20080302-Tang celedaon shang M.jpg
Tang celadon

Celadon is a bluish, grayish green porcelain made with a slip and glaze, sometimes with incised and inlaid decorations. Originating in its basic form around the A.D. first century and developed during the Six Dynasties period (A.D. 220-589), reaching a peak in the Tang Dynasty (618-906) it is associated with both China and Korea.. The color of celadon results from natural iron oxide in the glaze, which produces the green hue when fired in a reducing atmosphere kiln. Factors that contribute to its aesthetic include glaze thickness and evenness, and whether there is decoration or not. Shards collected from kiln sites have helped scientists uncover some of the mysteries of what lies beneath the celadon surface to make it so beautiful.

"Celadon" usually has a rather solid paste, less like porcelain than stoneware, covered with a green glaze. Decorations are incised, not painted, under the glaze. Soyoung Lee of the Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “The term celadon is thought to derive from the name of the hero in a seventeenth-century French pastoral comedy. The color of the character Céladon’s robe evoked, in the minds of Europeans, the distinctive green-glazed ceramics from China, where celadon originated. Some scholars object to such an arbitrary and romanticized Western nomenclature. Yet the ambiguity of the term celadon effectively captures the myriad hues of greens and blues of this ceramic type. [Source: Soyoung Lee, Department of Asian Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, October 2003]

According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: ““True celadon was fired as early as the Eastern Han period, but beforehand, kiln ash naturally blanketed ceramics to create a celadon-like glaze, which became known as "gray-glazed pottery" or "proto-celadon." In the eighth and ninth centuries, celadon already was an important type of ceramic for appreciation. Lu Yu of the Tang dynasty in his Classic of Tea, refers to celadon as "like jade," and the poet Lu Guimeng of the same period compared it to "a thousand peaks of green color." [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei, npm.gov.tw]

Websites and Sources: 1) China Museums Online: chinaonlinemuseum.com ; 2) Guide to Chinese Ceramics: Song Dynasty, Minneapolis Institute of Arts; artsmia.org features many examples of different types of ceramic ware produced during the Song dynasty, including ding, qingbai, longquan, jun, guan and cizhou. 3) Making a Cizhou Vessel Princeton University Art Museum artmuseum.princeton.edu. This interactive site shows users seven steps used to create Song- and Yuan-era Cizhou vessels.

Early History of Celadon

The stoneware called mature celadon was first made in the first century A.D. (late Han dynasty) and was steadily improved at southern kilns over the next few centuries (the Three Kingdoms, Western Jin, and Eastern Jin dynasties and the Northern and Southern Dynasties period, A.D. 220-589). [Source: Shanghai Museum, shanghaimuseum.net]

Ancient ceramic includes pottery from the Neolithic period, proto-type celadon of the Shang, the Zhou, the Spring and Autumn and the Warring States periods and the mature celadon of the Eastern Han. According to the Shanghai Museum:“Proto-celadon appeared no later than the Shang period and was produced in large quantities during the periods of the Western Zhou, the Spring and Autumn and the Warring States ((11th-3rd century B.C.). In the second and first centuries B.C. production declined. Proto- celadon contains essential features of porcelain but still displayed some primitive characteristics, which represented the initial stage of porcelain production. The quality was not that great as water absorptivity was high and there were many air bubbles. [Source: Shanghai Museum, shanghaimuseum.net]

Mature celadon was achieved in southern kilns in the A.D. first century. In the A.D. third and fourth centuries further refinements were made. Production increased but quality declined slightly. By the fourth century A.D. mature celadon has been produced at kilns in north China and many pieces of high quality were made there. According to the Shanghai Museum:“Celadon production was gradually matured during the Eastern Han and further developed during the Wei (Wu State) and the Western Jin periods. The scale of celadon production was enlarged during the periods of the Eastern Jin, the Southern dynasty and the Sui dynasty, but their quality declined slightly. From the Northern dynasty, matured celadon appeared at kilns in northern China and many masterpieces of high quality were manufactured. [Source: Shanghai Museum, shanghaimuseum.net]

“Proto-Celadon Zun (wine vessel) with String Pattern”, at the Shanghai Museum, is an example of proto-porcelain and early celadon porcelain. It is molded with clay with an iron content of about 2 percent, and then fired in 1200 high temperature after manual glazing. This Zun looks noble and stylish in both shape and glaze and shares the same style with the pottery unearthed from the tombs of Yin Ruins Culture, Shang dynasty. It should be the drinking vessel used by the Shang royal family and a typical proto-porcelain of the Shang dynasty.

