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Ruo Shen ( 若深珍臟 ) and Guan gu yao (官古窯) wares
December 9, 2014 - 4:26 am
Antiques : Regional Art : Asian : Chinese : Porcelain


Ruo Shen ( 若深珍臟 ) and the guan gu yao (官古窯) wares

Sometime during the Kangxi reign, a new class of studio-marked Jingdezhen porcelains emerged which later Chinese connoisseurs would call guan gu yao (“official old wares”), a large group which includes porcelains bearing the four-character Ruo Shen zhen cang   若深珍臟 mark.  While the word guan 官technically refers to ceramics produced at official kilns by imperial order, or to the crackled celadons of the Song dynasty and later copies of them, such as the closely related guan and ge wares, the term guan gu yao 官古窯 was an informal term used to designate non-imperial wares of a very high quality, many of them unrelated to these generally conservative and historically inspired guan wares.  Liu Liang-yu states that the guan gu yao wares were originally commissioned by aristocrats as a means of enjoying high-quality porcelain without violating edicts that restricted the ownership of marked imperial wares:

A last word should be added at this point about so-called kuan-ku yao 官古窯 or ‘official old ware’.  Under the Ch’ing dynasty it was stipulated that official ware bearing the dynastic reign mark could not be possessed by private persons unless by specific gift of the emperor (lists were kept of all such gifts for inspection purposes).  In these circumstances, imperial princes and members of the aristocracy commissioned porcelain to be made bearing their own study name or studio name, either for their own domestic use or to distribute as gifts to their relatives and acquaintances. Once the vogue was initiated, all kinds of people eagerly sought to commission ware at high prices. Freedom from palace regulations meant that a very wide variety of such ware could be produced, all of it vying in quality with official ware.  Collectors of antiquities call this type of porcelain, similar to official ware and made for the aristocracy, ‘official old ware’.  ” (p. 278) [1]

Liu Liang-yu names the various ‘official old ware’ marks for each reign, assigning the “Joh sen chen-ts’ang” (Ruo Shen zhen cang) mark to the Kangxi period when these types of wares first appeared.  The subject of imperial reign marks on Kangxi porcelain is rather complex, but it is certain that imperial edicts of the period were intended to regulate the manufacture, distribution and use of imperial wares and, in particular, the use of the Kangxi reign-mark.  While these regulations were often ignored, they were certainly adhered to by some segment of the population.  Thus, the guan gu yao wares satisfied a consumer demand for marked porcelain that was generally acclaimed for its high quality (perhaps in this sense guan) although it was technically non-official or non-imperial ware.     

The term guan gu yao 官古窯 seems to have first been used by Chinese connoisseurs during the early 19th century as a means of distinguishing these earlier Ching wares, but except for Liu Liang-yu’s reference, the major surveys of Chinese ceramics published in the west in the 20th and 21st century do not use this term.   Neither R. L. Hobson’s early classic[2] nor the recent surveys by LiZhiyan[3] and He Li,[4] mention guan gu yao wares, and although all of these references describe the emergence of hall-marked and studio-marked porcelains, the various marks are not singled out, and the Ruo Shen wares are therefore not distinguished with any particularity among this group.

Ruo Shen zhen cang / Ruo Shen zhen zang

The Ruo Shen marks have been catalogued, however.  See, for instance, The New & Revised Handbook of Marks on Chinese Ceramics by Gerald Davison[5] where Ruo Shen zhen cang appears in a section of “General Four-Character Marks,” which includes both standard and commissioned kiln marks, ‘hall marks,’ studio marks, and auspicious phrases.   Mark no. 1796 (p. 138) is the standard Ruo Shen zhen cang although it is rather oddly translated as “Precious collection of the seemingly old.”  Davison also gives two six-character variations of the Ruo Shen mark:  mark no. 2495 (p. 176), translated as “Precious collection of the seemingly old for the Stream of Blessings”; and mark no. 2624 (p. 182) translated as “Precious collection of the seemingly old for the cascading stream.”  Davison’s translations, perhaps coincidentally, seem to echo Liu Liang-yu’s classification of Ruo Shen wares as “official old [“seemingly old”] wares,” but the more usual translations of the Ruo Shen zhen cang mark are closer to “precious treasure from the collection of Ruo Shen” or simply, “from the collection of Ruo Shen,” where Ruo Shen is considered a name followed by zhen (珍precious thing; treasure) and cang (臟to collect) or the compound zhen-cang (collection; valuables).  Note:  Davison’s translation has been reiterated in many blogs, but most sources and Chinese tea tradition, especially, treat ‘Ruo Shen’ as a name.    

