The History of Bricks: China

When fiancées register with department stores prior to their wedding day, they often list a china pattern. Throughout history, heads of state have served VIPs on fine china with specific patterns. But previous to researching this article, I did not know that bone china does, in fact, contain ash from animal bones. The formula Spode used for its fine china was 6 parts bone ash, 4 parts china stone and 3.5 parts china clay. I had come to take the word china for granted. I never really thought of the country; however, the country is its namesake. Ceramics has been a mainstay of Chinese culture and industry for centuries. Today, China is the largest exporter of ceramics in the world. In addition, last year, China became the largest exporter in the world, superseding Germany.  It is difficult for me to fathom the size of China when I write about it here. It is sufficient to say that the country has enormous clay deposits of every type. Last year, one of the country’s provinces made news. Archaeologists found five bricks in northwest China’s Shaanxi Province which are 5,000 to 7,000 years old, 1,000 to 2,000 years older than the previous claim. The calcined bricks, three red and two gray, were from the Yangshao Culture, “a Neolithic culture that flourished along the Yellow River, which runs across China from west to east,” according to China Radio International. This province was close enough to Beijing to reap the benefits of being near such a hub and it also lay along the Northern Silk Road. A desertous area, it borders Mongolia. “Shaanxi Province is considered one of the cradles of Chinese civilization, according to this Wikipedia link. “Thirteen feudal dynasties established their capitals in the province during a span of more than 1,100 years, from the Zhou Dynasty to the Tang Dynasty.”  There are scads of brick manufacturers listed in the province; however, interesting news is often tempered by bad news when researching a topic.  Child labor in brick factories and child slavery reported reported recently. This is the first time I’ve reported on labor conditions in this series and, while I do not know about conditions in Mesopotamia or the Indus Valley, I did come across information about Egypt, where slave labor was used for brick works. We all know Egypt used slaves and maybe it is because it happened in the distant past, but the news about children forced to work in brick factories is heartbreaking. The heat, the silica, the heavy metals, and weight of materials. At least I can report about it in order to inform you. I was able to come across a site that explains the factors involved with the formation of the Chinese ceramics industry. “clay, fuel, river systems, and markets,” according to Chinatown Connection. “Heavy clay and large quantities of fuel are required for pottery and porcelain making. Prohibitively high shipping costs made pottery production economically impractical in areas without these basic prerequisites,” it continues. “So a locale with plentiful supplies of both clay and lumber as fuel had the best potential for setting up a ceramics kiln.” This Chinese travel site has terrific background information about clays, including the four most famous: “Violet sand earthenware of Yixing in Jiangsu Province, Nixing pottery of Qinzhou in Guangxi Province, water pottery of Jianshui in Yunnan Province, and the Rongchang pottery of Sichuan Province.” Please take a look this link, as it’s well worth your while because I must move on to bricks. Some of the most beautiful examples of brickwork in China are found in its shrines and temples, Taoist, Buddhist, and Confucian. The folk religion of China combines all three (Shenist). The antecedents of Taoism date back to prehistory, but the Tao Te Ching dates to the 3rd or 4th century BCE. Zhong Yue Miao, shown here, is a 2,200-year-old Taoist temple, and the oldest Taoist temple in China. The Buddhist influence in China is responsible for some of the most beautiful examples of the use of brick, too. Buddhism reached China in 2nd century C.E. via Lokaksema, a monk who translated the sutras into Chinese. Eventually, all forms of Buddhism were practiced in China and the legacy of this way of life includes its art and architecture. There aren’t a whole lot of examples left because of space needed for development or neglect, especially after the Chinese Revolution, when religion was outlawed. Certain structures were central to Chinese Buddhism, however, and the main one was that of the stupa, or pagoda. The design changed over the years: the religion and its architecture was imported from India and gradually the Indian stupa became infused with elements of Asian design. According to this Wikipedia link, during “the Northern Wei and Sui dynasties (386-618) experiments began with the construction of brick and stone pagodas.” Previous to this, they’d been built of wood and few have lasted. The first brick Buddhist one,   Songyue Pagoda, was built in 523 C.E., relatively late. Forty meters tall, it is among the fewest of its age still left and it is a Tentative UNESCO World Heritage site. It is in fair condition, but is crumbling in some areas, so I hope it does receive protected status. Personally, I am opposed to the selling of antiquities that I think should be protected or in museums; however, if you want to spend $8000 US, you could buy this brick, which came from a Buddhist temple in China. Imagine spending eight grand on a brick! Speaking of numbers, though the exact number of bricks in the Great Wall of China is unknown, this travel guide states that”roughly estimated, the length of a 1 yard wide and 16 feet tall wall built from the bricks and earthworks in the Ming Great Wall is equal to the circumference of the earth.” A military defense which started being built in the 5th century, the wall is 5,500 miles long. The height of the wall varies, so I won’t do any ciphering. The Great Wall of China became a UNESCO site in 1987. Fragmented, the wall was built to protect people from enemies throughout the various dynasties, and it is the longest man-made structure in the world. Here are some other facts about it. Many of the bricks are stamped with characters and, according to Stephen Turnbull, author of The Great Wall of China: 221 BC-AD 1644, they are the names of the makers of the bricks. It is sobering seeing this brick because up to one million people are said to have died during the construction of it over time. Turnbull said the bricks are about four times the size of a modern house brick and were “produced by the thousand from numerous kilns, some of which still exist.” Forty-eight Ming Dynasty-era kilns built for this purpose were found in Hebei Province. Actually, quite a few have been found. I also came across something else that is quite interesting, called the Great Wall of China Hoax. According to this Wikipedia link about the hoax it was, “a faked story, published in United States newspapers on June 25, 1899, about bids by American businesses to demolish the Great Wall of China and construct a road in its place.” It’s quite a story. To close this segment of our journey, I’ll leave you with a story about Richard M. Nixon, who visited the wall in 1972. During the trip with Kissinger, they even had an unannounced visit with Chairman Mao. It was later, though, that, according to the U.S. Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) Nixon was quoted as saying, “I think that you would have to conclude that this is a great wall and it had to be built by a great people.”


About Jan

I have a background in ceramics, graphic design and journalism.
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