Note: This is our second post on celadon. To see the previous one click here.
Ceramic Reminiscent of Jade
Like many other types of fine ceramicware, celadon originated in China, where it was prized for its jade-like appearance. Jade has been prized since the Stone Age in what is now China. The nephrite jade native to China was both beautiful and durable, however, it is evident that over time early Chinese cultures imbued the stone with spiritual properties too, further enhancing its value.
Archaeologists have uncovered numerous grave goods made of jade from neolithic and ancient times. Several Han dynasty burials contained worked pieces of jade that were used to cover or plug the orifices of the deceased. Taking this into consideration, it becomes more understandable why ceramic that mimicked the appearance of jade was considered so valuable.
Celadon & the Imperial Song Court
The technique for producing celadon was first perfected in Song Dynasty China around 900 years ago. This dynasty was known for its many advances in the arts and sciences. But while material culture flourished during the Song Dynasty, it was also a time of weakness in military and international affairs, as the "barbarians" to the north of the empire eventually overran it. Over the course of a series of wars, the Song Dynasty ceded control over all territory north of the Hwai River to the Jurchen Jin Dynasty.
In 1127 the Jin army conquered the Song Capital of Kaifeng and took much of the imperial court captive. A remnant of the imperial court fled south beyond the Yangtze River and would eventually establish a new capital at Lin'an (today's Hangzhou). These events mark the difference between the Northern and Southern Song. The Southern Song continued on for another 150 plus years until it was eliminated by Mongol conquest in 1279.
*Map by Yu Ninjie (uploaded on Commons by LiDaobing) <1>
These historical events played a role in the diffusion the techniques for celadon production. With the transfer of the Song imperial court south of the Yangtze River to Hangzhou, many artisans followed. Since previous sources of high-grade ceramics had been lost as a result of the Jurchen conquests, soon after the palace moved, imperial kilns were established nearby to supply the court.
These kilns produced the finest wares for the exclusive use of the imperial dynasty. Alongside the imperial kilns, lesser kilns also sprang up that produced articles for affluent nobles and for the empire's tributary exchanges with foreign countries. The result was an ancient version of today's industrial cluster, as celadon production was concentrated in the band of territory surrounding Hangzhou.
Ru, Guan & Ge Celadon Styles
The history of Chinese celadon cannot be so neatly parsed from overall history of Chinese ceramics and porcelain. Historians from later dynasties recorded Five Famous Kilns associated with the Song Dynasty era: Ru (汝), Jun (鈞,) Guan (官), Ding (定) and Ge (哥).
While originally used to denote wares of specific kilns, later on the terms were used more broadly to describe the style of ceramicware originally associated with those kilns. Of these five kilns, three of them (Ru, Guan and Ge) produced celadon and set the standard for what we consider celadon to be.
While the precise time and place of these kilns' production is the subject of debate among historians and archaeologists, there are some generally accepted theories. Likewise, even though experts may argue over the classification of specific artifacts, there are certain characteristics generally attributed to each style or kiln.
The Ru kiln predates the Guan and Ge kilns. It is best known by its soft, pale blue-green glaze, that is sometimes referred to as duck egg shell green, or more poetically as the blue and white color of the crest of a wave. It should be noted, however, that other colors were also produced. The glaze is typically thick and looks as if it has been generously poured on. The glaze is believed to have contained crushed agate and many pieces exhibit crackling.
This crackling, when carefully controlled could produce a frost-like appearance, otherwise likened to the effect of light shimmering on fish scales. The clay body is usually grayish white. Originating in Ruzhou in what is now part of Henan province, Ru celadon is the epitome of Northern Song celadon. Production at the Ru kilns is believed to have ceased shortly after the Jurchen conquest.
This loss of access to the Ru and other northern kilns provided the impetus for the Southern Song court to establish the imperial (or Guan) kilns near Hangzhou. While the ancient techniques of producing Ru ceramicware were lost over time, over the last 50 years efforts have been made to recover the lost art, and Ru-style ceramic ware is once again being produced in Henan and elsewhere.
The Guan kiln can be seen as the second iteration of, or attempt to replicate the lost Northern Song kilns, in particular, the Ru kiln. Many similarities between the two exist, but known Guan pieces encompass a wider array of colors and styles. Due to differences in available glaze and clay materials, the emblematic eggshell blue of Ru kiln seems to have been replaced by greener shades in Guan pieces. Clay bodies in Guan ware tend to be grayer and darker than those in Ru ware.
The other kiln largely linked to celadon is the Ge kiln. Historians and archaeologists have been unable to definitively determine its origin or define its characteristics. One of the problems is that the largest source of presumed Ge ceramic ware is the old collection from the Qing Dynasty Imperial Palace, but these wares do not neatly line up with descriptions written in the classical texts. The texts do however attribute Ge ware to the older of two accomplished craftsmen from Longquan near Hangzhou.
Celadon from the Guan and Ge kilns are classed within the broader category of Southern Song celadon. Geographically this category encompasses all the celadon produced in Zhejiang province in and around the Southern Song capital of Hangzhou.
Chronologically, if we more loosely refer to the Southern Song style, it covers all the celadon produced during the Southern Song as well later wares that followed the techniques or imitated the styles of Southern Song celadon.
Longquan stands out as the place where Southern Song style celadon was produced continuously for the longest period of time. It is theorized that early Longquan kilns produced commercial wares that imitated the techniques and styles of the nearby Guan kilns, while others propose that Longquan kilns supplemented Guan kilns in fulfilling the needs of the imperial court.
Whereas the imperial kilns seem to have ceased production shortly after the Mongol conquest, historical texts and archaeological evidence suggest that the Longquan kilns thrived during the Yuan dynasty. It is during this time that the story of the Zhang brothers, two master celadon craftsmen from Longquan, was first recorded. In fact, the terms Ge and Di, meaning elder and younger brother respectively, have since been used to denote the types of celadon associated with each brother.
While the truth of the story cannot be verified, it is one of the reasons for associating the Ge kiln with Longquan. Ge celadon from Longquan has a dark clay body and a crackled glaze. The crackle is well defined and over time and with use, the lines may darken. The glaze is thick, whereas the clay body comparatively thin.
Glaze color in modern pieces has a preference for darker greens and grayish blues, however light blue, plum green, off white and beige colors are not uncommon. If left unglazed, the clay body will turn to shades of rusty gray or terracotta. In some pieces, relief work or other worked sections may be intentionally left unglazed to produce a desired color contrast between the glazed and unglazed portions.
Di kiln celadon is made with a white clay body, its glaze is also thick, but uncrackled. While coming in a variety of colors, the two traditional colors are light blue reminiscent of Ru kiln wares or plum green (think the color of green Japanese ume, not red or purple plums popular in America). The color and thickness of the glaze produces a clean, serene look that is relaxing to the eye.
For a variety of reasons including civil unrest, changes in taste, and waves of isolationist trade policy, in terms of both quantity and quality, the Longquan kilns went into a period of decline starting in the late Yuan dynasty and continuing throughout the Ming and Qing dynasties.
In the twentieth century, the art of celadon production was successfully revived in Longquan, as craftsmen made great strides in developing techniques to produce wares comparable to their classical counterparts. Modern Longquan celadon is not made with any paints or dyes; instead, it is made of clay with relatively high iron contents, double-fired at high temperatures and glazed with a slip ( a mixture of clay and water).
Depending on the iron content of the clay used, the slip produces different colors of glaze, including light blue, plum green, grey-blue and dark jadeite green. Some wares still strive to imitate the classic forms, but many exhibit more novel influences.