The Unrivalled Green of Celadon Porcelain
From July 6 to September 9, the Museum of Chinese Gardens and Landscape Architecture and Suining Museum are jointly hosting an exhibition, showcasing 100 porcelain wares from a kiln of the Song Dynasty (AD 960–1279).
In 1991, as a farmer in Jinyu Village of Suining, Sichuan Province worked in his field, it felt like he had struck something with his hoe, something buried in the ground. This serendipitous event led to the discovery of an ancient kiln, a treasure trove from the Southern Song Dynasty (1127– 1279) stunning archaeologists and ancient porcelain experts alike.
When the hoe struck the field, it cut off one of the two dragon-shaped ears of a celadon-glazed incense burner in the shape of a gui (an ancient food container). There was more to be found. A total of 985 porcelain objects dating back to the Southern Song Dynasty, including 357 celadon porcelain pieces, 598 celadon-andwhite porcelain pieces, 28 white porcelain pieces and two black porcelain pieces were unearthed from the kiln. This summer, the Museum of Chinese Gardens and Landscape Architecture and Suining Museum are jointly hosting the Exhibition of Ceramic Masterpieces from the Southern Song Kilns, putting 100 porcelain masterpieces of the Song Dynasty (AD 960–1279) from the discovered kiln on display.
As Song culture prospered, so too did the aesthetic taste of the aristocratic class, represented by the royal family, become elevated to an unprecedented height. Their pursuit for the beauty of natural landscapes fuelled the rise of the era's exquisite celadon porcelain. Centuries later, those unearthed ceramic masterpieces demonstrate the elegance in Song Dynasty porcelain ware. These wares feature distinctively coloured glaze and shapes, reflecting the superb ceramic making skills and the unique glamour and aesthetics of scholars and officials at the time. The exhibition, held at the Museum of Chinese Gardens and Landscape Architecture, is open from July 6 to September 9.
Mementos of the Song Dynasty
Kiln collections have unique legacies, unlike those from funeral objects and cultural relics discovered in other historical sites. Their emergence is frequently due to such disasters as wars and cholera outbreaks, and reflects the economic and cultural environments of their respective periods. For instance, most kilns of the Shang (16th century–11th century BC) and Zhou (11th century–771 BC) dynasties were used to collect bronze wares, those of the Tang Dynasty (AD 618–907) used to collect items in gold and silver, while those of the Liao (AD 916–1125), Song, Jin (1115–1234) and Yuan (1271–1368) dynasties held porcelain objects.
The collectors could have been merchants, aristocrats, officials or ordinary civilians. The majority of the porcelain
wares found in Jinyu Village came from Longquan Kiln and Jingdezhen Kiln. These wares boast immaculate quality and diverse shape—some types having dozens of pieces each. Local residents primarily used native porcelain products from the Qiong Kiln, Cifeng Kiln and Liulichang Kiln. Despite the fact that they were buried underground for centuries, those unused porcelain wares remain intact. Among them, one bears inscriptions resembling a trademark. Experts have conjectured that those porcelain pieces were commissioned items, and their collector was most likely a merchant or an aristocrat.
Most porcelain objects on display came from the Longquan Kiln and Jingdezhen Kiln, both renowned during the Song Dynasty. The Longquan Kiln derived its name from its location in Longquan City, Zhejiang Province. It lasted 1,600 years and is considered the longest-standing and most influential kiln in the history of Chinese ceramics. Historical records show that ceramics reached their zenith during the Song Dynasty. Longquan was home to the most kilns in the nation, which testifies to the prosperity of ceramics at the time.
During the Southern Song, celadon porcelain from the Longquan Kiln was inspired by ancient bronze wares while incorporating the styles used in governmental kilns. Longquan was noted for the azure glaze of its celadon porcelain. During the Southern Song Dynasty, artisans invented an alkali-lime glaze to enhance the texture of celadon porcelain. After firing, this glaze glitters with verdant lustre like jade, translucent and elegant. This was a change from the Northern Song Dynasty (AD 960–1127), when pink-blue porcelain was more popular.
The celadon-and-white porcelain from the Jingdezhen Kiln features blue and white glaze. During the Northern Song, local ceramists improved on white porcelain, inventing celadon-and-white. Boasting a subtle texture, this porcelain looks as translucent as jade. As it uses less iron, the porcelain's clear glaze glitters with blue lustre, like an “azure sky and distant forested mountains at dusk, or a green, calm lake surrounded by meadows in spring,” capturing the beauty of celadon porcelain.
Cultural Legacies of Sichuan
Called the plum vase, it features a slim, graceful body and emanates a sense of elegant calmness. Initially, it meant to hold plum branches, but the vase takes on new life with a bouquet of plum flowers, hence the name.
