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Tang/Song Yue wares 


Tang Yue ware

Zhejiang Yue greenware of Eastern Han to Six Dynasties suffered a drastic drop in production level and quality during the Sui (589- 618) and early Tang dynasty. The biscuit was more rough and most wares then were glazed only on the upper half of the body.

Early Tang vessels included ewers with the 6 faceted spout, plate and bowls with solid disc shape base, yu bi base (ie solid base with a hole at the centre) and some with wide and short footring. The plate and bowls were fired using stacking method. Traces of the clay lumps used to support the footring or outer base are visible on the base of the foot, outer and inner base. The vessels were fired without saggars and the glaze is dull with most having a greenish yellowish, yellowish hue and some greyish green hue.  The paste of the area outside the clay lump mark has a reddish hue.

Tang bi-base bowls from Shanglin Lake kiln

During the early 9th century, the production picked up again and the quality improved markedly.  By the late Tang period, Yue ware was a major brand with an international reputation.   The production centre was at Shanglin Lake, Cixi city in Zhejiang province and there were also many kilns in the vicinity and further apart in Zhejiang producing similar type. 


Tang Yue Vessels exhibited in Cixi Museum



Large Tang cover box (dia. 17.5 cm) with carved floral motif found in Central Vietnam

Belitung wreck provides a good glimpse of the types and quality of Yue wares produced during the first half of the 9th century.  The Belitung shipwreck is dated to A.D. 826 based on a Changsha bowl with an incised date of 2nd year of Baoli on the outer wall.  The form of the vessel is elegant and potting rather thin, with some clearly showing the influence of gold/silver wares.  A form of shallow carved/incised decoration was introduced.   The pale grayish green glaze has a smooth and fine texture.   

During the early 9th century, motifs with shallow carving cum incising technique was introduced.  One distinctive typical composition has flower surrounded by lotus leaves.  There are also some with carved bird motif on the inner base.

Yue jars with carved decoration from the Belitung shipwreck

Some other Yue cup,bowls and dishes from the Belitung Shipwreck

Further improvement to the quality of products were made during the 2nd half of 9th century.  The glaze of the good one has a typically jade like texture.  It is no wonder why many poets of the 9th century were full of praise for Yue ware.  It was also probably around the mid 9th century that the term Mise was first coined to describe the top quality Yue wares.  Lu Guimeng (died A.D. 881) in his poem "秘色越器" Mise Yueqi (secret colour Yue ware)  mentioned that Yue wares were fired in misty and windy autumn and described the colour of yue ware as "green from trees despoiled from thousand peaks".  The translation by Bushell of the poem:

"The misty scenery of late autumn appears when the Yue kilns are open, 

The thousand peaks have been despoiled of their bright colour for the decoration of the bowls.

Let us take them out at midnight to collect the falling dew,

Or fill up the cups with wine in emulation of Ji Zhong San (Ji Zhong San is referring to Ji Kang, one of the 7 saints of Bamboo groves)"

Mise ware epitomised the highest technical achievement of the Yue potters and the mise Yue vessels found in the basement of the Pagoda at the Famen temple were the cream of cream.   More on mise ware were be discussed later.


5 Dynasties/Song Yue ware

After the fall of the Tang Dynasty in A.D 907, the state of Wu-yue of the Five Dynasties controlled fourteen prefectures covering eastern and western Zhejiang.  It was founded by Qian Liu. a native of Linan in Zhejiang.   He had no ambition of  ruling the whole of China.  To maintain peace for his state, he declared himself a vassal of regimes in the north.  His regime was one of stability which promoted the development of the local economy.  The scale of production of Yue wares reached its peak. Capitalising on the mature Yue potting techniques in existence since the late Tang, tribute kilns were set up at Shanglin Lake in Yuyao.    Large amount of mi se porcelains were produced and sent as tribute by him and his successors. 

