Chinese drinking vessels, to a large extent, include wares for holding wine and vessels for drinking wine, and it’s really hard to identify when and where the Chinese drinking vessels originated due to a lack of written historical records. One thing we can be sure of is that our lives as human beings became wonderful and poetic with the emergence of wine and drinking vessels.
The Chinese drinking vessels changed over time. Almost each dynasty had its own fashion and wine culture in history, and so it was with the drinking vessels; even the materials, shapes, designs and making-techniques varied from one dynasty to another. According to the different materials used, Chinese drinking vessels can be generally classified into pottery drinking vessels, bronze drinking vessels, lacquer drinking vessels, porcelain drinking vessels and jade drinking wares.
The pottery drinking vessels emerged in the Neolithic Age, 6,000 years ago, with the increasing development of social productive forces. They were similar to alms bowls used by monks, and they were used for storing wine rather than drinking wine in respect that the early form of wine was pappy (suitable for eating) rather than liquid (not suitable for drinking).
The drinking vessels were gradually split off from food-holding vessels owing to the development of the wine-making industry and the gap between the rich and the poor, which became a symbol of social status for the owners, resulting in the emergence of professional winemakers in society. The pottery drinking vessels had various shapes, such as cups, bowls, jars and teapots.
The bronze vessel industry originated from the Xia Dynasty (2070 BC-1600 BC), flourished in the Shang (1600 BC-1046 BC) and the Zhou (1046 BC-221 BC) dynasties and declined in the Spring and Autumn Period (770 BC-476 BC), during which the bronze vessels were divided into food-holding wares, drinking vessels, water containers and musical instruments, and the drinking vessels rose to an unprecedented level in the Shang Dynasty.
The bronze drinking vessels of the Shang (1600 BC-1046 BC) and the Zhou (1046 BC-221 BC) dynasties were divided into wine-heating vessels, wine containers, wine-drinking vessels, wine-storing vessels and sacrificial vessels, which were of various shapes, including dragons, tigers, lions, phoenixes, rhinos, lotus flowers, goats and wolves.
The emblazonry, shapes and epigraphs on the drinking vessels of the Shang (1600 BC-1046 BC) and the Zhou (1046 BC-221 BC) dynasties had a substantial influence on the late calligraphic works, sculptures and paintings, which was an important part of the history of ancient Chinese art and culture.
The bronze drinking vessels had gradually declined since the Zhou (1046 BC-221 BC) Dynasty and, instead, the lacquer drinking vessels prevailed during the Qin (221 BC-206 BC) and the Han (206 BC-220) dynasties, continuing to be popular among people in the Han (206 BC-220), the Wei （220 -265） and the Jin (265-420) dynasties. It was a tradition for people to sit cross-legged on the floor to drink wine in the Han Dynasty (206 BC-220), resulting in short and wide drinking vessels. It was a tradition for people to sit around a bed to drink wine in the Wei and the Jin dynasties, leading to the use of long and narrow drinking vessels.
The lacquer drinking vessels inherited the form and structure of the bronze ones, highlighted by the eared cups. 114 eared cups were unearthed from 11 Qin-era tombs in Yunmeng of Hubei Province, and 90 of them from the first tomb of the Mawangdui Han-era Tomb Cluster in Changsha, Hunan Province.
Porcelain vessels came forth during the Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220), and were far better than pottery vessels of the previous dynasties in performance. The drinking vessels were comparatively smaller in the Tang Dynasty (618-907), and the porcelain-making industry reached its peak during the Song Dynasty (960-1279), resulting in a number of delicate porcelain drinking vessels emerging.
The Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) was the heyday of ancient China’s drinking vessel industry, when the porcelain drinking vessels were highlighted by blue and white ones, Doucai (joined colors) ones and red sacrificial ones. The porcelain drinking vessel industry continued to develop in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) under the advocacy of the Emperors Kangxi, Yongzheng and Qianlong, during which the highlighted porcelain drinking vessels were represented by colored enamel ones, plain tri-colored ones and exquisitely-wrought blue and white ones, and most of them were archaized.
In additional to porcelain drinking vessels, the royalty members and the nobility also focused their attention on jade, gold and silver drinking vessels with a great passion in the Ming (1368-1644) and the Qing (1644-1911) dynasties, and the Qing rulers even established palace workshops for making various drinking vessels.