Meditation & Health #13-The Ancient Art of Song Pottery: Relaxing the Mind and Body

Meditation & Health No 13 - Table of Contents



The Ancient Art of Song Pottery:

Relaxing the Mind and Body

                                          By Awal Kam and Alyssa Sands


    Ceramics is a broad term that includes earthenware, bone ware and porcelain. Ceramics describes any article made of natural clay hardened by heat. The quality of the clay and the temperature and duration at which the clay is baked determines the type of ceramic that is produced.

    To the tea connoisseur, enjoying a breathtaking cup of tea goes beyond the quality of the tea; the joy in brewing and sipping tea is incomplete without an aesthetic teapot and bowls. Such is the art of tea appreciation that dates back to ancient times when ceramic pottery brought to light the aesthetics of teapots, transforming the formless into form — the quintessential transformation of earth into shapes, lines, glazes and colors that tickle the mind, and which in turn transform the tea leaves into a drink that relaxes the body.

    However, genuine ceramics such as those from the famous Five Classic Kilns — Ru, Ding, Guan, Jun and Ge — of the Song Dynasty (960 – 1279 AD) are now a rare find. Collectors today are content to have in hand prototypes of the Imperial Song collection made at Jingdezhen. Only about 70 pieces of genuine Ru ware have been discovered by archaeologists and are kept in museums around the world.


Chinese Ceramics:Appreciation Drives the Dream


    Antiques excavated from a Paleolithic/Neolithic cave site in Jiangxi province in the 1960s and the 1990s revealed that pottery actually dates back 20,000 years to the prehistoric Stone Age, when ceramics could only be developed using the most primitive stone tools. Since then, interest in pottery art has driven development of Chinese ceramics, especially during the Song Dynasty, from bricks to hand-built clay vessels baked in bonfires or kilns,and to the sophisticated porcelain which added the mineral kaolinite to clay, better known as “china.”


     In the early 18th century Pere Francois Xavier d’Entrecolles, a Jesuit missionary and industrial spy who disguised himself as a worker in Jingdezhen, wrote details on the development techniques of pottery, from the refining of kaolin clay to firing and glazing. He also expressed his motives: “Nothing but my curiosity could have prompted me to do such research, but it appears to me that a minute description of all that concerns this kind of work might be useful in Europe.” True enough, the expressions of ceramic art have now not only captured appreciation in China but in the world.

    Since the early Han Dynasty, the town of Jingdezhen has been known for its pottery production. In 1004 AD during the rule of Song, Jingdezhen was established as the main production hub for Imperial porcelain. Thanks to Emperor Zhou Shizong’s artistic inclination, the art of pottery heightened during his rule of the Song Dynasty projecting the essence of their people, values and inspiration, thus the birth of the famous Five Classic Kilns. The appreciation and demand of the palace spread from Northern Song to Southern Song and inspired the creativity and technological advancement of ceramics: a perfect integration of aesthetics such as shape, decoration and glaze with that of potting techniques and firing processes.

    The appreciation and demands inspired potters to dream and drove them to success. As Grandmaster JinBodhi said, “Even if a dream has an element of self-deception, it can motivate us to move forward happily and bravely. When your heart is full of infinite expectations, you yourself are the hope. Sometimes, your hope can conquer all difficulties.” Potters of the Song Dynasty lived up to their dreams.

    It was also during the Song period that the brownish-black glazed tea bowls received wide-spread appreciation, as Fujian tea and tea-drinking became part of daily life throughout Chinese society. While talented and creative potters ventured into various utensils and crockery, and even vases and figurines, the sharing of knowledge and ownership of exquisite pottery pieces made by the well-known kilns became a must-have for the rich. In April 2008, a Song Dynasty ceramic vase was sold for a hefty price of £5.5 million (US$8.3 million), a record which was overtaken in subsequent years by other more treasured Song Dynasty ceramics of the Five Classic Kilns.



Jun Ware: The Unique Rainbow


    Jun ware was a favorite of the Northern Song court. Research indicated that all pieces rejected by the Song court had been smashed and buried. Hence, Jun ware is now so rare that there is a saying among pottery experts: “Gold is tagged with a price, but Jun ware is priceless.”

    Jun is differentiated for its unique style of opaque porcelain splashed with a glaze of a selected color: rose purple, begonia red, eggplant purple, fresh green, sky blue and beige. With a body thicker than Ding or Ru ware, Jun was famous for its thick and viscous-looking red and purple glazes that appear to be immersed in its golden-brown body, better known as “Jun Purple” and “Jun Red.”

    Emperor Qianlong lauded in a poem that the “Jun Red” is akin to the serene rainbow, incomparable to any other red pottery in the world. The red is a transformation made possible by fire, a natural factor presenting a gift that is unpredictable and beyond imagination. Likewise for every other Jun ware, no same piece can be reborn, just like the rainbow.

