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Tang/Song Yue wares
The zhejiang Yue greenwares 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 includes 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 are 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.
A late Tang bi-base celadon bowl from a wreck in Vietnam
During the early 9th century, the production started to pick up again and the quality improved tremendously. By the late Tang period, Yue wares was a major brand with an international reputation. The production centre is at Shanglin Lake, Cixi city in Zhejiang province and with many kilns in the vicinity producing similar type.
Yue Vessels exhibited in Cixi Museum
Late Tang ewer from a Vietnamese wreck
Large Tang cover box (dia. 17.5 cm) with carved floral motif found in Central Vietnam
A good glimpse of the types and quality of Yue wares of the 9th century could be surveyed in the Belitung shipwreck. The Belitung shipwreck is dated to A.D. 826 based on a Changsha bowl with a date of 2nd year of Baoli. The form of the vessels are elegant and potting rather thin, with some clearly showing the influence of gold/silver wares. Decoration using the carved/incised method was used by then. The glaze has a smooth and fine texture and colour is a pleasant pale gray greenish hue.
Yue jars from the Belitung shipwreck
Some other Yue cup,bowls and dishes from the Belitung Shiwpreck
Further improvement in the quality of the glaze continued with good ones having a jade like quality. No wonder many poets of the 9th century were full of praise for Yue wares. It was also around the mid or slightly later 9th century that the term Mise was used 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)"
The best achievement of the Yue potters is represented in the Yue vessels found in the basement of the Pagoda at the Famen temple. More elaborations on mise wares is available below.
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 and to maintain peace for his state, he declared himself a vassal of regimes in the north. His regime was one of stability and it encouraged the development of the local economy. The scale of production of Yue wares reached its peak. Making use of 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.
The later part of 5 Dynasties and Early Northern Song period is characterised by the wide usage of finely incised rich variety of motifs including human subject, paired parrots or parrots, dragon, flowers and etc. Best examples could be found in the Cirebon shipwreck. The ship carried a large quantity of more than 300,000 Yue vessels and many are decorated with incised motif. It has a bowl with a "戊辰徐记烧" Wuchen Xuji Shao " mark, ie. 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.
A form of more deeply curved combined with incised style of decoration was introduced during the Mid Northern Song Period and continued to be used during the rest of the Northern Song Period. Those solely incised motif continued to be used but became more sketchy and poorly executed by Late Northern Song Period. 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 bring along their skills/technology and helped developed the industry there.
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 has the typical slightly opaque and thick glaze of guan wares. Examples have been excavated in Hangzhou.
Much have been written about the excellent glaze and form of the Yue vessels of the late Tang to Northern Song period. Beside the emphasis on glaze and form, the Yue potters have also introduced various types of decorative techniques to beautify the vessels. The main decorative technique is incising, carving and much less extent impressed/ molded elements and painting using iron brown pigment.
During the early 9th century, motifs with obliquely carved shallow outlines technique was introduced. From the mid 9th century, sole incising became popular. The most common motif is flower with a composition using flower surrounded by lotus leaves. There are also some with solely incised bird motif at the inner base. Carved or carved cum incised/combed motif (different from the Mid Tang with lightly carved outlines) became popular from the Mid Northern Song period. This is to be distinguished from that carved low relief motif which was used since the Late Tang period.
Footring and firing support
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.
Some Yue kilns were 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 Zhonghe reign of the Tang dynasty (885 A.D.) the deceased passed away and in 887 this person was buried in the Northern Hill of the tribute kiln. Thus before 887 A.D. the tribute kiln' already existed in Shanglin Lake.
In 1987 one lot of 14 secret colour porcelains were found in the underground foundation chamber of Famen Pagoda, Fufeng prefecture, Shanxi Province. They comprises 7 bowls, six dishes and a 8-edged purification vase (see below picture on right). According to a stone tablet in the underground chamber, there were ?seven mi se (secret colour) porcelain bowls, a silver-edged (bowl), six mi se dishes and plates etc. The inscription indicates that these were the secret colour porcelains of the Tang dynasty. Most of the bowls and dishes have a 5-petal rim; where the petals meet is a groove which slants downward and inward. The form is shaped like a lotus flower and is very beautiful. These secret colour porcelains were covered with a glaze which was green like lake water, greyish green or yellowish green. The glaze is even and translucent. These secret colour porcelains were similar to the sherds found in kilns at the Shanglin Lake in terms of forms, biscuit, glaze and the use of porcelain clay as support during firing.
The Wuyue produced large amount of mise porcelains and sent as tribute to the Northern powerful states and subsequently to the Northern Song court . 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."
There is also no conclusive interpretation of the meaning for the word mise.
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.
those Yue ware with very good quality glaze texture and colour and fine
workmanship are widely classified as mise. Hence, undoubtedly there is some
subjectivity involved when deciding whether a piece of Yue ware is mise .
Copyright : NK Koh (17 Mar