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About Korean Celadon

What is Korean Celadon
The History of Korean Celadon
The aesthetic beauty of Korean celadon
Meaning of Design in Korean Celadon
The Making of Korean Celadon
About Korean-Arts' Celadon
Learn More - Books & Links
Korean History Timeline
Koryo Dynasty (918-1392 AD) celadon incense burner
Koryo Dynasty (918-1392 AD) celadon incense burner

What is Korean celadon?

    Though the term "celadon" is somewhat misleading in that it means green, it has become widely accepted as the Western term for the Korean pottery, called Cheong-ja in Korean, with the distinctive jade-green color. Below are the Korean names for the various types of pottery and their Western equivalents:

Cheong-ja - This is the name of the jade green pottery and is called either "celadon" as we have called it here, or "green celadon" to distinguish it from other types of Korean pottery. The literal meaning of the word Cheong-Ja is blue/green porcelain.

Bun-cheong - This is the name of the brown or light brown pottery and, although a misnomer since celadon literally means green, it is sometimes called "brown celadon". For lack of a proper western term for this unique Korean pottery we have called it by either its true name, Bun-cheong, or "brown porcelain" to help distinguish it from the other colors of pottery.

Baek-ja - Although it is sometimes, incorrectly, called white celadon, Baek-Ja literally means white porcelain and is the name for the white pottery made by Korean artisans. White porcelain is the name we have used here.

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The History of Korean Celadon

Celadon (Cheong-Ja) - the Stuff of Kings

    Though the history of Korean pottery stretches back to the Neolithic age and the rough "Black Comb Pottery" produced by early tribes, the pinnacle of Korean pottery was the development and perfection of celadon (Cheong-Ja) during Korea's Koryo Dynasty.

    The Koryo Dynasty, which lasted from 918 to 1392 AD had a strong Buddhist influence which shaped many of it's cultural achievements.  Buddhist temples flourished during the Koryo period, and with them grew a need for fine vessels to be used during the many ritual ceremonies. In the middle of the 10th century Korean artists, some who had been schooled in China, began creating celadon by using inlay  and copper glazing techniques which were developed first in China but only fully developed and perfected by Korean artisans. The Korean use of these techniques were unique in the history of pottery. The level of fine quality and beauty they were able to achieve in their work surpassed that of other countries and came to be revered by even the Chinese for it's elegant, yet simple beauty. The Koryo Royal Court also used some of the finest examples of celadon pottery in their palaces both as vessels for daily use and as objects of fine art.

    The finest examples of celadon were produced during the middle and latter part of the 11th century by artisans who remain unknown today. With the Mongol Invasions which started in 1231 AD the flourishing culture began to decline, and along with it, the quality of the pottery being produced. By the beginning of the Chosun Dynasty (1392-1910) most of the delicate manufacturing techniques for celadon had been lost.

Brown Porcelain (Bun-Cheong)

    During the middle 15th Century in the Chosun Dynasty, brown porcelain, Bun-cheong, appeared and became the standard for daily use by the people of the period. It was used by all classes of society unlike celadon which had been used only by Buddhist monks, royalty, and aristocrats. It was somewhat rougher in finish than the celadon had been, and did not possess such delicate beauty.

White Porcelain (Baek-Ja)

    White porcelain appeared in the early 16th Century and like the earlier brown porcelain, was widely manufactured and used by the common people throughout Korea.

    During the late 16th century the Japanese launched a series of invasions into Korea (ImJinWaeRan) and forcibly relocated many of the Korean artisans to Japan. These transplanted artisans helped to influence the direction and style of Japanese pottery and arts and account for the great similarity between the Korean and Japanese arts.

Celadon Today

    In 1910 Korea was forcibly colonized by the Japanese bringing to an end the Chosun Dynasty. During the Japanese colonial period (1910-1945) Korean pottery as an art form, all but died out. To be sure, white porcelain and some brown porcelain was still produced but it was of a lower quality for daily use and not considered art in itself.

    After Korea's liberation from Japanese rule at the end of WWII and through the Korean war (1950-1953) survival, and not art, was the order of the day. But in the mid-1950s a group of Korean artisans set out to discover the lost art of Koryo celadon. Since that time they have made great progress in re-discovering the lost art and today are nearly able to reproduce the stunning beauty of the original Koryo celadon.

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The aesthetic beauty of Korean celadon

    The aesthetic beauty of the the early Koryo celadon lies in its subtle beauty and elegant simplicity. So impressed were the Chinese scholars that they called Koryo celadon one of the 10 treasures of the world, while the Chinese artisans described its color as "beyond description". Though its beauty can hardly be described to someone who has not seen or experienced it in person, the following descriptions by early 20th Century scholars come close.

