In the Song dynasty (960-1279) Chinese ceramics experienced a peak of diversity as well as excellence. The choice of fine wares for the altar, the table and the kitchen, the writing desk and the dressing room, for decoration and display around the house, and for use outdoors was vast. The Chinese imperial house had not yet limited the distribution of superior wares to court use – except perhaps in the case of Ru ware – therefore many of the best items produced entered free circulation. Although much was mass-produced, most kilns made a wide range of qualities and styles and created besides standard wares also exceptional and unique items. It was for the collector to pick and choose – and be judged accordingly in connoisseurs’ circles.

N09338_essay_fig1Lot 49

The tradition of making fine ceramics had its origins in China much earlier. The first truly practical ceramics date back to the Bronze Age. Immense skills and efforts were necessary to create them and to achieve firing temperatures high enough for the body to ‘vitrify’ and to turn into hard, dense and durable stoneware; but in spite of this breakthrough, ceramics in general hardly rose in esteem. Even the fine Yue wares created between the Han (206 BC – AD 220) and Tang (618-907) dynasties were largely intended for use as superior burial goods and specially fashioned as non-utilitarian vessels, like the ‘Yue’ ware bowl with bird in the center, (lot 46), or the chicken-head ewer with its mock spout, (lot 55).

In the Tang dynasty (618-907), when tea drinking became popular and developed into a cult, tea connoisseurs began to take note of the best vessels to use, and ceramics with their ability to both absorb and keep heat were judged ideal for tea drinking, as they kept the liquid hot and the cup cool enough to handle. Already in the Tang dynasty there existed a choice of wares from various kilns, in particular white wares of the Xing and Ding kilns in Hebei (lot 49), green wares from the Yue manufactories in Zhejiang (lot 56), black wares from various kilns in Henan (lot 58), and wares with underglaze painted decoration from Changsha in Hunan (lot 52).

N09338_essay_fig2Lot 69

As tea specialists began to distinguish between the wares from different kilns and identified preferences, and kiln centers became known by name, competition increased quality. It was in particular exquisite glossy white vessels such as the two deep cups, (lot 50), that eventually broke the ice and made ceramics presentable at all levels of society. China’s fine, often translucent, sparkling white vessels, which were hard as stone and emitted a bright note when struck, created a sensation wherever they became available, both inland and abroad, and gave rise to myths where they were known only from hearsay. A precious substance, beautiful and practical, yet manmade and thus much cheaper than fine metals and stones, had not existed before.

The connoisseurship of these stonewares culminated in the Song dynasty, which could be called the age of ceramics. Ceramic-making areas multiplied and their products became more and more sophisticated. Most kilns made a variety of different wares, but some manufactories developed and concentrated on one special product for which they became famous, with which their name was identified, and which in turn was copied elsewhere.

N09338_essay_fig3Lot 90

Notable for their greenish celadon wares besides the Yue kilns (e.g. lot 59) were now also the Yaozhou kilns of Shaanxi in the north (e.g. lot 63), and the Longquan kilns of Zhejiang (e.g. lots 6569) in the south; for white wares it was the Ding kilns in the north (lot 66), the Jingdezhen kilns in Jiangxi in the south (e.g. lots 101104); for black wares the Jizhou and Jian kilns in Jiangxi and Fujian in the south (e.g. lots 9391, and 9094, respectively), while in the north a great number of kilns in Henan, Hebei, Shanxi and elsewhere produced fine examples (e.g. lots 7776) without any single center taking on a leading role. A new development were the thick blue glazes of the Jun kilns of Henan (e.g. lots 8385) and particularly their sensational decoration with deep purple splashes (e.g. lot 86), as well as the contrasting, often calligraphic designs in black and white or subtler degrees of shading of the Cizhou (e.g. lots 7278) and Dengfeng kilns (lot 71). The result was a vast choice of fine ceramics for use in daily life by a large segment of society, from relatively modest households right up to the court, where ceramics were deemed fine enough to accompany or replace gold and silver.

Song Tradition: Early Ceramics from the Yang De Tang Collection

17 March 2015 | New York