Cracked Celadon

According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: “When firing porcelains, the differing rates of expansion and contraction can result in the cracking of the glaze surface, which is known as crackle. Those with crackle are the works mentioned in texts as "cracked pieces," so those with celadon glaze can naturally be called "cracked celadon." The crackle pattern on these works is naturally formed, but staining is sometimes added to highlight it. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei, npm.gov.tw]

“Ming dynasty records mention the brothers Zhang, potters in Chuzhou. The elder one's works were called "Older Brother wares" featured crackle patterning. In fact, crackle later became a focus of attention among connoisseurs of the Ming and Qing dynasties, and Gao Lian of the Ming in his Eight Discourses on the Art of Living divided crackle into three types: "eel-blood ice cracks," "plum-blossom-petal dark pattern," and "fine-cracked pattern." And in the Qing dynasty, the Qianlong emperor used the character for "passionate" as a homonym for "cracked" to describe crackled Ge porcelain, singing its praise with the line, "Just like a martyr living up to its name," The crackle of porcelain thus became a metaphor for the passion of a martyr.

“As for Ge ware, was it produced at one kiln site or many? Texts mention two sites in Chuzhou (modern Longquan County, Zhejiang Province) and Phoenix Mountain in Hangzhou (modern Hangzhou City, Zhejiang Province). Archaeological evidence also confirms that crackled celadon was fired at the Longquan County large and Xiaomei kilns. And Guan-type celadon from the Yuan dynasty stratum at the Laohudong kiln site also reveals similarities with surviving Ge-ware pieces from the former Qing court collection, leading to the argument that Ge wares were fired at Laohudong.

Song Dynasty Celadons

Some of the most beautiful porcelain ever produced was made during the Song dynasty (960-1279), when world-famous monochrome porcelains, including celedon, were produced. Among celadons from the twelfth to fourteenth centuries, various differences in place and period of firing can be discerned, such as the sky-blue glaze of Ru wares, the ice-like crackle on Guan wares, the plum-green hues of Longquan wares, and the cracked pattern on Ge wares. Ju ware, a kind of celadon from the Northern Song dynasty that ranges in color from blue to green, is the rarest of all forms of porcelain. Only 71 pieces of it exist and 23 of them are possessed by the National Palace Museum in Taipei.

According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: Song porcelain “are divided into the four general chromatic categories of glaze: celadon, white, black, and polychrome. Celadons consist of sky-blue Ju ware from Henan, light bluish-green Kuan ware from Zhejiang, plum green Lung-chuan ware, and olive green Yao-chou ware from Shaanxi. Ju ware, a kind of celadon from the Northern Song dynasty that ranges in color from blue to green, is the rarest of all forms of porcelain. According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: “Ju ceramic wares of the Northern Sung, fired in the early 12th century, are porcelains renowned for the classical beauty of their warm and glossy sky-blue glaze. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei \=/ ]

Though Southern Song Official kilns could not be clearly distinguished at the time, the appreciation for celadons they produced and the issue of solving related questions continued into the 1990s. With the discovery of the Laohudong kiln site in Hangzhou City, Zhejiang Province, many scholars have come to recognize that it and Jiaotanxia as indeed where official wares were fired in the Southern Song.

