A mysterious and delicate beauty: Korean moon jars

The object conveys the history of a uniquely Korean identity through its masterful simplicity

Throughout the five centuries of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1897), Korea followed the neo-Confucian belief system. Plain white porcelain dominated the region’s ceramic production, but in the 18th century — when the country’s elite were cultivating a new, distinctly Korean identity — these ceramics began to take on the importance they have today, as they represented exactly this Confucian identity, especially when they took the form of the moon jar (dal-hang-ari). 

Moon jars grew in popularity for a variety of reasons, but much of their importance derived from the fact that they embodied core Confucian ideals. Their anonymous white surface portrayed a sense of purity, while the decision to not decorate them showed restraint on the part of the artist, who resisted filling their surface with imagery. Because of this, they served the dual purpose of being a ceremonial and utilitarian object.

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An important white porcelain moon jar, Joseon Dynasty, 18th century. Height: 17¾ in (45.1 cm). Sold $4,560,000 in Japanese and Korean Art on 21 March 2023 at Christie’s New York

Their luminous white colour comes from the use of baekja, an especially refined white kaolin clay with little to no iron oxide. Even a little iron, as demonstrated in styles such as celadon porcelain from the Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392), produces a blue or green tint. The kaolin used in moon jars, however, requires a much higher firing temperature of at least 2370°F (1300°C). 

As a result of the amount of heat required, kilns were required to move every ten or so years, due to depleting local firewood reserves. 

The ceramic production complexes where they were produced were an industrial enterprise, often with more than 100 kilns operating at a time. Potters here would form each half of the jar on large wheels, building up the walls by hand while using their feet to move the wheels around. Earlier jars have a compressed and more rounded opening at the top, while later ones have a straighter and higher mouth. 

Being a two-part process, these halves would be carefully joined together in the middle and then left to dry, often given an initial heating at a lower temperature before being glazed and fully fired.

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An important white porcelain moon jar, Joseon Dynasty, 18th century. Height: 17¾ in (45.1 cm). Sold for $4,560,000 in Japanese and Korean Art on 21 March 2023 at Christie’s New York

Part of the appeal of their form came from this entirely handmade process, as it usually resulted in slight deviations from a perfectly circular shape. But the unpredictable changes produced by the firing — such as yellow- or rose-hued spots on the surface depending on airflow, impurities in the glaze, or slight differences in temperature — complemented their attractive structural asymmetry. The Korean word yobyeon, meaning ‘change in the kiln’, evokes the unpredictability of how elements like earth and fire interact, especially in these densely packed kilns. 

In 1709, Yi Ha-hon (1677-1724) observed a firing at a government kiln, recording his impressions in a poem: ‘As many as 30 names for bowls…/Cannot express the beauty of shape, colour and quality/All are precious beyond measure.’ 

In the rigid social system of the Joseon Dynasty, it was rare for an upper-class man to visit a place where artisans worked, and even more so for him to record what he saw in verse. So fascinated was Yi Ha-hon, that he had to see where these objects were produced, maybe to prove to himself that they were in fact made by the hands of man.

‘Cannot express the beauty of shape, colour and quality... All are precious beyond measure’ — Yi Ha-hon

Despite this, it wasn’t until the 20th century, when Japanese scholars and collectors began to appreciate their beauty beyond their utility, that moon jars became highly sought after pieces of art. Having originally been made to be as useful as they were decorative, these jars took on a new value, one which only increased as the art market realised their rarity. 

With this increased focus, contemporary artists also began to draw inspiration from them, such as Kim Whanki (1913-1974), who frequently portrayed or alluded to them in his paintings. Kim is also the artist credited with naming them ‘moon jars,’ a term he used to enhance the elusive beauty of this ceramic form that resembles a shape in the night sky. Prior to this, they were simply known as baekja daeho — ‘large white jars.’ The use of this term is the moment that moon jars shift from being something to be lived with, to being more sculptural, more contemplative objects and, importantly, highly representative of a uniquely Korean identity.

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An important white porcelain moon jar, Joseon Dynasty, 18th century. Height: 17¾ in (45.1 cm). Sold for $4,560,000 in Japanese and Korean Art on 21 March 2023 at Christie’s New York

Such is what RM, the leader of the legendary K-Pop group BTS saw in the vessels when he began to collect them. He said, ‘This is exactly Korea!’ when visiting the studio of well-known contemporary ceramic artist Kwon Dae-sup in 2020, and purchasing one of his moon jars. Kwon is part of a new generation of artists making these jars today, but without a doubt the most sought-after jars for collectors are those from the Joseon period, because there are only 30 or so extant works in the world. 

As symbols of Korean identity, moon jars embody more than just the spiritual practice of a period in history. Their colour speaks to the importance of white throughout the history of Korea, and their symmetry of asymmetry — that is, the imperfections resulting from their production — reflects the subtle changes between objects found in nature. This, in turn, makes them look more like the ever-changing moon than a perfect circle ever would. They wax and they wane, and in viewing them we may very well never see the same shape twice. 

As Kim Whanki wrote in his 1963 poem ‘Jar’: 'From their simple round form and pure white colour,/the mysterious, complicated, and delicate beauty of the aesthetic emerges.’

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