Ceramics made in China during the Song period (960-1279) are among the most influential and revered in the world. They are noted for their elegant, simple shapes, their lush glazes, and their lively designs. These ceramics are highly admired in part because of the complicated and varied technologies used in their manufacture. The widespread importation of Song ceramics throughout Asia and as far away as Africa and their strong influence on the art of Korea and Japan also helped to spread the knowledge and appreciation of these ceramics.
Many internal factors contributed to the expansion of the ceramic industry during the Song period. For example, governmental support of trade and the funding of protection for the northern frontier that was under siege from several aggressors encouraged both the growth of a large domestic industry and the concomitant rise of a merchant class. Members of this class not only exported ceramics but also used them in their homes. The development of a court bureaucracy responsible for the administration of the country also led to the ascent of a class of scholar-gentlemen with a deep interest in art, and the refined tastes of this group were instrumental in the development of many types of art. Court sponsorship of the arts and the court-led interest in antiquarianism also encouraged the Song ceramic industry. It was during this time that ceramics were first collected and preserved as art objects, and much of the later Chinese scholarship on ceramics is based on judgments and classifications begun in the Song period.
Song ceramics are categorized into wares that often take the names of their areas of production. Much of the scholarship on Chinese ceramics from this period has stressed the distinction between the aristocratic wares, such as Ru and Guan, that were known to have been used at the court, and more popular types, such as Cizhou and Jian wares. In the last few years, a combination of archaeological discoveries and new scholarship has challenged this rigid distinction between court and popular wares. It is now believed that many if not most of the kilns operating in China sent the very best examples of their work as tribute to the court, while less fine pieces were available for domestic consumption and trade. Nonetheless, a distinction can still be made between the taste of the court and that of other segments of society; this distinction is illustrated in the astonishing variety found in Song ceramics.