Korean Celadon

Soyoung Lee of the Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: Celadon represents a major technological and conceptual shift in the history of Korean ceramics. The high-fired gray stoneware of the preceding Unified Silla dynasty (668 — 935) and Three Kingdoms period (57 B.C. — 668 A.D.) had set the stage for the manufacture of celadon, but the technology of the celadon glaze and of the kiln structure, adapted from China, was an important advance. Just as significant is the conceptual change. [Source: Soyoung Lee, Department of Asian Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, October 2003]

With the advent of celadon, particularly the highly refined pieces used by the royal court, there is a palpable aesthetic dynamic driving what ceramics should look like. Color becomes an important element in this transformation, as do interpretive designs in form and decoration. Memorable pieces possessed by the Metropolitan Museum of Art include 1) a gourd-shaped ewer with decoration of waterfowl and reeds, 2) a melon-shaped ewer with decoration of bamboo; 3) an oil bottle with decoration of peony leaves; 4) a bottle with decoration of chrysanthemums and lotus petals; and 5) maebyeong with decoration of cranes and clouds

The celadon colour is classically produced by firing a glaze containing a little iron oxide at a high temperature in a reducing kiln. The materials must be refined, as other chemicals can alter the color completely. Too little iron oxide causes a blue colour (sometimes a desired effect), and too much gives olive and finally black; the right amount is between 0.75 percent and 2.5 percent. The presence of other chemicals may have effects; titanium dioxide gives a yellowish tinge. Pieces made with a celadon glaze are themselves often referred to as "celadons". [Source: Wikipedia

Koryo Celadon

Soyoung Lee of the Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “During the nearly five centuries of the Koryo dynasty (918-1392), celadon constituted the main type of ceramics produced on the Korean peninsula. This exquisite ware typically appears gray-green in hue. The color of Koryo celadon owes much to the raw materials — specifically, the presence of iron in the clay and of iron oxide, manganese oxide, and quartz particles in the glaze — as well as to the firing conditions inside the kiln. Temperatures were commonly around, or below, 1150ºC, and the level of oxygen within the kiln was dramatically reduced at some stage of the firing; this is known as a reducing, rather than an oxidizing, atmosphere. Koryo celadon ranges from a plain, undecorated type to objects with incised, carved, mold-impressed, or inlaid designs, and to vessels embellished with colorful compounds like iron oxide (black or brown) and copper oxide (red), and also with gold. [Source: Soyoung Lee, Department of Asian Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, October 2003]

“Initially, Koryo potters learned much of the technical expertise from the celadon traditions of Song-dynasty (960 — 1279) China, particularly of its southern coast. A Song envoy, Xu Jing (1091 — 1153), who visited the Koryo capital, Gaeseong, in 1123, noted the resemblance of Koryo ceramics to the celadons of China’s Yue and Ru kilns. We see in early Koryo examples a conscious emulation of certain stylistic features of Chinese wares — such as the shapes of bottles and bowls , and standard decorative motifs including lotuses, peonies, flying parrots, and scenes of waterfowl by the pond.

By the mid-twelfth century, Koryo potters and patrons turned to articulating native tastes. This coincided with the consolidation of major celadon industries near the southwestern coast of the peninsula, in Jeolla Province — the Buan and Gangjin regions especially. The latter remains, today, the center of modern celadon production and of revivals of Koryo traditions. The culmination of Koryo celadon can be seen in inlaid (sanggam) celadon, a rarity in China. The delicate technique of sanggam involves etching the desired motifs on the dry clay body and filling in the carved space with black and/or white slip, after which the translucent glaze is applied and the vessel fired. The best of Koryo inlaid celadon is breathtaking in its splendid presentation of clean form, vibrant design, and subtle yet alluring color combination of white, black, and green.

