Celadon: Appreciating Pottery for its Aesthetic Value and Magical Qualities
Celadon pottery (also known simply as ‘celadon’) is a type of ceramic that originated in ancient China. Celadon is well-known for its jade-like color, which it obtains due to the glaze that is applied to the surface of a piece of pottery. In the Chinese language, celadon is known as 青瓷 (transliterated as ‘qing ci’), which means ‘green porcelain’.
A popular explanation for the usage of the word ‘celadon’ in the West is that this word was derived from a 17th century French pastoral novel called L’Astrée. In this novel, written by Honoré d'Urfé, there is a character by the name of Céladon, who was depicted as a young man dressed in green.
The Origins of Celadon
The history of celadon itself predates d'Urfé by many centuries. According to one source, the production of celadon originated during the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period, i.e. at some point of time during the 10th century AD.
Chinese celadon with cut-out and engraved decoration, 10th century. (Public Domain)
Another source provides an earlier date, suggesting that this type of ceramic first appeared during the 7th century AD, either during the Sui or the Tang Dynasty. The celadon of this period was a development of the earlier Yueh ware that were produced during the Six Dynasties period, a collective term for six Chinese Dynasties beginning with the Three Kingdoms and ending with the Southern and Northern Dynasties.
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Double spout jug with phoenix shaped heads, North China, Shaanxi, Yaozhou. End of the Five Dynasties, the beginning of the North Song Dynasty, the second half of the 10th century. Gray sandstone celadon. Musée Guimet, Paris. (Public Domain)
Irrespective of when it started being produced, celadon became popular amongst the ancient Chinese, and even beyond the borders of that country. For instance, the production of celadon spread to the Korean peninsula during the 9th / 10th centuries AD. Prior to this point of time, the usual type of pottery produced in this region was mostly unglazed stoneware. The glazing of pottery is said to have been occasionally done during the Unified Silla period (7th – 10th centuries AD).
Dragon kettle, made of celadon. Made in 12th century. National Treasures of South Korea No.61 (National Treasures of South Korea)
It was, however, during the succeeding Koryo / Goryeo Dynasty that celadon began to be made in the Korean peninsula. Apart from being a sign of technological progress in the area of ceramic production, the manufacturing of celadon in Korea also marked a shift in the way the Koreans viewed pottery. Prior to this period, pottery served either a functional or symbolic purpose. With the introduction of celadon, pottery began to be appreciated for its aesthetic value.
Boat-shaped Water Container of Longquan Kiln, the Yuan Dynasty. (CC BY SA 3.0)
A Valued Product for Trade
The popularity of celadon certainly did not stop in Korea. From shipwrecks discovered in the South China Sea, there was a market for celadon outside of China. The demand for this type of ceramic was probably substantial enough for people to produce their own celadon when the supply from China had ceased. In 1371, the first emperor of the Ming Dynasty, the Hongwu Emperor, decided to stop his subjects from engaging in overseas trade. At around the same time, celadon production began in Thailand. It was Chinese migrants in that region who began producing celadon, as there was a demand without a supply.
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A Ming Dynasty Longquan celadon from Zhejiang, 14-15th century, now housed in the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
It is undeniable that celadon was appreciated for its beauty. Nevertheless, its appeal went beyond mere aesthetics. Due to its jade-like color, celadon was thought to have been like jade, and like this stone, was believed to possess magical qualities. For example, it was believed that celadon would ring if danger was approaching, and that it would change color if the food/drink placed in it was poisoned.
Perhaps another factor that made celadon such a highly valued item is the fact that it is not exactly an easy thing to produce. The production of celadon can take up between four and ten weeks, depending on the size of the vessel and the intricacy of its design. Apart from that, the production process is also somewhat complex, involving steps that need to be followed precisely so as to ensure that the desired product may be obtained.
Dish with Twin Fish design, China, Longquan kilns, Zhejiang province, Southern Song dynasty, 13th century AD, longquan celadon ceramic - Ethnological Museum, Berlin. (Public Domain)
For many centuries, celadon was highly regarded by the Chinese Imperial court, and later the desire for the artistic items spread with contact and trade. Even today, people fondly cherish heirlooms and antiques made in greenware.
Funerary vase and cover, China, Longquan kilns, Zhejiang province, Northern Song dynasty, 10th or 11th century AD, green-glazed stoneware - Ethnological Museum, Berlin. (Public Domain)
Featured image: (L-R): A Chinese Song Dynasty celadon vase dated to the 13th century. (Public Domain) Longquan celadon from the collection of Chinese celadon; Topkapı Palace, Istanbul, Turkey. (CC BY SA 3.0) Celadon Incense Burner from the Korean Goryeo Dynasty, with kingfisher glaze. National Treasure of South Korea #95 12th century Korea. (CC BY SA 3.0) This Celadon is 68th in the National Treasure of South Korea. 12th century Korea. (CC BY SA 3.0)
By Wu Mingren
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