One of the first sights at the exhibition is a celadon-and-white porcelain plum vase, drawing the eye with its designs of intertwined branches and flowers. A product of the Jingdezhen Kiln during the Southern Song Dynasty, it boasts elegant, translucent glaze and clear decorative patterns wrapped in patterns of buds, branches and vines. It's a design that is rare among ancient porcelain objects. During the Song Dynasty plum vases were called sutra vases and used to contain wine. These unearthed containers had at some point lost their covers, relegating their use to vases.
People during the Song Dynasty were not always in favour of utensils with simple designs. The celadon-and-white octagonal censer in the shape of a ding (an ancient cooking vessel) from the Jingdezhen Kiln is both ostentatious and gorgeous. The octagonal censer features beast-shaped feet and ring ears on the belly of the vessel. The exquisite yet unsophisticated decorations on the 15-centimetre (cm)-tall censer demonstrate the superb aesthetic taste of the ancient Chinese.
During this period, decorative patterns advocated natural beauty and a sense of elegance. For instance, the Jingdezhen celadon-and-white porcelain bottle with an everted mouth, long neck and flat, tumid belly fully displays the classic texture of celadon-and-white porcelain, translucent as ice and jade. In addition to its graceful shape and fluid outlines, it could be used as a desk ornament or flower vase. An ornamental masterpiece, the bottle hails from the Southern Song Dynasty.
One of only a few black-glazed objects on display is a black-glazed tea cup with a mouth in the shape of a mu (a man's cap used in ancient times) from the Tushan Kiln. Its exterior base and feet are unglazed, while the glaze on its mouth is something of a brownish blue. The Song Dynasty produced a large quantity of tea cups, owing to the prevalent pastime of “tea contests” at the time. To prepare tea during the Song Dynasty, semi-fermented tea cakes were first ground into powder, then soaked in a cup with hot water. The quality of the tea was judged according to the state of the tea powder. High-quality tea powders would cluster around the inner wall of the cup, known as “gnawing the cup,” while low-quality tea powders would scatter and form a white water mark on the inner wall of the cup. In “tea contests,” checking the water mark was of utmost importance. As white water marks were more clear on black-glazed tea cups, this resulted in the popularity of black-glazed
tea cups during the Song Dynasty.
Water basins, a kind of study utensil, are used to add water to an inkstone. They can also be used as ornaments, placed on a desk or cabinet. Usually small and exquisite, they demonstrate their owners' aesthetic taste. Two toad-shaped tripod water basins were unearthed from Jinyu Village. “Plucking cinnamon flowers in the Palace of the Toad” is a metaphor for “succeeding in the imperial examination.” Placing such a water basin on one's desk and reading at its side brought encouragement, representing both an aspiration and a prayer.
The Jingdezhen celadon-and-white porcelain inkstone water- dropper with a pear-shaped body carved with a dragon pattern was particularly favoured by high-flyers. Despite its modest size—8.1 cm in diameter and 8.3 cm in height, its curling dragon waving four claws and swaying its whiskers could inspire courage and heroism.
As sales continued to grow, many famous kilns and porcelain objects emerged. Of the ancient kiln sites scattered around China's 170 counties, 130 belonged to the Song Dynasty. The five most renowned kilns of those were the Ding Kiln, Ru Kiln, Guan Kiln, Ge Kiln, and Jun Kiln. Other famous names included the Cizhou, Jizhou, Longquan, and Jingdezhen kilns.
Pleasant Floral Colours
Like time capsules, these precious collections bring the beauty of centuries past back into the light of the present. People of the Song Dynasty often cared for and cultivated flowers. To that end, there is no shortage of wares with lively floral décor in this collection.
The Jingdezhen tripod-style furnace with green white glaze, carved lotus stalks, leaves and flowers patterns dating from the Northern Song Dynasty imitates the modelling of bronze tripods during the Zhou Dynasty (11th century–256 BC) and Shang Dynasty (16th –11th century BC). Its carved lotus flowers and leaves on its shoulders are typical of features in the era, and its legs, in the form of beasts, abounds among such antiques. The two styles blend naturally, owing to the exceptional skills and rich imagination of Song Dynasty ceramicists.
During the Southern Song Dynasty, the use of flowers became heartier and more natural. Walking by the exhibition cabinets, one finds it difficult to ignore a particular green and white shallowbellied bowl with its unglazed-rim and printed double phoenix patterns from the Jingdezhen Kiln. Appearing on the bowl is a rarely seen pattern of flowers in pots and vases. The crisscrossing flowers on the walls of the bowl contrast splendidly with the double phoenixes at its base. The patterns and décor are complicated, yet not chaotic. A closer look at the details reveals its flexible and romantic charm.