Longquan Celadon: on the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage List

Traditional firing technology of Longquan celadon was inscribed on the UNESCO List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2009. According to UNESCO: The city of Longquan in the coastal Chinese province of Zhejiang is known for its celadon pottery and the traditional firing technology that imparts its distinctive glaze. Compounded from violet-golden clay and a mixture of burnt feldspar, limestone, quartz and plant ash, the glaze is prepared from recipes that have often been handed down for generations by teachers or within families. The glaze is applied to a fired stoneware vessel, which is then fired again in a repeated cycle of six stages of heating and cooling where precise temperatures matter a great deal: either over- or under-firing will spoil the effect. Experienced celadon artists carefully control each stage with a thermometer and by observing the colour of the flame, which reaches temperatures as high as 1310º C. The final product may take either of two styles: ‘elder brother’ celadon has a black finish with a crackle effect, while the ‘younger brother’ variety has a thick, lavender-grey and plum-green finish. With its underlying jade-like green colour, celadon fired by the family-oriented businesses of Longquan is prized as masterwork-quality art that can also serve as household ware. It is a proud symbol of the cultural heritage of the craftspeople, their city and the nation.

According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: “Longquan wares were celadon produced at the hundreds of kilns near Lungquan area in southwestern part of Zhejiang province, China. By the Song dynasty (960-1279), artisans had established the Longquan glaze's signature glossy, greenish color, a tradition which continued through the Yuan (1271-1368) and Ming dynasty (1368-1644). [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei, npm.gov.tw]

“Connoisseurs have long admired the elegant thin body and ethereal, bluish-green glaze of the Song dynasty Longquan wares, as well as the increase-sized, thick and vigorous Yuan dynasty wares. The present exhibition focuses on the Ming dynasty Longquan wares: their use in court, appreciation by the literati, and unique role in tributary and trade relations between the empire and other nations.

“Among the Ming Longquan wares, those with glossy, rich, green glaze in yellowish or milky tones garnered the most attention. They usually in the neat shape and fully carved with intricate patterns, which were similar to those of Jingdezhen official wares, clear signs of meticulous and superior workmanship. However the significance of the Ming celadon was little known. Only recently did archaeologists discover the kilns site in Longquan's Dayao area with dated shards of styles unearthed. The discovery verified historical documents recording Longquan kilns once as supplier for and supervised by the early Ming court. After the mid-Ming period, Longquan wares deteriorated in quality; as glazes grew transparent and thin, the carving became coarse. However, the Longquan kilns remained an important site beyond the Jingdezhen, providing wares for display in the residences.

“Longquan wares were also an important commodity central to the Ming court's control of foreign trade and tributary relations. Even today, traces of Ming dynasty Longquan wares often appear in archaeological sites and court collections in Asia, Africa, and Europe. They also inspired the establishment of various ceramics industries outside China. We can therefore conclude that Longquan celadon possess a beauty that is universally recognized.

History and Appreciation of Longquan Celadon

“The color of celadon results from natural iron oxide in the glaze, which produces the green hue when fired in a reducing atmosphere kiln. By the 10th century, artisans in Longquan County and the neighboring vicinity of southwestern Zhejiang were already producing celadon. The quality and quantity of Longquan celadon reached their zenith during the Southern Song (1127-1279) and Yuan dynasties (1271-1368). The Song wares greatly valued with simple shapes and ethereal bluish-green glazes without crackle. However, Yuan wares are large, thick with dense greenish color and vigorous decor. Historically, the mugwort green of the Yue ware, the sky blue of the Ru ware, the olive green of the Yaozhou ware, and the pale bluish-green crackled glaze of the Song Guan-official ware have all enjoyed celebrated reputations. Despite these competitors, the Longquan wares have received great praise due to their unique aesthetic.

“Ceramics for official use in the early Ming dynasty had several origins. In 1393, Taizu, the first emperor of Ming, ordered some court vessels be produced at the Longquan kilns and the Jingdezhen kilns. Later on, a eunuch was still supervising the manufacture of ceramics in the Longquan area in 1464. That is the reason why the shapes and decorative patterns of Longquan celadon are often similar to those of Jingdezhen, as they both followed the same specifications of the court. Those court patterns, covering all the surface of Longquan wares, were carefully stamped, moulded, incised or carved in relief. In contrast to the delicate tableware produced at Jingdezhen, however, the Longquan wares consist of thick, heavy displaying vessels, such as vases, jars, basins, incense burners, and large dishes and bowls.