A distinctive decorative technique of the the later part of 5 Dynasties/Early Northern Song period is fine incised rich reportoire of motifs including human subject, paired parrots or parrots, dragon, flowers and etc.   Some of the best examples could be found in the Cirebon shipwreck.  The ship carried a large quantity of more than 300,000 Yue vessels and a substantial number are decorated with incised decoration.  There is a bowl with a "戊辰徐记烧" Wuchen Xuji Shao " mark which enable use to place a dating of A.D. 968.   (The Northern Song Dynasty commenced from A.D. 960, but Wuyue state only relinquished its sovereignty in A.D. 978). 

For more information on the Cirebon shipwreck, please click here.


Such incised motif continued to be used during the later part of Northern Song but it became more sketchy and poorly executed.

Example of  more sketchy version of the incised decoration

By the Mid Northern Song Period, a new style of deeply carved and finely incised/combed style of decoration was introduced. It continued to be used during the rest of the Northern Song Period and in fact was inherited by the Northern Song period Longquan kilns.   

Northern Song Deep Carved and combed decoration

Another common decorative technique of the period was low relief decoration and relief motif embellished with fine incising details.

The poor quality of Yue ware of the late Northern Song period signaled the impending demise of the Yue kilns in early Southern Song.  Various factors have been put forward to explain the decline: such as the depletion of the deposit of porcelain material, removal of trees to make way for farming and residential purposes, and high taxation imposed on the porcelain industry.  Some speculated that Longquan kilns which is located in the remote south of Zhejiang had benefited from the migration of Yue potters who brought along their skills/technology and helped developed the industry there.


Yue Ru/Guan Type ware

An interesting development took place during a short period in the early Southern Song period.  Excavations revealed that some kilns such as that in Si Longkou (寺龙口), Dao Kaishan (刀开山) and Di Ling Tou (低岭头) produced some Guan-type wares, especially wares used for the ritual ceremony, for the Southern Song court.  The form and glaze is different from the traditional Yue wares.  It showed clear influence of Ru ware and likely involved the transfer of technology through the Henan Ru potters who fled south after the fall of the capital Luoyang to the Jin army.   The glaze has the typical Ru-like opacity but thicker in comparison.  Some showed multiple application of glaze.  Examples have been excavated in Hangzhou.  This new type of ware was further developed and refined by the Southern Song offical Guan kilns, namely Xiu Neisi (修内司) and Jiao Tanxia (郊坛下).


Characteristics of Yue footring and stacking technique 


During the Tang period, the  glaze on the base of the foot is scrapped off so that small clay lumps could be used to support the vessels.  By 5 Dynasties period, many of the  vessels were fully glazed.    A typical vessel used thin clay strips to separate the base from the ring support.  Hence, you could find traces of whitish thin clay remnant near the edge of the outer base.  For the high quality type, only a single vessel is put in a saggar for firing or on top of other  stacked vessels.   For those lower quality bowls,  stacking method was utilised and the clay marks are visible on the interior base.  Into the later Northern Song period, the clay marks is less orderly arranged on the external base.  In fact, most of the vessels in the late Song period were fired without the protection of saggars.   Hence, the glaze tends to be dull and darker in tone.  It should be noted that those type without the glaze on the base of the footring could still be found on lower quality pieces.


Mise Wares

Some Yue kilns started producing mise or Secret Colour porcelains for the Tang court during the late Tang period. In 1977, a tomb stone in the form of a porcelain jar was unearthed at Shanglin Lake.  On the jar was an inscription which stated that on the 5th year of Tang Zhonghe reign (885 A.D.), the deceased passed away and in 887 A.D he was buried in the Northern Hill of the tribute kiln.

In 1987 one lot of 14 secret colour porcelains were found in the underground foundation chamber of Famen Pagoda, Fufeng prefecture, Shanxi Province.    According to a stone tablet listing the inventory of items in the underground chamber, there were seven mise (secret colour) porcelain bowls including two with silver-binded rim/gold gilded bird decoration (鎏金银棱平脱雀鸟团花纹) and six mise dishes.  The inscription specifically indicates that these were the mise porcelains of the Tang dynasty.  The 8-sided purification vase is actually not mentioned in the inventory. These mise porcelains were similar to the shards found in kilns at Shanglin Lake in terms of forms, biscuit, glaze and the use of porcelain clay as support during firing. 

