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Guan Wares

Guan wares of the Song Dynasty can be divided into those from Northern and Southern Song respectively. This article discusses the development and findings made by the Chinese archaeologists in resolving some of the mysteries and controversies surrounding the enigmatic Song guan wares. 

Ru ware and Northern Song Guan ware

The Imperial Court used tribute wares from Ding, Yaozhou, Hutian and some other kilns during the early to Mid Northern Song period.  Subsequently, mainly ru wares were used. Information regarding ru ware was not found in official sources.  Our knowledge about ru wares was essentially gathered from excerpts of some writings by the ancient scholars.  According to Lu You, who lived during the late Northern to Early Southern Song period, in his writing "Lao Xue An bi ji" "老学庵笔记" he mentioned that the imperial palace used only Ru ware after Ding ware was deemed unsuitable due to the rough rim.   

Ye Zhi in his writing "tan zhai bi heng" "坦斋笔衡" also mentioned about the discontinued usage of  Ding ware and commented that Ru ware was the best.  He further mentioned that the capital (jing shi 京师) built its own kiln which was called guanyao ,ie guan (official) kiln.   The word "jing shi" is ambiguous and can be interpreted differently.  Some interpret it as reference to the  capital Kaifeng or Bianjing and hence the guan kiln was located there.  Others think it is not referring to Kaifeng but simply meant the imperial court.  No location of the kiln was specified.  Two issues are therefore involved:  the location and the nature of the guan ware.  If  an imperial kiln was at Kaifeng, it is unlikely to be located as numerous floods caused by the Yellow river has buried the ancient site.  If it is not kaifeng, is the location in Ruzhou where ru wares were made?  And if in Ruzhou, is the guan ware actually still ru type wares? 

Ru ware from Baofeng Qingliangsi (宝丰清凉寺)

The elusive kiln producing ru wares was finally discovered in 1987 at Qingliangsi (in Henan Baofeng County.  The sixth excavation in 2000 uncovered 15 kiln furnaces, two workshops and large quantities of Ru ware, specimen and kiln furniture.  Finally, the centre of production of the Imperial Ru ware was found.  The shard specimens match those extant ru wares in the Palace collection. Ru ware was made with the northern China high alumina and low iron clay and slightly under-fired (1200 to 1250 degree centigrade) .  They are typically thin and covered with lime glaze.  The glaze  usually has a stony, slightly opaque smooth texture but could be more transparent and glassy when over fired.  With good reduction atmosphere during firing, it has a pleasant sky blue hue.  Most tend to develop fine glaze crazing resembling broken ice effect (the chinese aptly called it the fish scales effect).  The vessel is supported by fine spurs and this left the fully glazed base with a ring of 3 or five sesame seed shaped ash gray mark.

Ru Ware in Palace Museum

Views are divided on whether ru wares were made by folk kilns for the Imperial Palace or Guan (official) kiln established and managed by the Court.    Based on the finds at the Qingliangsi site, besides typical sky blue glazed Imperial wares, there were also those decorated with carved/incised and molded motif and usually covered with pea green glaze.  The latter were not found in the Palace collection and most likely made to cater to demands from the common folk. Hence, most experts held the view that the Qingliangsi Ru products for the Court were tribute ware.    This accords with Southern Song Zhou Hui comments in  Qingbo Zajizhi '清波杂志" that "Ru ware was fired for the Imperial Court. Only those rejected by the Court were allowed to be sold.  He also mentioned that agate was used for the glaze."  

The commencement date and duration of production of Ru ware was generally established as between 1087 and 1125 (during the reign of emperor Zhezhong and Huizhong). 

To find out more about Qingliangsi ru ware, click here

Ru type wares from Ruzhou Wenmiao (文庙) and Zhangong Xiang(张公巷)

The site which made the extant ru wares has therefore been found.  However, the location of the Northern Guan kiln is  still shrouded in mystery.  But all is not lost yet.  In 1999/2000, two sites which produced Ru type wares were discovered at Zhanggong Xiang and Wenmiao in Ruzhou. Despite the many similarities, there were also discernable differences.   The body is whiter and the glaze is more transparent. For those which are fully glazed, the spur mark is millet-shaped instead of the typical sesame-shaped.  There are also those without the glazed footring. The quality of the specimens are excellent and definitely not ordinary folk kiln wares.  There are speculations that it may be the site of Northern Song Guan ware.  However, it is still too early to draw any conclusion as so far the scale of the excavation is too small to unveiled the full nature of the kiln and its products.  (*Since then, further excavations was done at the Zhang Gongxiang site.  The present view is that the products were produced during the Jin period.)

