Research Along the Silk Road. New Jersey: World Scientific. Pp. 243-264.

Song, Yan and Qinglin Ma
2009    Scientific Research on Glass Fragments of the 6th Century AD in Guyuan County, Ningxia, China. In Gan Fuxi, Robert Brill, and Tian Shouyun, eds. Ancient Glass Research Along the Silk Road. New Jersey: World Scientific. Pp. 291- 298.

Wang, Bo and Lipeng Lu
2009    Glass Artifacts Unearthed from the Tombs at the Zhagunluke and Sampula Cemeteries in Xinjiang. In Gan Fuxi, Robert Brill, and Tian Shouyun, eds. Ancient Glass Research Along the Silk Road. New Jersey: World Scientific. Pp. 299-330.

Zhang, B, YH Li, QH Li, B Ma, FX Gan, ZQ Zhang, HS Cheng, FJ Yang
2004    Non-destructive analysis of early glass unearthed in south China by external-beam PIXE. Journal of Radioanalytical Nuclear Chemistry 261(2):387-392.

Zhang, Zhiguo and Qinglin Ma
2009    Faience Beads of the Western Zhou Dynasty Excavated in Gansu Province, China: A technical Study. In Gan Fuxi, Robert Brill, and Tian Shouyun, eds. Ancient Glass Research Along the Silk Road. New Jersey: World Scientific. Pp. 275-290.

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About Heather Christie

Heather is an archaeologist, photographer, and writer whose research focuses on beads and bead trade, particularly in a maritime sense. She's currently working working on a PhD in Digital Design (focusing on heritage visualisation) at the Glasgow School of Art.
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