Ruo Shen wares associated with tea connoisseurship

Interestingly, it is within the context of Chinese tea lore and tea connoisseurship that reference to Ruo Shen wares is most often found, especially within the context of Chinese gongfu tea ceremony which extols the perfection of Ruo Shen teacups and teapots. (Please see Trocadero item 1276834 in this catalog for a rare Ruo Shen-marked, underglaze blue and white teapot).  As with most of the guan gu yao wares, the exact origins of the Ruo Shen studio or kiln are completely unknown, but in the case of the Ruo Shen wares various ideas are in circulation: that Ruo Shen was the name of a collector who originally commissioned these wares; that the name Ruo Shen was soon after adopted as a sort of trade mark; that Ruo Shen was or later became simply the name for a kiln, or was a mark adopted by several kilns; and finally that Ruo Shen was the actual studio name of the artist who originally created these wares, an idea most often heard in the context of the gongfu tea tradition.

All that can be said with certainty is that the 18th century Ruo Shen-marked porcelains were non-imperial wares of a high quality, manufactured at Jingdezhen, and were especially popular during the Kangxi and Yongzheng reigns.  The name was revived in the very late Ching dynasty through the early Republic period, but these later wares typically show a watery blue decoration and a characteristic ‘hollow line’[6] decoration and mark, often hastily written, typical characteristics of many late underglaze blue and white wares.  In fact, the late 19th century and the Republic period are well known for the proliferation and revival of earlier marks, but the existence of these obviously late Ruo Shen wares should not be interpreted to mean that any Ruo shen studio or kiln was in continuous operation since the Kangxi period.

The early Ruo Shen wares can be conclusively dated to the early 18th century

The traditional dating of the Ruo Shen wares to the early 18th century of the Kangxi reign is supported by the fairly recent excavation of the “Cau Mau shipwreck” off the coast of Vietnam.  The ship had a vast hold of approximately 130,000 Chinese ceramic wares destined for the Netherlands, some decorated specifically for the European market.  The cargo was dated to about 1725 of the short Yongzheng reign (1723-1735) by various archaeological evidence, including some bronze coins from the previous Kangxi period (1669-1722), a large number of unmarked wares of a type known to have been produced during the Kangxi period, and by a small but important group of three wine cups, described by Sotheby’s as:

Three blue and white porcelain wine cups painted with river landscapes, bearing either the four character mark of the Emperor Yongzheng (1723-1736) or with the mark Ruo shen zhen cang, meaning, “In the collection of Ruoshen”, a mark usually associated with the Kangxi period, Circa 1723 [7]

The discovery of three more or less identical bowls together, with at least one bearing the Ruo Shen mark and another the Yongzheng four-character reign mark, is important not only for dating the shipwreck and its cargo, but is noteworthy in other respects.  The Kangxi reign mark was known to be the most severely regulated, and it seems, at least in this instance, that the Ruo Shen mark functioned merely as a substitute for a reign mark, and that the Yongzheng imperial mark was preferred as it appears on otherwise identical wares almost immediately after the Kangxi reign.  This strongly supports Liu Lang-yu’s explanation for the emergence of the guan gu yao wares and their classification as such, as well as his inclusion of the Ruo Shen wares in this group.  It is perhaps too small a sample to be conclusive, but the evolution of the marks on these three cups can be interpreted as evidence consistent with Liu’s narrow dating of the Ruo Shen wares specifically to the Kangxi reign.

