An Introduction to Early Chinese Celadons

Professor Zhu Boqian, a world-renowned expert on Zhejiang greenware, visited Singapore to give a series of talks in Nov-Dec 1997.

For the benefit of the English-speaking audience, Dr. Chiew Seen Kong undertook the arduous task of translating all six of Professor Zhu’s talks. Below is a summary of these talks, which Dr. Chiew contributed to the SEACS newsletter Volume 4, number 1 (April 2000).

High-fired Chinese ceramics in green glaze are often known as celadons in the English language. Celadons have a very long history and come in great varieties having been produced at thousands of kilns located in many provinces in ancient China. Professor Zhu's talks discussed Yue, Wuzhou, Guan, Longquan, Yaozhou and Ou celadons as well as 'Mi Se' and tribute wares.

Yue [越] and Wuzhou [婺州] Celadons

Proto-porcelains in green glazes of various shades were first produced during the Shan Dynasty (16C – c. 1050 BCE). Mature greenwares were made during the Eastern Han Dynasty (CE 25-220) at kilns in Zhejiang, Jiangxi and Hunan Provinces. The best known kiln systems producing these early celadons were the Yue and Wuzhou kilns. So far [1997], more than 700 Yue kilns have been uncovered dating from the Eastern Han to the Song (960-1279), and more than 500 Wuzhou kilns have been located dating from the Eastern Han to the Yuan (1279-1368).

At different points in time, Yue celadons differed from Wuzhou celadons in many ways such as their form, decorative motifs, craftsmanship and use or non-use of a white slip below the glaze.

Some of the major differences are:

  1. During the period from the Three Kingdoms (220-265) to the Jin (265-420), the Yue kilns manufactured granaries and other agricultural forms such as mills, grindstones, etc. as funerary wares in accordance with local customs. These forms were seldom made at the Wuzhou kilns. On the other hand, the Wuzhou kilns produced celadons in the following forms (which were seldom made at the Yue kilns during this same period): tripod jars, cylindrical jars, jars with small mouths, brush holders, pigsties with gabled roofs and ewers with sheep-head spouts.
  2. During the Six Dynasties (220-580), Wuzhou wares had a white layer between the biscuit and the green glaze. From the late Western Jim (265-316) to the Tang (618-906), Wuzhou wares had a white slip applied under the green glaze. In both cases, the white substance or slip can be seen as white lines or sots through the glazed cracks. No slip was used for Yue celadons.

Yue and Wuzhou celadons also had some features in common:

  1. During the Three Kingdoms, both wares were decorated with incised bands encircling the bodies and appliqués of animal masks or Buddhist figures.
  2. From the late Three Kingdoms to the Western Jin, cross-hatching and bands of circles (or ‘pearls’) were popular motifs.
  3. During the Eastern Jin (317-420) both Yue and Wuzhou celadons were decorated with brown spots.

Mi Se [秘色] Celadons

In 1988, the underground chamber of the Famen Pagoda, Fufeng prefecture, Shanxi Province, was discovered. There were 14 mi se or ‘secret colour’ wares in the chamber. A tablet in the chamber described them as mi se wares. These mi se wares are also green wares and they were made by the weak Wuyue state headed by the Qian lineage as gifts to strong states, from the late Tang to the Northern Song (960-1127). The green glaze is said to look like lake water.

Famensi

Guan [罐] Celadons

Southern Song Guan

Guan celadons were manufactured during the Northern Song and the Southern Song (1127-1279). These were ‘imperial’ wares made for the Song courts. The twin kilns which produced the S. Song Guan celadons were located in Jiaotanxian, just outside of Hanzhou city where the imperial capital of the S. Song was sited. Jiaotanxia celadons came in two varieties:

  1. Those with a thin biscuit and thin celadon glaze, and
  2. Those with a thin biscuit and a thick celadon glaze. Around the end of the 12th century, this latter type had as many as three to five layers of green glaze applied on the body, with each layer of glaze applied and fired one at a time.

The fired biscuit of the foot rim ranges from deep grey to greyish brown in colour giving rise to the name ‘iron foot’.

The thin and yellow varieties of Guan celadons produced small crackles while the thick and green varieties had few crackles.

Longquan [龙泉] Celadons

Longquan celadons are well known in Southeast Asia and elsewhere. They were first produced during the Three Kingdoms and reached their peak during the middle part of the S. Song when the Longquan kilns adopted the technology and craftmanship of the Jiaotanxia imperial kilns, producing celadons with multiple layers of glaze and Guan imperial forms. They were produced in two varieties:

  1. A thick glaze on a white biscuit, and
  2. A thick glaze on a black biscuit. Only a small quantity of this second type were produced. 

The famous Longquan celadons were described as fen qing [粉青] (powder green) and mei qing [梅青] (plum green as it resembles the colour of green plums). From the Yuan onward, the glaze became thin and appeared mainly yellowish or greyish green. Longquan celadons declined during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) and their production ceased during the Qing (1644-1911).

Longquan (courtesy: ACM)

Yaozhou [耀州] Celadons

Yaozhou celadons first appeared during the Tang. The Yaozhou kilns began to specialize in the production of greenwares from the Five Dynasties and the Song Dynasty. Yaozhou celadons were also made for the Song courts and achieved fame during the Song for their beautifully carved motifs and jade-like green glazes.

Yaozhou, Song Dynasty, courtesy: ACM
Yaozhou vase, Song Dynasty, courtesy: ACM

Ou Celadons

More than 200 Ou [欧] kilns have been discovered and most of them were found in the foothills of Oujiang and Feiyunjiang, Zhejiang Province. Ou wares were first produced during the Eastern Han. Ou wares were known as piao or light green wares. The biscuit is white or greyish white. Ou wares were basically like Yue celadons. They declined during the Song and became coarse. From the late N. Song onward, Ou kins switched to the production of Longquan-like celadons and Jingdezhen-like yingqing or greenish white wares in order to meet domestic and export demand.