“Late Ming literati often mentioned Longquan celadon in their writings, referencing incense burners, flower pots, stationery, and taborets. They also mentioned large-sized works such as citron dishes and the standing plum vase, emphasizing that "the greater the size the better". The Longquan wares' characteristic size distinguished them from the wares of other kilns. However, the quality of Longquan wares gradually declined during the late Ming. Their glaze became either thin and transparent or dark with crackles. Nevertheless, the Zunsheng Bajian still noted in 1592, "For arranging plum flowers in wintertime, Longquan large vases are a necessity-" During the late Ming, the greenish color of celadon was still highly recognized as a staple in the daily life of the literati.

“When foreign envoys arrived in the Ming court to pay tribute, they received many goods as forms of reward. This gave rise to the unique phenomenon of using political relationships of tribute and rewards to conduct international trade. Ceramics were among the most coveted items as a reward. Some nations declared that they valued ceramics more than top quality silks. Some nations' envoys even traveled to the Longquan area in order to purchase ceramic wares directly and resell them in other markets. Longquan wares have also been discovered among goods recovered from sunken ships, further demonstrating their popularity during this period. Many nations also started to imitate the ceramic wares of the Longquan kiln, adding local characteristics to ornament their industry's wares

Ancient Porcelain and Celadon Kiln Sites in Zhejiang

The Ancient Porcelain Kiln Sites in Zhejiang province were nominated to be a UNESCO World Heritage site in.2013. Description. They consist of 1) Yue Kiln Sites at Shanglin Lake ( N 30°07 50", E 121°19'35''); 2) Longquan Kiln Sites at Dayao (N 27°56 16", E 119°0 08"); 3) Xikou (N 27°54 35", E 118°59 07"); 4) Jincun Village (N 27°48 50", E 119°0 03"); and 5) Yangqiaotou (N27°51 10", E 119°1 55") [Source: National Commission of the People's Republic of China for UNESCO, People’s Republic of China]

According to a report submitted to UNESCO: “The Ancient Porcelain Kiln Site in China includes the serial representative sites of ancient Chinese celadon-producing kilns from the 1st to the 17th century. They are located in Zhejiang Province, a concentrated area of celadon production in China, with Yue Kiln Sites at Shanglin Lake and Longquan Kiln Sites at Dayao as two quintessence. The colossal scale and profuse historical remains of the sites substantiate the invention and lineage of the time-honored celadon making tradition of China.

“The Yue Kiln Sites at Shanglin Lake are situated in the northeast of Zhejiang Province in China’s southeast coastal region. The sites include the Shanglin lake area and Silongkou kiln ruins extending to an area around 231.69 ha, surrounding the water system of the Shanglin Lake and Guyinding Lake, where 116 sites have been discovered so far. There are abundant remains of porcelain shards accumulated on the ground, buried workshops, kilns and other remains of production facilities, as well as historic settings related to porcelain production including porcelain clay zone, firewood resource zone, slopes where kilns were located, water sources and transport waterways.

“Representing the outstanding creative genius of ancient Chinese people, porcelain has a unique symbolic association with Chinese civilization and culture in the world. In Chinese porcelain history, celadon boasts the longest period of production, the widest scope of technical dissemination and the richest varieties of products. Yue Kiln of Shanglin Lake in Cixi and Longquan Kiln of Dayao in Longquan represent two prime times of the celadon development in China from the 8th to the 13th century (the late Tang Dynasty to the Song Dynasty). The sites have well-preserved porcelain making remains such as tremendous accumulation of porcelain shards, workshop remains, kiln remains and remnant tools, and historic settings related to celadon production. They have witnessed the formation and development of celadon industry in China from the 1st to the 17th century, present mainstream technologies and unique artistic achievements in this regard, represent the highest level of celadon production since the Tang Dynasty (the 8th century), and reveal an important development stage of the industry in ancient China. As a result, they have an incomparable place in Chinese porcelain history. Marking a significant juncture of human civilization and cultural evolution, these sites influenced not only the porcelain industry of China but also those of the rest of Asia and North Africa.

