A Quick Guide to Song Dynasty “Classic” Wares
By Lily Hannah Spencer
When most people think of Chinese ceramics they tend to think of Yuan and Ming dynasty blue-and-white bowls and vases. However, the Chinese porcelain tradition goes back long before the development of that particular aesthetic. During the Song dynasty, designs leant more towards the minimalist and elegant in contrast to the large, busy and thick designs of the Ming dynasty. Before the hegemony of the Jingdezhen kilns under the Yuan and Ming emperors, there were several different kiln sites, each with their own styles and techniques. The ceramics are now classified according to their origins. This articles focuses on the court-patronised wares – the so-called “classic” wares – but there were several other styles including Northern and Southern Celadon wares and Cizhou wares.
The five classic wares are the Ding 定, Ru 汝, Jun 鈞, Guan 官 and Ge 哥 styles. Some of the names, such as the Ru and Ge, are the names that were used at the time of creation, while some names have come into use since. They are classified according to their characteristics, which derive from the materials, shape, decoration, technique and colour. Visually, they are most easily differentiated by the colour and transparency of their glazes.
Ding wares are characterised by their ivory-white painted glaze, white paste porcelain body of moderate thickness and incised patterning. These are always floral and tend to be in the shape of lotuses and leaves. Ding wares are also characterised by the black rims that came as a result of them being fired upside-down, leaving their rims free of glaze. They were made in Ding Xian (modern Chuyang) Hebei province.
With only about seventy recorded examples left in existence, Ru ware is the most rare and, therefore, the most sought-after type of Chinese porcelain. They were made in Ruzhou and only during the reign of two emperors, a period that spanned only 40 years. When these do come up for sale, there is a clamour among the world’s wealthy connoisseurs, and they are snatched up at multi-million-dollar prices. A piece went on sale at Sotheby’s Hong Kong in 2012 and fetched approximately £21 million. They can be identified by their very thin porcelain and the characteristic turquoise-blue colour, usually with very fine crackling – although the less crackling there is, the higher its value. Their colour means they fall into the ‘celadon’ category, which were highly prized at the time given their resemblance to jade. Their forms tend to be small and very simple, reflecting the promoted values of the court – modesty and simplicity. When fired, they were balanced on stilts so that they were left with only the smallest unglazed marks on their bottoms.
Jun wares are the only non-porcelain ceramics of the classic five styles. They are thick stoneware with a thick lavender-blue glazing. Many are plain blue, but some, like the one shown above, have a purple splashed pattern, which was a new and innovative technique at the time. Some Jun wares are entirely this purple colour and some incorporate red. They also tend to come in shapes very different to Ding and Ru wares. Being a thicker material, Jun wares tend to come in heavier, less delicate shapes, but they still follow the tradition of copying ancient bronzes and floral forms.
Like Ru, Guan wares are also a type of celadon and are characterised by their semi-transparent turquoise-blue glaze. Also like Ru, they are characterised by their crackled surface, but in the Guan this is more prominent. The crackle of Guan ware is known as ‘single crackle,’ as opposed to the crackle of Ge wares (to be described next), which is called ‘gold thread and iron wire’ crackle. Guan and Ge are very similar and connoisseurs still argue about what really differentiates them. However, they have historically been treated as separate and their classification tends to be up to the discretion of experts. Guan wares come in similar shapes to Ding ware, with similarly thick rims.
Ge 哥 Ware
As previously mentioned Ge wares are very similar to Guan wares, both being crackled celadon. They tend to be of similar thickness and made in the same range of shapes. However, in Ge wares the crackle tends to be darker, thicker and more extensive and its colour tends to be less blue and less vibrant. Some experts have suggested that Ge wares are a later attempt to replicate Guan wares but the truth is, we really do not know. Nevertheless, they were patronised by the court as a separate category and continued to be popular among the emperors.
Chinese ceramics are seen as the quintessence of Chinese culture and are the pride of the nation. However, this image is dominated by the blue-and-white wares of the Ming dynasty, while the five classic wares of the Song remain the domain of experts and connoisseurs. Hopefully this short study of the Imperial wares has given you an insight into the enormous variety of enchanting and sophisticated styles of Chinese ceramics.
Pierson, Stacey and S. F. M. McCausland, Song Ceramics: Objects of Admiration. London: School of Oriental and African Studies, 2003.
The Sotheby’s Auction House Website
Image Sources (all accessed on the 17th Nov. 2016):