Zhang Gong Xiang Shards

Alexander bowl in the British Museum

Interestingly, the specimens of the subsequent two sites might have resolved the mystery surrounding the famous Alexander bowl in the British Museum.  The base of the footring of the bowl is not glaze and has a cream white paste.  It has a smooth and greyish blue-green  glaze. The paste material is therefore different from typical ru where which is ash gray in colour.  It also does not have a fully-glazed footring and not fired on spur. Regina Krahl wrote an article in the Orientation magazine to discuss the bowl.  She mentioned that Hobson thought it is ru ware and the great collector Godfrey Gompertz concluded it is Northern Guan.  During a conference on Ge ware in 1992, she came across 4 shards in the Shanghai Museum collection which she commented that the similarities to the Alexander bowl is striking and appeared to have been made at the same kiln.  The origin of the 4 shards was unknown then.  In 2001, a Mr Zhu Wenli brought some shard specimen and kiln furniture found in Ruzhou Wenmiao to the Shanghai museum.  Some of the shards were similar to the 4 shards mentioned earlier.   The Shanghai museum scientifically tested the Wenmiao and shanghai shards.  They were found to have the same chemical composition.  Hence, the Alexander bowl is very likely a product of the kiln in Wenmiao.

Zhang Gong Xiang shards (courtesy of Mr Zhu Wen Li)

Southern Song court porcelain wares before setting up of Xiuneisi kiln(修内司)

The source of porcelain wares for Southern Song imperial court is much more complex as compared with Northern Song.  After the collapse of the Northern Song, Emperor Gaozong fled Kaifeng in A.D. 1127 and was constantly pursued by the Jin army until finally setting up capital in Linan (present day Hangzhou) in A.D. 1140.  During that duration, despite the uncertainty and constant need to flee from the enemy, the imperial court held a number of ritual ceremony.  A portion of the ritual vessels were made of porcelain.  The recently discovered "zhongxing lishu" "中兴礼书", a book on rites , revealed that Yuyao (余姚) and Pingjiang (平江) in present day Jiangsu, were ordered to make the ritual vessels on several occasions.  Archaeological excavations have uncovered 3 kiln sites in Yuyao, ie Di ling tou (低岭头), Si longkoou (寺龙口) and Ka Daoshan (开刀山).  The Southern Song layer in those kilns have fragments of vessels with thick opaque guan type glaze. Thos were previously sites which produced Yue wares.   The kiln sites in Pingjiang have not been discovered yet.

Xiuneisi kiln(修内司) also termed nei yao (内窑)

According to Ye Zhi's Tan Zai Bi Heng "坦斋笔衡", after the court move to the south, an official by the name of Shao Chengzhang was appointed to set up kiln in accordance with the practice of the old capital and under the Xiuneisi Department (Department for the maintenance of imperial buildings, including imperial kilns) to produce porcelain wares to meet the needs of imperial court and the sacrificial rites; later another kiln was built at the foot of the Jiaotan (Suburban Altar). 

In 1996,  a kiln site at Laohudong (老虎洞),ie Tiger cave located at the Phoenix mountain, Hangzhou was discovered.  The kiln site covers an area approximately 2000 sq m. Three dragon kilns, 4 kiln furnaces for firing biscuits, and other kiln furnitures were found.  Tens of thousands of shards were unearthed from more than 20 hoards at the site.  The quality of the shards were exquisite and of  high quality.  The characteristics of the shards are very similar to the extant Guan wares in the National Palace museum of Taiwan and Beijing; and the British Museum.  The early Southern Song layer consisted of vessels with thick clay body and thick glaze.    Most have crackled glaze in grayish blue or straw colour tone and have black or ash gray paste. The grayish blue glaze is visually similar to the ru wares. The vessel in the later Southern Song become smaller and thinner in potting and the glaze progressively thicker.  They have lower and straight footring.  Vessels included bowls, dishes, jar, cup-stand, various zun and gu vases, incense burners and etc.  

The Laohudong kiln have been extensively surveyed and discussed by chinese ceramic experts.  There was a general consensus that this is the Xiuneisi kiln mentioned in ancient texts.  They are also of the view that it started production around A.D. 1144 and continued production until mid Southern Song.  It was still in operation when Jiaotanxia kiln was set up.

