The Un­ri­valled Green of Ce­ladon Porce­lain

Beijing (English) - - CONTENTS - Trans­lated by Liu Haile Edited by Scott Bray Pho­tos by Zhao Meng

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

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