    Imitation of the pear-shaped Guanyin vase, a famous Jun ware, is exceptionally popular today, although an exact replica can never be produced. Looking at this pear-shaped vase, one naturally visualizes the legendary Bodhisattva Guanyin holding so elegantly the narrow neck of the Divine vase and sprinkling holy water endlessly to fulfil her vow to bless whoever calls upon her for help to be liberated of sufferings.

    A legend says that when Cai-hong, a female potter, saw Guanyin gathering water to bless the drought that devastated the town of Jun, she presented a pear-shaped vase to Guanyin. Guanyin drew water from the Eastern Ocean into this vase to create rain over the barren land. The people were all overjoyed and grateful to have greenery sprouting from their plantations.

    Thereafter, Cai-hong made several replicas of the pear-shaped vase, naming it the Guanyin vase, a symbol of auspiciousness that has been popular ever since.


Guan, Ge and Ru Ceramics:


Crackling the Beauty


    The Guan, Ge and Ru wares all bear crackles which the layman, without knowledge of pottery, would view to be no different.

    The Song palace was the first to appreciate the crackles on pottery as opposed to the historical view of them as a defect. It is indeed a reflection of the saying: Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. No wonder Grandmaster JinBodhi taught, “Look at duality with eyes of oneness, see the higher purpose in everything.”

    Ru ware is dressed in a celadon glaze, from the soothing sky blue to blue green or grey green that matches so well with the reddish-brown crackles in lustrous finishes, such that the eyes cannot ignore its presence.

    A bowl from the legendary Ru Kiln was a record breaker when it fetched HK$208 million, equivalent to US$26.7 million, in April 2012 after 15 minutes of fierce bidding at a Sotheby’s auction. To the layman, this plain bowl could be taken as any other common baking utensil. Only an expert would distinguish this dish with its light-blue glaze and fine crackling to be a 900-year-old Chinese dish.

    Like the Ge ware, Guan ware carries a darker green color than the Ru ware. Guan ware literally means “official” ware, an imperial-run kiln to produce pottery for the imperial court, while Ge literally means ‘big-brother’ ware. Experts believe that it is difficult to differentiate Ge ware from Guan ware as both brothers obtained their clay from the same site.

    Though it seems to be the twin of Guan, Ge actually has different characteristics of its own. In fact, the Ge ware comprises two types — one is covered with a warm rice-yellow glaze and bears two sets of crackles; a bolder set of colored lines intertwined with a finer set of reddish lines; better known as Jin si tie xion or “golden floss and iron Threads.”



    Legend says that of two brothers working in Longquan, one made the typical celadon-style ceramics, while the elder made Ge ware, produced in his private kiln. Their father passed on the majority of his skills to Ge, and Ge became one of the most famous potters, causing jealousy in the younger brother. Feeling resentful, the younger brother then secretly added ashes into the brother’s glaze cylinder to damage the pottery design. To his surprise, he turned out an additional network of bold dark-colored glazes, a new design for Ge, which later became the well-known “golden floss and iron threads.”

    The other Ge wore bearing only one set of crackles with a grayish glaze indeed resembles its brother, the Guan ware. However, some experts prefer the fully opaque glaze of Ge, almost like a matte finish, complemented with a crackle pattern that flaunts through its more exaggerated bold black tone.


Ding Ware: Elegance in Glaze of Tears


    Ding ware produced in Ding Xian (modern Chu-yang), Hebei Province, was already known to be the finest porcelain in Northern China before the Song emperors came to power in 940 AD. It was the first appointed imperial kiln, selected for official Imperial use by the palace.

    Overall, Ding ware, made commonly from white paste, is easily distinguished by its elegant shape and understated designs, with either an incision or a stamping of the clay before being covered with a transparent glaze that drips and ends in “tears.” The late Ming connoisseur Gao Lion commended, “The best sort has marks on it like tear-stains…. Great skill and ingenuity is displayed in selecting the forms of the vessels….”



       Another of Ding ware’s prominent features are the dishes without glazing around the edges, a unique outcome of stacking them inverted in the kiln. Instead, the rims of dishes are coated with either gold or silver, turning out an obvious status symbol in tableware.

       The Clark Ding Basin, a legendary antique from the Ding Kiln, was sold for US$18.8 million, the second-highest price for Song ceramics, at an auction in Hong Kong on April 8, 2014.


Brewing the Antiques of Tomorrow


       Aesthetics of transparent or opaque glaze, lustrous colors, ostentatious decoration, yet exuding elegance through shape — the extraordinary manifestation of Song pottery that captivates hearts. To pottery connoisseurs, there is pure enjoyment found in this appreciation, especially while sipping tea from their favorite antique tea ware. To some, it is not just simply ownership of exquisite antiques, it is an art to concentrate on the refined aesthetics, thus calming the mind and healing the body.

      Pieces of Song pottery, like any other antiques, serve as educational pieces for artists today. However, with the development of technology, some of the arts today are a combination of handicraft and automation. Will future generations be captivated by the creations of today and treasure them as antiques?



Meditation & Health No 13 - Table of Contents