 

     On seeing Korean celadons for the first time, many find little to attract them, or are even somewhat repelled by the subdued bluish or greyish green tones, which they consider monotonous and far removed from the brightly coloured porcelains with which they are more familiar... Chinese wares shine brightly. For guests it is well to have Ming blue-and-white, for it stimulates the appetite. But if we wish to hold quiet colloquy with them or have them in our room for a long time, such wares are too strong... The quietness and subtlety of Korean pottery are said to show the quintessence of the Oriental spirit: its quiet elegance, simplicity of form and style of make have been compared with the profound and exalted spirit of Zen Buddhism.... The forms of these wares have an instant appeal to one's heart; their colours have unique transparent depth, and their freely carved decoration is no less affecting... they exude quietness of spirit...

    Modern celadon maintains the same beauty. It can be seen in the delicate latticework of cracks visible under its glaze, called crazing, and in the deep jade-green color. The shapes derived from nature such as those representing the human form further enhance its appeal. It is somewhat difficult to appreciate the beauty of celadon from a picture - one must look closely at the fine pattern of crazing under the deep azure-green glaze. The longer one looks at its rich color the more beautiful it appears.

    Modern celadon can be roughly grouped into three different categories - those pieces with inlaid designs, pieces with incised or molded designs, and those with no design (plain). Although we love all three styles, we particularly like the plain designs which show off the rich color and delicate pattern of crazing under the glaze.

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Meaning of Design in Korean Celadon

Symbols

    Both the designs and shapes used in Koryo celadon were representations of the spiritual beliefs of the Korean people. These beliefs were fostered by Shamanism, and the Buddhist beliefs of the era. Following are the symbols most commonly used on inlaid celadon and their meanings.

Circle: The circle represents the Sun and worship for the Sun.
Fish: The fish represents a superior realization.
Lotus: The lotus stands for the Sun and mercy of Buddha
Tiger: The tiger design symbolizes a guardian, and charm.
Peony: The peony depicts richness and honors.
Dragon: The dragon stands for the all mighty.
Duck: The duck symbolizes the Premiere ranking.
Chrysanthemum: The chrysanthemum symbolizes health and well being.
Crane: The crane represents Immortality
Pine Tree: The pine tree depicts royalty and fidelity.

Shapes

    In addition to the above symbols and their meanings, the actual shape of the vessels has meaning as well. The shapes of the vessels are derived from nature, as in the case of the bamboo shoot-shaped pot shown here, or the Korean melon (Cham-wae) shaped vase here. Other shapes adopted from nature include animal shaped vessels or those with animals as part of their shapes like the turtle decorated incense burner here. The human form is also subtly represented in Korean pottery. The vases and bottles (Mae-byeong, Ju-byeong), represent male and female respectively. The long slender shape of the bottles with a gentle slope at the bottom expresses the voluptuous beauty of femininity, while the wide shoulder and stockiness of the vases, here, displays the masculine form.

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The Making of Korean Celadon

    The manufacturing process of Korean celadon is a long affair involving at least 10 steps. The first step is to gather the clay; there are several regions in Korea where the special clays used in each type of pottery are gathered from river banks. Each area's clay is said to possess certain qualities essential to the production of fine pottery. Frequently the different clays are mixed to obtain the perfect blend, after which it is prepared for throwing.

    Forming and molding are the next steps and are all done by hand unlike ceramic ware which is made in molds. Asymmetrical vessels are turned on a wheel while different shapes are formed by hand or modified after being thrown on a wheel.

    Next the inlaid pieces are engraved and inscribed while the plain shapes are not. The inscribed portions are then filled, or in the case of painted works the paint in then applied.

    All pieces are then fired. The traditional hand hewn kilns were built on a hill and had a series of small chambers all connected to the main hearth at the base. Each chamber had an access door on the side in which the pottery was put in or removed. After the fire was built in the hearth the heat would rise up through the series of chambers creating the necessary temperature for each type of firing in each of the chambers.

    The works are then glazed and given their final firing. The entire process takes days or sometimes weeks and, due to the high level of pride of the artisans the pottery has a very low survival rate. Pieces that do not not meet the artist's standards are intentionally destroyed at approximately the following rates:
5% in the molding process
15% in decorating
20% in 1st firing
25% in the final glazing

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About Korean-Arts' Celadon

    Though several grades of celadon are produced, Korean-Arts pride themselves on offering only the finest celadon wares available. The difference can be seen in the quality and detail of the inlay, painting and the glaze. Upon close inspection, the inlaid and painted portions of a lower quality piece will appear somewhat blurred and indistinct, while those of better quality will be clear in detail and form. The depth and rich color of the glaze are another telling feature. The deep jade-green glaze of quality works has a rich color that far surpasses that of its peers.