Ruo Shen wares were manufactured for Chinese domestic use, not export

Of the 76,000 export wares from the Cau Mau wreck that were sold in multiple lots at Sotheby’s (Amsterdam) in January 2007, only 26 pieces were identified as Ruo Shen wares, and these 26 “wine cups” belonged to only four sets of matching cups.  (It should be noted that Chinese “tea cups” and “wine cups” are often interchangeable, although auction houses seem to prefer the later term.)  The extremely small number of Ruo Shen wares in such a huge and varied inventory seems evidence of their relative scarcity and supports the idea that they were made for domestic Chinese use—and not typically manufactured for export, which is again consistent with Liu Liang-yu’s classification of them as commissioned wares.  The almost legendary status of Ruo Shen wares among Chinese tea connoisseurs also indicates their status as domestic wares.  The presence of a few Ruo Shen wares in the vast cargo of the Cau Mau wreck, while helpful for dating both the shipwreck and Ruo Shen wares in general, should not be taken as evidence of their typical use or domestic status.  Marked wares of all sorts were occasionally exported, and this occurred from time to time even with slightly imperfect imperial wares (what might today be called “seconds) which were occasionally exported from Jingdezhen rather than destroyed according to imperial directives.

In fact, few if any Ruo Shen wares are identified as such in western collections of Chinese domestic or export porcelain.  The most comprehensive, up-to-date publication on export ware is possibly Treasures of Chinese Export Ceramics from the Peabody Essex Museum[5], which surveys export wares made for both western and Asian consumers.  Not surprisingly, William Sargent makes no mention of the guan gu yao wares, and no examples in the Peabody collection are identified as bearing the Ruo Shen mark.    

The Ruo Shen marked porcelains are primarily blue & white wares

The majority of Ruo Shen wares are underglaze blue and white decorated wares although there are some exceptions.  Of the most reliably dated Ruo Shen wares, the 26 Ruo Shen cups from the Cau Mau wreck mentioned previously, 19 are underglaze blue and white decorated cups, but one set is described as: “seven wine cups with the exterior painted in a white celadon glaze, with similar mark.”  However, a few months after the Cau Mau wreck cargo appeared at auction, at Sotheby’s (16 May 2007) London sale “Chinese Ceramics & Works of Art,” Lot 596 was described as: “An iron-red ‘Carp’ Saucer Dish Qing Dynasty, Kangxi Period brightly painted to the interior with a medallion enclosing a large iron-red carp swimming amidst green enameled water weeds, the exterior similarly decorated with four fish, the base with a four-character mark Ruo shen zhen cang.”  The description was accompanied by the familiar Catalogue Note: “The mark Ruo shen zhen cang may be translated as ‘In the collection of Ruoshen’ a mark usually associated with the reign period of the Kangxi Emperor.”

Although the guan gu yao wares first appear during the Kangxi reign, these non-imperial wares might be viewed as descendants of the porcelains produced during the late Ming and early Ching ‘transitional’ or ‘interregnum’ period (circa 1620-1683), which begins with the death of the Wanli (Ming) emperor and ends with the reestablishment of the imperial kilns, an event marked by the appointment of Zang Yingxuan as director at Jingdezhen by the Kangxi (Ching) emperor in 1683. The transitional period, which saw civil unrest associated with dynastic change, was defined by the decline and eventual complete cessation of imperial patronage of the Jingdezhen kilns.  It was also a time when Jingdezhen potters of necessity sought new clients both at home and abroad.  When general stability and unification had been restored to China under the Ching dynasty, the Jingdezhen potters, now accustomed to dealing with a wider consumer base, found a ready market and a greatly expanded consumer class for luxury goods which had already emerged by the late Ming dynasty (the early modern period).  But the high standards set by the Kangxi emperor, and his keen interest in porcelain production, had a marked effect on both the imperial and non-imperial kilns of Jingdezhen during this period.

In some instances, the guan gu yao wares assumed an artistic identity of their own.  The Ruo Shen wares, at least among tea aficionados, are exalted apart from their classification as guan gu yao or substitute imperial wares and have achieved a legendary status of their own.  The Kangxi period is also associated with the emergence of new and diverse styles of tea consumption.  The gonfu style of tea, which is said by its historians to have originated during the Kangxi period,[9] emphasized small teapots and teacups.  The word “ruoshen” has now evolved as a descriptive word for the type of small teacup used in gongfu tea ceremony.


[1] Ch’ing Official and Popular Wares /A Survey of Chinese Ceramics (5) by Liu Lang-yu. 1991, Aries Gemini Publishing Ltd., Taipei, Taiwan, ISBN 957-9259-05-4 (Set) ISBN 957-9259-05-4 (Vol. 5)

[2] Chinese Pottery and Porcelain/ An Account of the Potter’s Art in China from Primitive Times to the Present Day by R.L. Hobson.  Dover Publications, Inc., New York 1976 (reprint) Funk & Wagnalls Company, New York, and Cassell and Company, Limited, London (1915).

