An important and extremely rare Ru ‘sky-blue’ tea bowl. Northern Song dynasty, late 11th-early 12th century. 4 in (10.2 cm) diameter. Estimate on request. Offered in Important Chinese

Collecting guide: Chinese celadon ware ceramics

As a selection of celadon ware ceramics, including this 1,000-year-old Ru tea bowl, come to auction in Hong Kong, specialist Joan Ho steers us through the evolution of the grey-green ceramic ware, from Yue to Yaozhou to Ru

What is celadon ware?

The term ‘celadon ware’, also known as green ware, refers to a type of ceramic with a soft grey-green-coloured glaze. The effect is achieved through applying an iron-rich liquefied clay ‘slip’ to the ceramic before it is fired in a kiln. During the heating process, the iron oxidises to leave a delicate and lustrous green coating.

Despite its later European name, the celadon glaze technique originated in China during the Shang (1600-1046 BC) and Zhou (1046-256 BC) dynasties, when potters began experimenting with glaze recipes.

Today, evidence of the first ‘true’ celadon ware, when production of the glazes was standardised, comes in the form of excavated shards of celadon ware from the Siqianyao kiln site in Shangyu county, Zhejiang province. These date from the time of the Eastern Han dynasty (25-220).

Yue celadon ware

After the fall of the Han dynasty, and during the subsequent Six Dynasties period (220-589), kilns producing a variation of celadon ware, known as Yue ware, were established across the Ningbo-Shaoxing plain in northeastern Zhejiang.

Yue celadon ware was typically fired above 1,300°C in order to achieve its signature grey-green colour. It was primarily produced for the imperial court, although by the 8th century it was being exported across south and east Asia, and as far as Iraq and East Africa.

A very rare Yue mise box and cover, Late Tang dynasty-Five dynasties, 9th-10th century. 6⅞ in (17.5 cm) diam. Sold for HK$2,100,000 on 31 May 2017 at Christie’s in Hong Kong

A very rare Yue mise box and cover, Late Tang dynasty-Five dynasties, 9th-10th century. 6⅞ in (17.5 cm) diam. Sold for HK$2,100,000 on 31 May 2017 at Christie’s in Hong Kong

Noted for its muted colour and simple, incised designs, Yue celadon ware is today considered the prototype for many later celadon wares made throughout China.

Yaozhou celadon ware

From around the 10th century, kilns along the banks of the Qishui River in Huangbao town, in Tongchuan city in northern China, began producing their own variant known as Yaozhou celadon ware. The Yaozhou kilns had initially produced black and white glazed ceramics, before switching to imitate Yue celadon-coloured glazes during the Five Dynasties period (907-960).

A very rare carved Yaozhou petal-rim jar, Northern Song dynasty, 11th century. 4⅝ in (11.8 cm) high. Sold for HK$1,960,000 on 2 December 2015 at Christie’s in Hong Kong

A very rare carved Yaozhou petal-rim jar, Northern Song dynasty, 11th century. 4⅝ in (11.8 cm) high. Sold for HK$1,960,000 on 2 December 2015 at Christie’s in Hong Kong

Yaozhou potters also adopted the decorative styles of Yue celadon ware, beginning with low relief linear designs incised or moulded into the object’s surface, which were designed to mimic brush strokes. These eventually developed into complex symmetrical patterns during the time of the Song dynasty (960-1279).

A rare Yaozhou carved ‘egrets and peony’ truncated meiping, Northern Song dynasty (960–1127). 5⅞  in (14.6 cm) wide. Sold for HK$2,125,000 on 30 May 2018 at Christie’s in Hong Kong

A rare Yaozhou carved ‘egrets and peony’ truncated meiping, Northern Song dynasty (960–1127). 5⅞ in (14.6 cm) wide. Sold for HK$2,125,000 on 30 May 2018 at Christie’s in Hong Kong

Because of these stylistic developments, the popularity of Yaozhou celadon ware quickly rivalled that being produced in the Yue kilns. Historical records, including a rubbing taken from a documentary stone stele from 1084, praise the mastery of the Yaozhou potters and describe how the tactility and olive-green colour of their celadon glazes made them look like jade.

