The body of the vessel is of ovoid form, narrowing slightly above the splayed edge of the flat base. It is surmounted by a high cylindrical neck widening to the cup-shaped mouth where intricately sculpted dragon heads bite fiercely on the rolled rim, their arching necks, formed with two straps or rolls of clay, serve as the handles, each enhanced with three balls of clay, the third forming a join to the shoulder of the vessel. A transparent colorless glaze with a bright surface and exhibiting crazing covers the vessel, falling in swags well above the unglazed base where the white, dense stoneware body has fired in some areas to a slight reddish hue.
It is generally thought that the Chinese amphora was a result of the marriage of Chinese ceramic technology with a foreign-inspired vessel shape popular in the Hellenistic world. However, the Chinese “chicken-headed” ewers of the 6th century, each with a single dragon handle, provide a springboard for the 7th-century Chinese amphora form (fig. 1). The addition of a second handle in place of the spout resulted in a shape that corresponds to the Greek amphora. Unlike those western vessels, however, whose handles are mounted below the mouth to ensure functionality, the high-arching Chinese handles block the mouth, rendering the form useless as a vase or container. From the outset such vessels had to be either decorative in this life or intended for ritual and funerary use. That the latter was true is proven by excavations, illustrated here by tomb finds in Shaanxi and Henan provinces (figs. 2-3). Finds outside of China seem limited to where Chinese expatriate populations would find such amphora both “made in China” and exotic at the same time.
The vast majority of Chinese amphora known today are white stone or porcelanous ware produced in Hebei or Henan, each with kilns that had begun specializing in high-fired white-bodied ceramics by the 6th century. The important production centers in Gongxian (presently Gongyi) in Henan and Xingzhou in Hebei, are also known to have produced sancai, “three-colored” ware and the sancai amphora, far fewer in number than the white wares which are multitudinous, could have been made at those same kilns.
Fig. 1: Celadon chicken-headed ewer with dragon handle, from a tomb dated to 576, Northern Qi period, Cixian, Hebei, Office for Management of Cultural Relics, Cixian, after Zhang Bai, ed. Zhongguo chutu ciqi quanji (“Complete Collection of Ceramic Art Unearthed in China”), vol. 3: Hebei, Beijing, 2007, no. 12, p. 12.
Fig. 2: White stoneware amphora with dragon handles, a Tang-dynasty tomb, Xi’an, Shaanxi province, Xi’an Institute of Cultural Relics Preservation, after Zhang Bai, ed., Zhongguo chutu ciqi quanji (“Complete Collection of Ceramic Art Unearthed in China”), vol. 15: Shaanxi, Beijing, 2008, no. 69, p. 69.
Fig. 3: White stoneware amphora with dragon handles, a Tang tomb in Gongyi, Zhengzhou Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology, after Zhang Bai, ed., Zhongguo chutu ciqi quanji (“Complete Collection of Ceramic Art Unearthed in China”), vol. 12: Henan, Beijing, 2007, no 89, p. 89.