[3] Chinese Ceramics From the Paleolithic Period Through the Qing Dynasty, Edited by Li Zhiyan, Virginia L. Bower, and He Li.  Yale University Press, New Haven & London.  Foreign Language Press, Beijing.  Copyright © by Yale University and Foreign Language Press.  ISBN 978-0-300-11278-8. 

[4] Chinese Ceramics[,] A New Comprehensive Survey From the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, by He Li.  U.S. by Rizzoli International Publications, Inc.  Great Britain by Thames & Hudson Ltd. London.  Copyright 1996 by The Asian Art Museum of San Francisco.  ISBN-10: 0-8478-1973-6; ISBN-13:  978-0-8478-1973-7.  Library of Congress Catalog Card Number 96-68511.

[5] The New & Revised Handbook of Marks on Chinese Ceramics, by Gerald Davison.  Published by Gerald Davison Ltd, Somerset, United Kingdom, 2010.  ISBN 978-0-9564518-0-4.

[6] The Hollow Line in Dating Chinese Porcelain, Calvin Chou.  Occasional Publications, Chinese Art Appraisers Association, San Francisco, 1978.  ISBN 0-930940-03-2.

[7] Made in Imperial China: Sotheby’s to sell vast cargo of 18th-century Chinese Porcelain recently recovered by the Vietnamese Government after 280 years lost on the sea bed of the South China Seas (Sotheby’s, Press Release, 2006)

[8] Treasures of Chinese Export Ceramics from the Peabody Essex Museum, William R. Sargent and Rose Kerr.  Published by the Peabody Essex Museum, Salem Massachusetts.  Distributed by Yale University Press, New Haven and London.  Copyright © 2012 Peabody Essex Museum.  ISBN: 978-0-300-16975-1.

[9] My Brew Heaven: The Chinese “Way of Tea” in Today’s Taiwan, by Jackie Chen, translated by Phil Newell, Taiwan Panorama Magazine (online, undated)


Copyright © 2014 by Robert McCaffrey.  All Rights Reserved.

Kosometsuke: Chinese export for the Japanese market
January 8, 2014 - 6:27 am
Antiques : Regional Art : Asian : Chinese : Porcelain

Kosometsuke, blue & white plate, Tianqi reign (1621-27)Kosometsuke: Tianqi reign 明天啟 Chinese export for the Japanese tea market

Characterized by ostensible defects:  kiln bubbles, sandy kiln adhesions, shrinkage, warping, flaws, chips, splatters, and spontaneous and naive rather than labored and precise decoration, ko-sometsuke (‘old sometsuke’ or ‘old blue and white’) is the Japanese term for certain Chinese blue and white ceramic wares made specifically to appeal to Japanese chajin (tea lovers or tea masters).   Because nearly all examples were exported to Japan, kosometsuke were virtually unknown in China until recently.

Kosometsuke were manufactured only during the very short reign of Tianqi (1621-27) and represent the very earliest productions of the Chinese transitional period (1620-1683), when imperial patronage at Jingdezhen had declined owing to internal unrest and the impending collapse of the Ming dynasty.  The transitional period, though, is marked by artistic innovation and experiment.  Potters, now largely free of imperial dictates and taste, aggressively sought new customers from abroad.  The tea ceremony had become extremely popular during the preceding Momoyama period (1573-1615) in Japan, and the result was a huge market demand for tea ceremony accessories, particularly ceramic wares.

The largest collection of kosometsuke wares in the west is held by the Asian Art Museum, San Francisco, and although the entire Allison collection is dated to the narrow Tianqi period, only one dish in that collection actually bears the Tianqi reign mark, as do all marked examples.  Although the vast majority of kosometsuke wares are unmarked, they are so distinct in manufacture and style that they are easily distinguished from blue and whites of the preceding Wanli period, and are vastly different from the Shonzui wares:  these latter being a more refined type of blue and white ware dating to the late Chongzhen era (1628-1644) towards the very end of the Ming dynasty.

