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  • Song Dynasty Celadon: The Five Great Kilns
  • Amy Covey
  • Tea HistoryTeaware

Song Dynasty Celadon: The Five Great Kilns

Song Dynasty Celadon: The Five Great Kilns

China has a long history of ceramic artistry. In the Song Dynasty, around the same time that Chinese literati were developing tea culture into an art form, potters across China were creating the first true celadon glazes, colored with iron oxides and fired at high temperatures. The aesthetics of these early potters would become legendary, retaining popularity even into the modern day. Later writers in the Ming and Qing dynasty identified Five Great Kilns of the Song Dynasty, memorializing these styles and securing their legacy. Ever since, these distinct celadon glazes have been coveted and imitated, forming the inspiration for potters throughout history, in China and across the world.

Ru Ware

The first, and perhaps most legendary, of the Five Great Kilns was the Ru Kiln. A kiln site discovered in the 1950s in Henan was the production site for all Ru wares, though the large compound also made ceramic works in other contemporary styles. The high quality Ru ware pieces were reserved exclusively for imperial use, with some sources claiming that any pieces deemed subpar were immediately destroyed.

Ru wares are characterized by their celadon glaze, which is always a soft bluish hue with hints of green. Authentic Ru ware pieces were also fully covered with glaze, including both the rim and base of the piece. The all-over color and thick, unctuous glaze texture created a resemblance to jade, the most revered material in Chinese art, and a common symbol of the emperor. To prevent the glaze from fusing the piece to the shelves or protective saggars in the kiln, each glazed piece was set on small spurs, which left small “sesame seed” dots in the smooth surface of each glazed base. 

Ru ware bowl with lotus petal shape on display at the National Palace Museum in Taipei.

Ru wares are also notable for a network of fine crackling in the surface of the glaze, which has been considered aesthetically desirable in Chinese celadons ever since. However, there is some evidence that this effect was not originally intentional, and Ru pieces without this crackling effect were actually considered more valuable. Today, there are less than 100 intact examples of authentic Ru Kiln work, as the kiln site and glaze recipe were lost in the fall of the Northern Song Dynasty.

Jun Ware

At the same kiln site in Henan, the earliest examples of Jun ware can also be found. These pieces were glazed in a light blue, similar to the color of Ru ware. But Jun ware glazes were made with lime, which separated from the silica in the glaze to create multiple layers of glass, as well as microscopic bubbles, within the glaze surface. Together, these effects created an opalescent texture in the Jun ware celadons.

Unlike Ru wares, Jun style pottery continued to develop throughout the Yuan and into the Ming dynasty, with “official” Jun wares commissioned by the Yuan imperial court. These later examples used copper oxide on top of the light blue glaze to create splotchy patterns of purple or red. The “official” wares produced for imperial use are also characterized by a streaking pattern on the surface, referred to as “worm tracks” in Chinese. This distinctive texture is often used to separate authentic antiques from later imitations, as the effect is not easily replicated.

Jun ware displayed at LACMA. Note "worm track" texture in purple, and contrast between interior and exterior glaze.

Released to public domain by LACMA. See page for author. via Wikimedia Commons

Jun glazes were also applied differently from Ru glazes, as they seem to have been more likely to move and drip during firing. The result is a glaze that is very thin or even absent from the rim of the piece, but thick near the bottom, where the glaze has flowed during the firing process. In contrast to the all-over glaze of Ru ware, Jun ware usually has a tall ring of bare clay at the base of the piece to allow space for this glaze movement.

Guan Ware

With the establishment of the Southern Song Dynasty after the fall of the Northern Song, efforts were made to replicate the fabled Ru celadons of years past. It is theorized that many potters fled south along with the imperial court, and were thereafter commissioned to produce Guan, or “official” celadon ware, for use in the palace. But with different materials and kilns, the imitations developed a new aesthetic.