Jiaotanxia kiln (郊襢下)

The Jiaotanxia Kiln was located at the Phoenix Mountain, just outside Hangzhou city.  It was discovered in the 1930s.  The Jiaotanxia started production sometime around A.D. 1204.  The earlier Jiaotanxia  Guan wares have a thin body and thin glaze.  The colour of glaze ranges from gray-blue to gray-green glaze  or cream, yellowish or light brown if oxidation occurred during the firing cycle.  Most vessels were fired using spur supports.  But the big vases, beakers, bottles and other display and ritual forms were fired using ring pads as support, and hence have unglazed footring base.   These Guan wares were similar to the Ru wares in terms of their glaze composition, forms, shapes and firing using spurs as support. They were a continuation of the Northern Song Ru tradition.   These Guan wares used porcelain stone and a purplish (zijin) clay, with high proportions of aluminium oxide and ferric oxide. The dark iron-rich clay enhanced the depth of the crackled glazes and produced the famous 'purple rims and iron foot'.  It also enable the biscuit to be made thin. 

At the end of the 12th century, Jiaotanxia Guan kiln created a new type of Guan wares with thin body and multi-layered glaze produced by multiple firing, layer by layer. The bodies of bowls, dishes and washers were very thin, sometimes less than 1 mm thick. The glaze might be 3 to 5 layers thick, ranging from 1.0 to 2.5 mm thick.  It is there thicker than the body.  The layered glaze scatters light and enhances the depth of Guan glazes.  Because of the thick glaze, ring pads replaced spurs as support during firing.  Vessels included bowls, dishes, shallow cups, cups, washers, boxes, alms bowls, lamps and other small objects for daily use. They were small, refined and exquisite.  Some display or ritual vessels took the form of  Shang and Zhou archaic bronze wares such as tripod vessels of different shapes, censors, beakers, long tubes, garlic head vases, etc. 

Guan Wares in Palace Museum

Other guan type wares for the Southern Song Court

It is not easy to differentiate the Xiuneisi and Jiaotanxia guan wares as they are very similar.  Some of the Longquan kiln such as Dayao and Jincun are known to have produced guan type wares.  The top quality pieces were sent to the imperial court as tribute ware.  They also have the black body, multi-layered glaze and display similar glaze appearance. 

The situation is further complicated by the existence of other kilns that supplied ceramic wares to the imperial court. Besides kiln at  Yuyao, pingjiang, xiuneisi and Jiaotanxia, there are other kilns quoted in ancient texts.  The Southern Song scholar Gu Wenjian (顾文荐) in his writing Fuxuan zalu (复暄杂录), mentioned that wares from wuni yao (乌泥窑), yuyao yao (余姚窑) and xu yao (续窑) were qualitatively inferior to those from Jiaotanxia.  Wuni yao and xu yao are still a mystery to be resolved.  The characteristics of their wares, the nature of the kiln ie whether they are Guan kiln or  folk kiln supplying tribute ware and when/duration of production are yet to be determined.

Ge ware

In the Yuan layer of the Laohudong kiln, there are spurs with the mongolian script basiba characters.  The yellowish gray and bluish gray shards appeared to be similar to the extant Ge wares in the palace collection.  Scientific tests showed that the chemical composition of the laohudong speciman and the extant ge wares are similar.  The chinese experts are of the view that  Ge wares are the Yuan imitation of the Song Xiuneisi guan wares.

Ge Ware in Palace Museum

Summary of Sources of wares used by Song imperial court


Nature of Ware Northern Song (A.D 960 -1127) Southern Song (A.D 1127 - 1279)
    After A.D 1087   After A.D 1144
Local tribute ware Yaozhou, Yue, Ding, Hutian, etc Ru ware (Qingliangsi) Yuyao (Di lingtou, silongkou, kaidoshan), Pingjiang Longquan
Official ware   Northern guan (Wenmiao / Zhanggongxiang ?), Guan Jun?


  Xiuneisi (Laohudong) (from A.D 1144), Jiaotanxia (from A.D 1204)
Unknown nature       wuni yao, xu yao

 *Guan Jun is a controversial category which included some ritual wares and pots for plants.  It was not mentioned in the Song writings and the earliest mention was in Ming Xuande period.  Currenlty, there are proponents for Northern Song, Jin and lately even early Ming beginning period of production.  Zhejiang Museum did a TL test of a guan Jun specimen from the Henan Yuxian Baguadong  and it gave a earliest dating of A.D 1318.  

Copyright : NK Koh (updated 6 Nov 2009)

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