It may seem unlikely that production of kosometsuke wares ceased immediately upon the death of Tianqi especially since kosometsuke is unrelated to the imperial blue and white wares which were not being produced at this time anyway.  It is possible that production of kosometsuke continued for at least a few years into the succeeding Chongzhen reign before they were replaced by the Shonzui wares.  Japanese tradition, however, which is generally based on meticulous historic documentation, assigns kosometsuke wares to the Tianqi reign.  In any event, even allowing that a few kosometsuke wares continued to be made during the early part of the short Chongzhen reign, all kosometsuke wares will still necessarily be dated to the early transitional period--i.e., the early 17th century.

Any discussion of kosometsuke wares should distinguish between two distinct types:  the first were vessels commissioned by Japanese tea masters who likely sent precise instructions for their manufacture to private kilns at Jingdezhen.  Although they were blue and white wares, many of this first type of kosometsuke were influenced by the earthy green glazed Japanese Oribe wares which were already highly esteemed in Japan by tea masters.  Oribe wares are characterized by their highly textured surfaces and spontaneous decoration.  They were often thick and assembled from slabs of clay; likewise, many of the first order kosometsuke resemble, in form and decoration, some of the Oribe wares.  Kosometsuke included flower vases for the tokonoma, mizusashi (water jars), and kogo (incense boxes).

A second order of kosometsuke consists largely of medium-sized plates called chuzara, actually used for the formal meal (cashiki) preceding the tea ceremony.   These were mostly thinly potted porcelain dishes more akin to Chinese blue and white wares made for the domestic market, but exhibiting certain peculiarities of decoration and the inherent defects common to all kosometsuke. While not specifically commissioned by tea masters, these plates were nevertheless manufactured with the crudities and inherent defects that sets them apart from wares made for the Chinese domestic market, especially when these characteristics appear on examples of otherwise delicately potted porcelain.   Of the various chuzara in the Allison Collection, Yoshiko Kakudo, former Curator of Japanese Art at the Asian Art Museum, San Francisco, tells us:

Again, it was not the physical beauty of the white porcelain body that captivated the collectors.  Instead the features which appealed to the [chajin] were the thinner bodies and lighter weight, the often crude finish, the visible tool marks and the sand left adhering to the glaze under the foot.  These vessels were casually decorated with underglaze blue designs, using traditional themes such as landscapes and birds-and-flowers.”  p.6 Yoshiko Kakudo, Curator of Japanese Art

Sandy kiln adhesions to the underside of ceramic vessels are a nearly ubiquitous feature of Korean ceramic wares, and these were also esteemed by Japanese tea masters (see item 1192121 in this catalog), but are not often seen on Chinese porcelain.  Neither the porcelain made for everyday Chinese domestic use (see item 1192575), nor the plainer stoneware made for export (see item 1192567) show such sandy adhesions, and if they do occasionally occur on Chinese stoneware, they are rarely seen on the more delicately potted translucent wares—except on kosometsuke wares made for export.

So prized were the inherent flaws of kosometsuke wares that Japanese connoisseurs developed a specialized terminology to describe their peculiar qualities.  According to Stephen Little, chips and small holes which occurred when glazes failed to bond properly to their porcelain bodies were such a pronounced feature of kosometsuke wares that Japanese collectors referred to them as mushikui or worm-eaten.    

Items B81 P26 and B81 P27 in the Allison Collection are two horse-shaped dishes, both aggressively splattered in cobalt blue in a manner similar to the thick splatters that mark our plate.  These splatters are so pronounced and exaggerated on all three examples that there can be little doubt the effect was intentional. 

Those unfamiliar with the Japanese aesthetic sensibility inevitably associated with the various schools of tea, should consider as well the ancient kintsugi tradition for repairing and enhancing damaged ceramics (see items 1008371 and 931574), where conspicuous gold lacquer—rather than any invisible repair or pigment used to conceal or hide breaks—is used to fill cracks and chips, celebrating a beauty acquired only through age and venerated use.   A toleration for such repairs even extended to iron clamp or ‘stapled’ ceramics (see item 1232699), where the clamps themselves were sometimes enhanced with gold lacquer.  The immense popularization of the tea ceremony in Japan mentioned previously, resulted in a consumer demand for ready-made ‘antique’ wares embodied by kosometsuke.  If this aesthetic seems implausible to us, consider the various trends in the modern west for “antiqued” or distressed furniture, the easy look of worn leather and country house things promoted by Ralph Lauren, or the popularity of acid-washed jeans at the turn of the last century.