Another common sight on porcelain during the Song Dynasty was patterns of lotus petals. This was especially true of Longquan Kiln wares during the Southern Song. With exquisite skills the forbears of the art created lotus petals that were plump and protruding, depicting ridges in the petals with great detail. After firing, those layers at different depths are clearly shown. Like real petals, the textures of these clear, shallow lotus petals loom under the glaze colour, giving a reserved and touching feeling.
With its printed pattern of “rhinos viewing the moon,” a Jingdezhen bronze cover plate with green white glaze has lotus flower patterns that complement its seven-star design. With simple, clean techniques, the Southern Song Dynasty ware lightly contours the vast universe. Such a composition is rare among Song Dynasty porcelain. In this plate are quietly revealed the folk beliefs and aesthetic concepts held so long ago.
The daylily, also known as “grass good for men,” represents the ancients' wishes to have offspring, and is a common decorative pattern. To be “free from vulgarity,” a ware must have a unique element in its production procedure. One such example is the Jingdezhen green white glazed plate with unglazed rim and carved flowers with daylily patterns. To contour its double lines, the internal bittern of the Southern Song Dynasty plate is decorated with daylily patterns using a unique modelling. The mild, liberal and natural layout made whole with its fine and smooth lines display superb carving skills. Set off by the green white glaze, the daylilies symbolise the livelihood and other folk matters of the era with ancient, elegant charm.
Continuing and Converting Traditions
In ancient China there were rites using jade discs to worship the heaven, and cong (a cylindrical jade ware with a round interior and a square exterior) to worship the earth. Cong unearthed have clearly delineated
lines, and a demeanour of grandeur. In this exhibition is a Longquan cong- style vase with green glaze from the Southern Song Dynasty. By combining the dignified and antique cong modelling and the reserved glaze colours unique to the Longquan Kiln, this ware takes on a demeanour both elegant and regal, retaining antique charms while incorporating the beauty of porcelain. Among collections from Southern Song Dynasty kilns, cong- style vases have so far only been found in Suining. This item is usually kept in the Suining Museum.
A likely Jin Dynasty (1115–1234) ware is a green glazed plate from the Yaozhou Kiln, prominently displaying carved flowers and wave patterns. Inside the plate, flowers were engraved with a bizi (a double-edge fine-toothed comb) technique. During its production, a bizi- like tool was used to engrave complex lines, producing a wavelike decorative effect. Another Longquan ware at the exhibition, a ridged melon-type vase with green glaze, was made imitating designs from the official kilns. The Southern Song Dynasty vase has a belly with a reverse-ridge shape using concave-convex curves. Its glaze colour is bright and warm, while the modelling caters to both folk interests and the temperaments and interests of scholars, making it suitable for both refined and popular tastes.
Another interesting addition is the bamboo hat-type porcelain bowls, which were used as tea drinking utensils during the Southern Song Dynasty. Produced in the Longquan, Ding and Jingdezhen Kilns, the most prominent feature of these “bamboo hat” bowls is its thin body. Thin-bodied porcelain appeared with the influence of gold and silver wares. In pursuit of such refined thinness, Chinese artisans began trying to make porcelain bodies thinner as early as the Tang Dynasty (AD 618–907), creating wares with textures different from the past.
At the end of the exhibition, several paintings come into view. These were made of porcelain pieces from famous kilns during the Song Dynasty and Yuan dynasties (1271–1368), especially “Magnolia,” made primarily from old pieces of porcelain from the Ding Kiln and Jun Kiln. The full, ivorywhite petals gather into flowers, which are then stringed together by old twigs. These porcelain remnants add layers to the base of the paintings, making them plain and elegant, yet not singular. A shallow bend of a porcelain piece becomes a pleasant petal of the whole flower. Nearby is another painting with porcelain in the style of “Irises” by Dutch painter Vincent Van Gogh (1853–1890). After it's given colour, a glance reveals the painting it imitates. Despite the changes in colour, the porcelain bodies of the painting still show through. The smooth, refined and dense body texture is indeed similar to fine, smooth petals.
Displayed in this exhibition are also ancient porcelain fragments from famous kilns, so that visitors can have a glimpse at the interiors of ancient porcelain wares. Found on some porcelain pieces are fragmented flowers or leaves. Looking on, one cannot help thinking of their splendours in their completeness, the demeanour of the houses held by Song Dynasty peoples and their composed yet splendid presence in paintings.
“Like the azure sky with a setting sun, the faraway mountains present its evening green. Resembling the limpid and bluish green water in the flat lake, the light grass shows the early spring.” Looking back at the exhibition hall, one finds that the exhibition cabinets have white on the tops and green at the base, like a cleansed sky reflecting the clear and elegant ancient porcelain in the exhibition. The elaborate collections from the kilns from these Song Dynasty forebears of the art have sustained the endless reverie of generations.
A furnace with green white glaze, carved lotus stalks, leaves and flowers patterns
A tripod-style furnace with green glaze
A green glaze vase with five tubes
A cong- style vase with green glaze