Rather than only the soft blue-green hues of Ru wares, Guan ware was glazed in a variety of colors ranging from pale ivory to browns and greys. In addition, the crackling effects within the glaze were deliberately emphasized, and many bowls and dishes were decorated with lobed rims. There are three widely accepted levels of quality within this style, with the most prized in a grey-blue glaze with widely spaced crackles. Next best was a greenish color with even, dense crackles, followed by a pale grey brown with very small crackles.

Guan ware plate at the Metropolitan Museum of Art shows wide crackles and a blue tone

Released to public domain by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, via metmuseum.com

This “official” imperial celadon was so highly regarded that it’s production continued well into the Ming Dynasty, and today it is considered the most commonly imitated style of Chinese pottery.

Ding Ware

The distinctive white color of Ding wares was made possible with the advent of coal firing, which increased the firing temperature beyond what was possible with wood. Though the glaze formulations for these white wares was actually developed much earlier, during the Tang Dynasty, it originally emerged a light blue after firing in a wood kiln, since more oxygen was present. Ding wares were actually produced in a variety of colors, including black, red, brown, gold, and green, but there are few if any intact examples of these colorful Ding glazes.

In contrast to the other styles on this list, Ding ware is also known for decorative moldings or engravings, a dramatic departure from the austere forms seen in Ru, Jun, or Guan ware. In order to fully glaze the bottom of the pot, glaze was wiped from the rim, leaving a rough clay texture at the top that was usually covered with a metal band, creating a characteristic band of contrast. Pieces with rough rims or “teardrops” of color in the ivory glaze were considered unfit for imperial use by the late Southern Song Dynasty, but Ding wares found a reliable audience among the scholars and wealthy merchants of China.

Ding ware molded plate displayed at LACMA. White glazes required higher firing temperatures.

Released to public domain by LACMA. See page for author. via Wikimedia Commons

The clay body used for Ding ware was also white, being made with the same kaolin found in porcelain today. With it’s high firing temperature, it fits the definition of “porcelain” in the Chinese nomenclature, but it would not fit the stricter European definition, as it is not particularly thin, and never translucent as with modern porcelains. It did have an undeniable impact on the white porcelain wares developed later in Jingdezhen, where porcelain as we know it today was discovered and refined.

Ge Ware

It is hotly debated among collectors whether Ge ware deserves a unique designation, because it is almost identical in style to the previously mentioned Guan ware of the Southern Song Dynasty. One popular theory is that this style was developed as a contemporary Yuan Dynasty version of the southern Guan wares, but since both were produced in a variety of locations, the distinction is dubious.

It is generally accepted, though, that Ge celadons are even more muted in color than Guan wares, with a spectrum ranging from ivory to grey or brown, with little of the green or blue shades found in other styles. As with Guan ware, the crackling of the glaze was a deliberate effect, and examples of Ge ware often display two different crazing patterns within a single glaze. One set of crackles is larger, widely spaced, and darker, while the second is lighter, more golden in color, with a tighter pattern of cracks. This “double crackle” was highly prized.

Ge ware at the Metropolitan Museum of Art shows two crackles, one large and dark and the other dense and golden.

Released to public domain by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, via metmuseum.com

Ge ware also used a distinctive dark clay, which was revealed on the foot and sometimes at the rim, where the glaze was thin or the clay was left bare. Later imitations made in Jingdezhen during the Ming Dynasty replicate this dark clay effect by painting the exposed areas of their pure white clay with a darker, liquified clay called slip.

Though all of these styles eventually faded in popularity with the rise of blue and white porcelain in the Ming Dynasty, these five great kilns were foundational in the development of Chinese ceramic arts and celadons. Even today, ceramic artists like Xu De Jia are heavily inspired by these historical styles of pottery, applying traditional techniques and glazes to more modern forms like the teapot. As with the intricate tea services of Song Dynasty literati, these unique celadon ceramics are a lasting legacy of Chinese culture.


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  • Amy Covey
  • Tea HistoryTeaware

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