“Celadon is the most broadly spread, the most influential porcelain genre with the longest history in the world. Representing the paramount of celadon art evolving from the Tang Dynasty, Five Dynasties, Song, Yuan to Ming dynasties (from the 8th to the 16th century), the Yue Kiln of Shanglin Lake and Longquan Kiln of Dayao had become the most influential of the kind in Chinese history of celadon production. Since the 9th century, its ingenuity has affected significantly the porcelain production in Korean Peninsula, Egypt, Persian region and Japanese Archipelago, promoted the development of the porcelain industry worldwide, hence contributed to the material civilization and the culture of mankind.

“The Ancient Porcelain Kiln Site in China has a long porcelain production history, colossal relics and profuse heritage elements, which provide unique evidence of the porcelain tradition originating in China, passed down, spread and developed throughout the world. The porcelain craftsmanship and its products invented in China, have exerted a profound influence on the lifestyle of Chinese and global people in the past nearly 2,000 years. The porcelain production and wide use of porcelain products also shape a cultural tradition of global significance.

“By far, the Ancient Porcelain Kiln Site in China, all located in the hilly area in south China, form a cluster of celadon production boasting the longest history, the largest scale and the most concentrated kilns. Within the area, there are numerous accumulations of shards, sites of kiln hearths, workshop remains as well as other environmental elements related to the site-selection of kilns such as the topography, water resources, porcelain clay material, firing materials and porcelain transport. All of them constitute a unique geomorphic landscape and provide prominent evidence of the celadon development history. Therefore, they are outstanding examples of celadon production sites and occupy an irreplaceable status in the world ceramic history.”

History of the Porcelain Sites in Zhejiang Province

According to the report submitted to UNESCO: Yue Kiln: Sites at Shanglin Lake established in the Eastern Han Dynasty (1st century) was one of the earliest cradles of porcelain making of China, representing the best art form of China’s celadon production during the Tang Dynasty and the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms Period (8th-10thcenturies), and was celadon production center of the Tang and the Song dynasties. As the extraordinary artisanship of the ancient Chinese porcelain, the Yue Kiln Sites at Shanglin Lake is one of significant kiln complex in Chinese celadon production history, and had a profound impact on the development of celadon making across China, Japan and the Korean Peninsula.

“Following Yue Kiln, the Longquan Kiln Sites at Dayao is a celadon production center emerged during the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms Period. Occupying an area around 511.9 ha, it is situated in the regions of today’s Xiaomei Town and Chatian Town of Longquan City in Zhejiang Province, where 126 sites have been found by far. There are abundant porcelain making remains including accumulation of porcelain shards, remains of workshops, kilns, porcelain-making tools, and celadon related historic settings including porcelain clay zone, firewood resources zone, slopes where kilns were located, water sources, and transport waterways. They evidence the kiln’s prime time, scattering a broad area, abundant workshops and kilns and other production facilities, as well as large numbers of products of high quality. Flourishing in the Northern Song Dynasty and reaching its prime from the Southern Song Dynasty to mid-Ming Dynasty, it once became the largest porcelain production center of the country, was the mainstream craftsmanship of celadon making summit in Chinese history. Its unique artistic achievement sets an exemplar of intangible cultural heritage of mankind. With the paper-thin body, thick glazes like jade and purple rim and cinnabar base of works, Yue Kiln, known as Ge Kiln and Di Kiln in Song Dynasty, was one of the Five Prestigious Kilns of Song Dynasty.

“From the 9th to the 16th century, works of Yue Kiln and Longquan Kiln were not only supplied to the imperial court and domestic folk life, but also exported to other countries and regions of Asia, Africa and Europe. Making great contributions to the development of the world civilization, its craftsmanship and products had exerted a prominent influence on ceramic production in many places of China and other regions in East Asia, Southeast Asia and North Africa.”

Image Sources: Palace Museum, Taipei, McClung Museum, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Text Sources: Palace Museum, Taipei, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated November 2021

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