Better known in Japan than in their country of origin, kosometsuke wares are somewhat enigmatic.  Although manufactured at the famous porcelain manufacturing city of Jingdezhen in Jiangxi province, China, the actual kiln site where kosometsuke were produced has never been found.  And kosometsuke are evaluated by somewhat inverted standards:  their technical imperfections are considered marks of identification and authenticity; spontaneity and naivete rather than refinement in their form and decoration are celebrated by connoisseurs; their symbolic meaning is often cross-cultural and not always understood in the usual Chinese context, so that their symbolic meaning is often a matter of speculation. 

The history of Chinese ceramic production is for the most part easily intelligible.  The tradition makes use of well-established forms and a traditional lexicon of symbolic decoration.  Ceramic manufacture, though punctuated by periods of innovation, is also marked by many revivals, re-iterations and refinements of earlier styles.  Kosometsuke wares represent a radical departure from this tradition, an interregnum in the long continuum of Chinese ceramic evolution.  It seems appropriate that kosometsuke wares are classified as the very earliest of the “transitional wares,” that class of Chinese ceramics which bridges the divide between the Ming and Ching dynasties. 

Copyright © 2014 by Robert McCaffrey.  All Rights Reserved.


Rene-Yvon Lefebvre d’Argence (Director and Chief Curator), Yoshiko Kakudo (Curator of Japanese Art), and Stephen Little, ed.  The Effie B. Allison Collection / Kosometsuke and Other Chinese Blue-and White Porcelains.   March 2-June 6, 1982 (exhibition catalog) produced by the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco.

Stephen Little, Ko-sometsuke in the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco.  Orientations, April 1982, Vol. 13, no. 4. pp. 12-23.

Seizo Hayashiya and Henry Trubner in collaboration with Gakuji Hasebe, Yoshiaki Yabe, Hiroka Nishida, William J Rathbun, and Catherine A. Kaputa, Chinese Ceramics from Japanese Collections, T’ang through Ming Dynasties.  The Asia Society, 1977. Type the text here

Chinese export ware for the Asian market
March 17, 2013 - 4:23 pm
Antiques : Regional Art : Asian : Chinese : Stoneware

A blue & white Canton-Asian export dish (3)

Chinese export ware for the Asian market

A blue & white Canton-Asian export dish (3)

Not to be confused with export wares made for the European market, these steep walled plates were manufactured in China for export from Guangxou (Canton) to ports all over south-east Asia.  They are known in the west as “Canton ware” or “Hong Kong ware,” and “Singapore ware” but they have been found even in India.  They are plainer and less varied in decoration than the Swatow (Shantou) wares which were also produced for export.  Reference books invariably describe these as “Ming dynasty” but they have been called “kitchen Ming,” and “kitchen Ching,” and it seems likely that production of these particular types of plates continued well into the Ching dynasty.  They are sturdily constructed and very durable, and it is not surprising that they survived in fairly large numbers.    The white color of these wares is tinged with grey-blue, a characteristic that is also shared in varying degrees with early Yuan and Ming blue and white wares of a much higher quality. 

These plates appear in various sizes, but nearly all share the same form, construction and familiar decoration with only minor variation:  they have steeply angled walls and a short, angled foot-ring which is usually glazed only on the exterior; the recessed underside, which is largely unseen, is glazed, while the visible interior of the bowls have a distinctive unglazed ring at the center which has fired to a contrasting reddish color; they are decorated with a watery cobalt blue, usually with a hastily drawn “shou” or longevity character in cursive script and enclosed by the unglazed kiln stacking ring, and with fluid, abstract decorations on the interior walls which are usually described as "floral"; the exterior is very plain, though on the larger dishes, a single or double blue line encircles the areas just under the lip and surrounding the foot-ring. The larger bowls usually have a defined, rounded lip, while very small bowls sometimes have a flat rim with no defined lip.

These plates were manufactured in volume, and the unglazed ring at the center of the bowl allowed for efficient kiln stacking of numerous bowls during the firing process.  The sharply angled foot-ring minimized the contact surface between the plates, making for easier separation after firing. 