A rubbing of a documentary stone stele about Yaozhou kilns, dating to Yuangeng cyclical year of the Song dynasty (1084). 49¼ in (125 cm) long; 24¼ in (61.6 cm) wide. Sold for HK$37,500 on 4 October 2018 at Christie’s in Hong Kong

A rubbing of a documentary stone stele about Yaozhou kilns, dating to Yuangeng cyclical year of the Song dynasty (1084). 49¼ in (125 cm) long; 24¼ in (61.6 cm) wide. Sold for HK$37,500 on 4 October 2018 at Christie’s in Hong Kong

Longquan celadon ware

Longquan celadon ware, another successor to Yue celadon ware, also emerged around the 10th century, from a village named Dayao in southern China.

Initially, during the Northern Song dynasty (960-1127), Longquan ware was covered in celadon glazes ranging in colour from faint yellowish-green to a dark olive tone, before evolving to adopt pastel and sea-green shades by the time of the Southern Song dynasty (1127-1279).

After taking initial cues from both Yue and Yaozhou celadon ware, Longquan celadon ware eventually developed its own decorative style, combining elements of impressed designs, spotted splashes and intricate moulded appliqués.

The Longquan celadon mallet-shaped kinuta  vase shown above is from the Southern Song dynasty (1127-1279), and is being sold at Christie’s in Hong Kong on 26 November. Its particularly rare, long-necked shape was highly prized by Japanese tea masters for its beauty. This example was passed through generations of the Hachisuka family, one of Japan’s most successful and longstanding feudal clans of Edo period Japan. 

A very rare Longquan celadon russet-splashed vase, Yuhuchunping, Yuan dynasty (1279-1368). 9⅞  in (25  cm) high, box. Estimate HK$2,000,000-3,000,000. Offered in Important Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art on 28 November 2018 at Christie’s in Hong Kong

A very rare Longquan celadon russet-splashed vase, Yuhuchunping, Yuan dynasty (1279-1368). 9⅞ in (25 cm) high, box. Estimate HK$2,000,000-3,000,000. Offered in Important Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art on 28 November 2018 at Christie’s in Hong Kong

The exquisite craftsmanship of Longquan celadon ware remained prized for centuries. Archaeological evidence from the Fengdongyan kiln at Dayao revealed that it produced celadon ware for the imperial courts of emperors Hongwu (r. 1368-1398) and Yongle (r. 1403-1425) during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644).

Ru ware

For a brief period around the year 1100, a particularly rare style of celadon ware known as Ru ware was produced in the Ru kiln in the village of Qingliang Temple, Baofeng county, Henan province.

An important and extremely rare Ru ‘sky-blue’ tea bowl, Northern song dynasty, late 11th-early 12th century. 4  in (10.2  cm)  diam, Japanese wood boxes, one inscribed Seiji Chawan (celadon tea bowl). Estimate on request. Offered in Beyond Compare A Thousand Years of the Literati Aesthetic (Evening Sale) on 26 November 2018 at Christie’s in Hong Kong

An important and extremely rare Ru ‘sky-blue’ tea bowl, Northern song dynasty, late 11th-early 12th century. 4 in (10.2 cm) diam, Japanese wood boxes, one inscribed Seiji Chawan (celadon tea bowl). Estimate on request. Offered in Beyond Compare: A Thousand Years of the Literati Aesthetic (Evening Sale) on 26 November 2018 at Christie’s in Hong Kong

Noted for its distinct bluey-green-coloured glaze, and for being mostly free from any decoration, Ru ware was reserved for the imperial court. It has been suggested that it was accepted as a form of tax on the local kiln — the court would keep prime examples for the emperor while distributing the rest to officials, temples and foreign dignitaries.

The production of Ru ware was brought to an abrupt end around 1127 when the area containing the kilns was invaded by the neighbouring Jin dynasty armies. As a result, fewer than 100 pieces survive intact today, making it some of the most coveted celadon ware among collectors and museums.

On the 26 November, in the Beyond Compare: A Thousand Years of the Literati Aesthetic auction, Christie’s is selling a newly discovered Ru 'sky-blue' tea bowl from the Northern Song dynasty (above). Unlike the majority of Ru ware, which was unearthed in archaeological excavations, this example has been passed down through generations of owners, and exhibits a striking and unusual blue colour and lustrous glaze that make it unique.