Shiwan Art Pottery / Folklore and Artistry Shiwan Art Pottery / Folklore and Artistry

Shiwan Art Pottery

Folklore and Artistry

Shiwan Art Pottery / Folklore and Artistry Shiwan Art Pottery / Folklore and Artistry

Being specialists in Japanese Folk Art, we have to be aware of the origins of artifacts which have grown out of other cultures, and how similar works of art intertwine as the craft matures. This article is for visual comparison purposes in an effort to understand how similar works of art become representative of a culture, and values within a particular period in time. It is this intent to bring awareness to the conventions of the art movement, or style, on their own.

For comparison, Japanese Sumida Gawa ware is an exceptional example of Japanese earthenware. Sumida ware originally began on the banks of the Sumida River, (“Gawa” means “river”), in the Asakusa district of Tokyo, which was once outside the city limits, and noted for its kabuki theaters. The pottery was the creation of Inoue Ryosai, formerly a potter at Seto, and Shimada Sobei, who was a seller of pottery. 


The date when this pottery was established is a bit unclear, but sometime in the late 1890s, the factory began making pieces with heavy “flambe” glaze techniques. Sumida Gawa is very heavy ware, and often decorated with three-dimensional figures such as humans, buildings, pieces of pottery, and monkeys. These wares were most popular from about 1890 to 1920, and were produced in wares such as; large and small vases, teapots, jugs, lidded jars, cut flower dishes, and figural bowls.

So this forms a comparative basis in relation to Sumida Gawa ware and Shiwan ware for both were created in small villages, and have a focus on the human figure, in particular of everyday people and/or important individuals in culture and depicted the customs of all levels of the citizenry. As a visual reference point, below is a diverse sampling of Sumida Gawa in comparing the sculptured human and animal figural work of Shiwan that follows.


Shiwan Art Pottery, also known as Shekwan ware, is an important part of the Chinese traditional culture. Ceramic wares have a long history of reflecting the customs of this ancient culture. One of the most famous types of ceramic works, Shiwan ware, has been the shining star in Chinese folk ceramic art as early as the Tang and Song Dynasties (618-906AD), and which flourished in the Ming and Qing dynasties. The massive signed figure of Li Tie Guai, and pictured below, is 12-0” l x 8-0”w x 5-0”h

Chinese classical Shiwan ware is a type of traditional pottery that comes from the talented artists of a small town located in the south of China called Shiwan, in Foshan City, famous for its culture and pottery. As with Sumida Gawa, the Shiwan craftsmen are well-known for their glazing techniques and unique forms. All the sculptural work was hand-formed, and sometimes involves numerous family members within a village, while directed by a master craftsman. Every object is unique, and therefore, a limited edition, which attracts art collectors the world over. 


Original Shiwan figurines, (1880-1940), are extremely rare because of the art/craftsmanship and their heavy but delicate, fragile nature. The greater the detailing, the more likely the figure has been made by a master artist; hence the higher value. Also, the larger the piece, the more valuable, (8-0” or pieces over 20.0” tall, are extremely rare). The age of Shiwan ware can be verified by the markings, and or lack of markings, and the fact that they are hand-formed, depicting highly expressive figural forms and vivid imagery. Primitive in sculpting techniques; the decorative elements associated with the figure; the deep rich glazes infused with the piece; the type of regional clay, (sandy, coarse clay is the oldest), all reflect stylistic differences within that region. 

Ceramics, Figures and Ornamental wares

In the Qing dynasty, kilns produced large quantities of architectural ceramics such as roof ornaments and sculptures, of which the most famous are the fishermen, monkeys, religious figures and scholars, as well as bowls, flower pots and free form-vases. 

Diversity - Figural Pottery Sculptures

Besides utilitarian wares, it was the ‘artistic figural pottery sculptures’ that brought Shiwan to fame. The best ones were based on keen observation of common men and women, as well as historical figures represented in the Cantonese opera. The figures came from Chinese history, folklore, and philosophy. The portrayed qualities in these figures are so detailed that it has been suggested that one way of distinguishing earlier figures from those made after 1949 is by medical diagnoses, wherein for earlier figures show signs of malnutrition and other ailments that were more common in the earlier society. The portrayal below of Arahat, or translated in Chinese as Lohan, was an important figure in the Buddhist religion, and shows his ribs as that of an ascetic, (a person who practices severe self-discipline and abstention).


When China open its borders to trade with East Asia during the 17th and 18th centuries it brought an influx of Chinese goods into Europe aboard ships from the English, Dutch, French, Swedish East India Trading Companies. Later in the 20th century, western visitors including Americans and silent film stars, and missionaries would purchase these expressive, glazed figures at local markets and carry them home.

From late Ming until the late Qing dynasty, the products often bear the signature, seal or mark of the artist, or workshop, who was widely acclaimed and highly honored. If pieces were not marked they were made in homage to the great era of Chinese pottery making. All Shiwan Art Pottery retain considerable value based on condition, the detail of the carving and quality of the glazing.