Where the clay body is exposed on the interior of the foot-ring, it is seen to be rather finely levigated clay for what were common export wares.  The dishes all emit a bell-like ring when tapped with a metal object, and should probably be classified as porcelaneous stoneware.

These are handsome, nicely proportioned, utilitarian bowls, suitable for modern use or display and as easy to stack for storage as they were for stacking in the kiln.  While not highly regarded by connoisseurs of refined porcelains, they are admired for their spontaneous execution, excellent proportions, and sturdiness. The kiln stacking ring described above is an excellent example of an undisguised manufacturing characteristic being incorporated into a design which probably evolved over some time and represents a type of vernacular perfection.  This firing ring is perhaps their most immediately identifiable characteristic and that which immediately distinguishes them from the more expensive Swatow wares.

Copyright © 2013 by Robert McCaffrey for Ruyi Studio San Francisco.  All Rights Reserved.

Some notes on Korean ceramics
March 15, 2013 - 7:05 am
Antiques : Regional Art : Asian : Korean : Ceramics

Sanggam and buncheong wares

Between A.D. 1100 and 1150 of the Goryeo dynasty (918-1392), celadons produced by Korean potters were usually plain and undecorated.  But in the late 12th century the first sanggam vessels appear.  Sanggam celadons ranged in color from dark olive to pale green or bluish-grey and were decorated using a delicate inlay process which involved carving the surface of wet clay vessels.  The resulting impressions were then filled with red and white slip covered by a clear glaze.  During the firing process, the red slip would turn black, and the resulting white and black decoration would appear against the contrasting celadon-colored ground.  The original sanggam celadons were manufactured for a rather brief period of about 150 years, and were extremely popular among the more affluent adherents of Son (Zen/Chan) Buddhism.  These elaborately decorated wares were often produced for monasteries in Korea and Japan.

During the 14th century, in the waning years of the Goryeo dynasty, many of the larger kilns that had produced sanggam vessels began to manufacture the first buncheong (Punch’ong) wares. The term buncheong is a rather broad category encompassing a wide variety of ceramic decorative techniques.  But one of its earliest innovations was the use of stamped decorations.  Pressed into wet clay surfaces, the stamped impressions could then be filled with a contrasting colored slip and finished in similar fashion to the sanggam wares.  The use of stamped decorations was certainly much less labor intensive than the delicate carving involved in the production of sanggam wares.  Not surprisingly, the earliest stamp-decorated vessels produced during this transitional period often combined the older sanggam technique with stamped decoration for repeated patterns. 

The buncheong tradition emerges more fully in the early years of the succeeding Joseon (Choson) dynasty (1392-1910).  Many of the larger kilns which had produced the labor intensive sanggam wares were disrupted during the Mongol invasions, and by the 15th century the bulk of Korean ceramic production had shifted to smaller kiln sites.  Certainly this fact contributed to the wide diversity of styles which emerge at this time.

The 15th century represents the high point of buncheong ceramic production, a period noted for innovation, artistic integrity and originality.  In addition to stamped wares, buncheong ceramics might be decorated with sgrafitto (incised drawing) or vividly painted with contrasting colored slips, or decorated with almost any combination of these techniques.  And stamps were now used and re-used in all sorts of imaginative combinations and re-combinations: a stamped central motif might be used again as a minor border decoration in another vessel.  The stamp-decorated wares of the 15th century no longer share any stylistic resemblance to the earlier sanggam wares as can be easily discerned when comparing the sanggam bowl (item 1192121) with the small buncheong dish (item 1192005).    

Neither sanggam nor buncheong wares were ever considered ordinary and will not show evidence of kiln stacking.  Asian ceramics of a more utilitarian type often have spur marks or an unglazed ring to the interior where the circular foot of another plate or bowl was stacked during firing for more efficient production.  In fact, many of the buncheong wares, even small plates similar to the small plate offered here, bear the stamp-decorated names of the government departments who commissioned them.  The inside theft of ceramic wares was considered a major problem as these wares were expensive and highly valued commodities. 

Sanggam and buncheong wares inspired many early 20th century studio ceramics in both Korea and Japan as well as in the west and remain popular with devotees of the tea ceremony and ceramics collectors worldwide.

Copyright © 2013 by Robert McCaffrey for Ruyi Studio San Francisco.  All Rights Reserved.