    Celadon is the name of the glaze technique, and the ceramics produced by using the technique. There are other types of green-glazed ceramics, which are not necessarily celadon. Do not confuse celadon with green glazed ceramic. Pieces of similar size, shape and even the general color of Korean celadon can be seen that are not celadon at all but simply green glazed ceramic. These wares do not posses the rich colors of the celadon works, nor do they have the distinctive web of fine cracks, crazing (see it here), that can be seen in true celadon. Although we prefer the richness of the celadon pieces, some of the ceramic figurines have been popular with our customers and so we do have several available. Let's take a look at the difference between a ceramic figurine, here, and a celadon figurine, here. Notice the greater depth of color and the fine structure of cracks under the glaze on the celadon piece - that is what defines the quality of true celadon.

    Korean-Arts' celadon pottery is hand made and as such differs slightly from piece to piece. Although in most cases the pieces shipped and the ones shown are nearly identical there are occasions when the differences are pronounced. In these instances we have posted a notice in red telling you of the differences. We are sorry for any inconveniences this may cause.

    Check out Korean-Arts' collection of Korean celadon - click here!

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Learn More - Books & Links

Books

     Here are a number of books which provide and excellent overview of the Korean arts in history:

Korea's Pottery Heritage Vol. II. Seoul International Publishing House, 1990: A complete text devoted primarily to the celadon pottery of the Koryo period with many great pictures.

Korean Celadon. G. St. G. M. Gompertz, 1963: The definitive text on the history and character of Koryo Korean celadon.

Korean Cultural Heritage Volume I Fine Arts.  The Korea Foundation, 1994: This is an excellent book with lots of large color pictures depicting Korean fine arts including painting, handicrafts, architecture, and of course, celadon.

Korean Arts of the Eighteenth Century: Splendor & Simplicity. The Asia Societies Galleries, 1993: Contains much information about the evolution of Korean painting, famous painters, and Chinese influence.

Korean Arts Volume Two Ceramics. Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Republic of Korea, 1961: A somewhat dated, but detailed text of the developments of Korean pottery with many poorly reproduced pictures.

The Art of Burma, Korea, Tibet. Alexander B. Griswold et al. 1964: Contains a detailed history of Korean art, culture, history, etc.

The World of Korean Ceramics. Jon Carter Covell and Alan Carter Covell, 1986: Dae-Won-Sa., Honolulu, Hawaii: A more contemporary work emphasizing the impact of the Japanese occupation on, and the modern re-birth of, the Korean celadon culture.

Korea: Art and Archaeology. Jane Portal, 2000: Thames & Hudson Inc., New York: Fairly detailed work stressing the archaeological side of old Korean art. Has some interesting bits in the back showing the molecular make-up of inlay slip used in celadon.

A Single Shard. Linda Sue Park, 2001: Clarion Books., New York: A work of fiction, written for youths, but nevertheless, an enthralling work showing what it may have been like to be a potter's apprentice during the Koryo Dynasty.

Links relating to the art of Korea

The National Museum of Korea has a great display of authentic Koryo Dynasty celadon, white porcelain, and Bun-cheong (brown porcelain) pottery. To see the collection click here, then click on "Artifacts Search" on the right side of the top menu. A categories page will appear. Select the second category on the menu, "Material", then "Ceramics". From there you may select the type of works you would like to see; we recommend their "Celadon", "Buncheong ware", and "Blue and White Porcelain" collections. The museum's collection will appear as thumbnails at the bottom of the page. Click on a thumbnail to see a larger image.

Ho-Am Art Museum has a nice collection of Koryo celadon, earthenware, Bun-cheong (brown porcelain), and white porcelain. To go to the English home page click here. To go to the celadon section, click here, then click on "celadon" under the ceramics menu. They have nine galleries of historic Korean celadon in addition to Earthenware, Bun-cheong ware, and white porcelain.
    The Ho-Am Art Museum in Korea has recently added a "Virtual Tour" section to there website which allows one to take a tour of the museum via the web from anywhere in the world. To take the tour, click on the link below:
    Virtual Tour
and you will be taken to the virtual tour. A pop-up may appear asking you to install a plug-in (a small program that lets you view the tour). Should it not appear and the tour does not start (the picture on the screen starts panning), you may click on the small "Plug-in download" button on the lower-left of the screen to download it and start the tour.
    The virtual tour instructions are in Korean but are:
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Hold down the left mouse button and move the cursor left or right on the picture to pan in that direction.

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Click on an object to see a description of it, and a larger picture.

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With the cursor on an object, use the "Shift" key to zoom in.

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Use the "Ctrl" key to zoom out.

Arts of Asia Magazine the foremost international Asian arts and antiques magazine, is one of the most beautifully illustrated and richly descriptive magazines about the Asian arts. Though their website does not contain the entire contents of the magazine, it gives one a taste of wealth of information available through their printed publication. To go to their website, click here.

KoreaTips has a good culture section featuring Korean history, culture and traditions. It includes sections on the arts, Han-bok (traditional Korean clothing), and Han-gul (the Korean alphabet). To go to the cultural arts section click here. To go to the homepage click here.

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