Above Mise wares from Famen Temple

The Wuyue produced large amount of mise porcelains and sent them as tribute to the Northern powerful states and subsequently to the Northern Song court. Mise wares were also used by the imperial families and noblities.  One famous piece of mise ware is a dragon jar from the tomb of Qian Yuanguan of late Five Dynasties.  It has a dish mouth, tall neck and a  globular belly which had two dragons chasing a pearl-carved in relief. When unearthed,remnants of gold fill remained on the dragon body.  Another is the incense burner of Shiu Qiu, mother of Qian Liu.  It is tall and big, comprising 3 sections - cover, burner and stand. The cover is perforated to allow incense to pass through.  The whole piece was decorated with design in iron brown glaze indeed. Also found in her tomb was a jar with brown glaze decoration.

The secret colour porcelains of the early Northern Song were usually decorated with carved or incised dragon, pheonix , cranes, flowers,  butterflies, animals, humans, animals, lotus petals and cloud.

How does mise wares differ from the normal Yue ware?  Based on the documented mise pieces, the only discernible characteristic is the fine workmanship.  Most have a greenish, light greenish hue but a small proportion are yellowish green in colour.   In fact, most Tang poets such as Lu Guimeng and Xu yin focused on using metaphors to describe the greenish colour when praising mise wares.  The celebrated verses composed by Xu yin on his perception of the colour of mise tea bowls.  Bushell's translation as follows:

"Like bright moons cunningly carved and dyed with spring water;

Like curling disks of thinnest ice, filled with green clouds;

Like ancient moss-eaten bronze mirrors lying upon the mat;

Like tender lotus leaves full of dewdrops floating on the river-side."

Chinese archaeologists have noticed that the saggar used for high quality yue wares is different from the normal saggar.  The material used is the same porcelain material for the ware itself.  Furthermore, the gap between the saggar and cover was fully sealed with glaze.  Besides providing good protection, it also resulted in excellent reduction firing.  Hence, the glaze could achieve a good greenish hue.  This method of firing is very costly as the saggar was broken to retrieve the vessel after firing.  Therefore, the saggar can only be used once.

In Oct 2016/Jan 2017, a project was jointly carried out by several Zhejiang archaeological units to excavate the Hou Si Ao kiln site (后司岙窑址) in Shanglin lake.  It has been established that it is the most important central mise porcelain production location.  The kiln site and the surrounding workshop covering an area of about 1100 sq meters were uncovered and numerous mise shards were collected from heaps of kiln rejects over 5m in depth.

Hou Si Ao kiln commenced production during the late Tang period and ceased production by end of 5 Dynasties.  Among the kiln furnitures, there were some with 大中 (Da Zhong [846 - 859 A.D]), 咸通 (Xian Tong [860 - 874 A.D]) and  中和 (zhong He [881 - 885 A.D]) reign mark.  From this, it can be established that at least by Da Zhong period, the production of mise porcelains commenced.  From Xian Tong period the quantity of mise procelain increasd in proportion  and reached its peak in Zong He period.  It continued to be produced during the 5 Dynasties period but the quality deteriorated by the mid 5 Dynasties period.

The excavation of Hou Si Ao kiln is a very important event for the study of Mise Yue ware.  Besides clarifying the production stages and the technological aspects, it yields a substantial pool of physical mise artefacts.   Currently, Yue ware with fine workmanship and very good quality glaze texture and colour are widely classified as mise.  Undoubtedly there is some subjectivity involved when deciding whether a piece of Yue ware is mise . The voluminous quanity of Mise samples from the Hou Si Ao kiln are useful for more comprehensive and in-depth understanding of the characteristics of Mise wares.  They can also serve as the yardstick to determine whether a Yue piece qualifies as mise grade.



For more detailed discussion on Yue Mise ware, please read this article.


Copyright : NK Koh (17 Mar 2008) , updated: 5 Dec 2017




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