• 1948.119

Korea in Focus: Goryeo Celadons in Relation to Chinese Ceramics

In-Hee Song, PhD candidate, Ewha Womans University
Published September 21, 2020

Having left their homeland due to political upheaval, Chinese potters introduced new technologies and styles to Korean potters, who successfully reinvented the distinctive Goryeo style, making the tenth century a new era of technical and stylistic sophistication in the production of celadon wares in Korea.

Introduction of Advanced Technologies

Since unifying the rest of the Korean peninsula in 936 and founding its dynasty, the Goryeo ruling house saw an urgent need to establish rituals and ceremonies to stabilize its state. Early kiln sites that produced ritual vessels, exclusively found in the capital Gaeseong in today’s North Korea, are evidence of the ruling dynasty’s efforts. For example, a jar with an inscription that bears its use at the royal ancestral shrine with a creation date of 993 (below) indicates the close relevance between the institutionalized celadon production and the establishment of royal rituals in the early phase of the Goryeo period.

The excavations from several kiln sites located in the middle western part of the Korean peninsula strongly attest to the possible transmission of firing technology from the Chinese Yue kilns located in Yuezhou county, present-day Zhejiang province, that had manufactured celadons of the best quality since the Tang dynasty.

Unlike the traditional type of kilns, the ten-meters-long clay, brick-walled kilns climbing up the hillside that bear great similarities with Chinese Yue kilns finally enabled Goryeo potters to fire ceramics at higher temperatures. Not only the structure of kilns, but also useful tools such as saggars and ring-shaped supports were excavated from those kiln sites, indicating the successful transfer of advanced Chinese techniques to Korea already by the 900s.

Korean potters, however, soon started their own creative inventions. Such endeavors—to revise foreign elements in accordance with their own needs—can be found in the kiln structure. The kiln sites found in Gangjin, the southern coastal region, dated to the late 1000s, were mainly built with clay and supported by stone, reflecting the traditional Korean style of stoneware kilns. Goryeo potters found smaller clay-built kilns to be easier to control over the firing process than longer brick-walled kilns.

Goryeo potters remained extremely keen about adopting new technologies constantly in flux throughout China. Instead of the ring-shaped supports originally modeled after the practice of the Yue kilns, Korean potters adopted three or four small silica chips or clay balls, supporting props much used in the Ru kilns, the state kilns where ceramic wares were produced for the Northern Song imperial house. Goryeo potters also enthusiastically adopted a technique of a second firing. Shards of biscuits discovered from the clay-built kiln sites in Gangjin and nearby areas demonstrate the experimentation that began in the 1000s. The second firing allowed potters to achieve thicker glazing, which determined the final hues of Goryeo celadons. Goryeo celadons’ translucent blue-green glaze was highly prized because it looked like jade.

Inspiration from Diverse Chinese Wares

Through centuries, various Chinese kilns and their practices served as inspiring prototypes for Korean potters of the Goryeo period.

Yue Ware

Some of the works in the CMA collection, for example, exhibit centuries-long influence of Chinese Yue ware on Goryeo celadons. The incised parrot design found in bowls (1924.136, 1918.482) might have been inspired by the decoration motifs of Yue ware that feature long-tailed birds flying in a circle. Emulating Chinese prototypes, Goryeo potters continued to reinvent new designs that reflect Korean aesthetics. A long-necked bottle with incised floral design (1921.622) might be a good example. While this type of long-necked bottle is known to have originated in the Chinese Yue kiln, Korean potters modified the shape with a longer neck and a more bulging body.

Qingbai Ware

From the late 1000s, new types of Chinese ceramic ware of the Northern Song period served as new inspiration for Korean potters. When the Goryeo dynasty normalized diplomatic relations with Northern Song China in 1071, whole new types of bowls, dishes, cups, ewers, vases, and bottles were produced, as the Chinese diplomat Xu Jing aptly described in his travelogue about his travel to Korea in 1123.

While the shapes and decorations were soon adjusted to the aesthetics of Goryeo, the melon-shaped vase (1944.164) in the CMA collection typifies the stylistic influence of the qingbai ware: bluish-white porcelain produced in the Chinese Jingdezhen kilns. With a plain flared mouth, long neck with incised lotus petal design, and short fluted base, it is characteristically an early Goryeo model more like the Chinese prototype, compared to the later works with the undulating rim and longer base, best represented by the vase from King Injong’s tomb (r. 1122−46) in the collection of National Museum of Korea (Celadon Melon-shaped Bottle, National Treasure of Korea, No. 94).

From Ru to Cizhou Wares

The prunus vase, often called maebyeong (meiping in Chinese) exemplifies the Goryeo potters’ integration of Chinese elements (1921.645). The earlier type with a slender shape was influenced by Chinese models from the Ru, Ding, Jingdezhen, Yaozhou, and Cizhou kilns that flourished during the Northern Song dynasty (2017.20, 1940.52, 1948.119). But, by the early 1100s, the shape evolved to be rounder and curvier (1957.52).

The prunus vase became a staple item of Gangjin and Buan kilns, the two most central Goryeo kilns located in the south coastal regions. It has long been known to be used as flower vases or wine bottles. Recent discoveries excavated from underwater shipwrecks, however, reveal that the vase also served as containers for various liquids, including honey and sesame oil.

The prunus vase with incised lotus design (1921.645) in the CMA collection epitomizes the style of the 1100s and 1200s. The lotus flower is one of the most favored decorative motifs during this period, and the vase is adorned with three different spreads of lotus flowers outlined with light bevel cuts. On the other hand, the iron-glazed prunus vase with inlaid floral (possibly ginseng flower) design (1961.270), reflects the growing interest in colored ceramics in the 1200s.

Jingdezhen Ware

The style of prunus vases changed over the late 1200s and the early 1300s, when the Goryeo dynasty became part of a larger Yuan empire (1271−1368). During that period, Goryeo vases adopted the stylistic features of blue-and-white porcelains from the Chinese Jingdezhen kilns. As for the shape, they have a more sloping shoulder and curved contour, with their mouths flared out. The overall decoration became busier and more intricate. For example, the three-tier design: the shoulder, body, as shown in these examples (1921.634, 1918.472), and the base, became established under the inspiration of the multitier designs on the blue-and-white porcelains favored in the Yuan imperial court (1962.154).

New types of vessels, such as stem cups, flasks, and vases with flattened sides, produced from the late 1200s to the 1300s, also display Yuan influences. Two examples (1918.471, 1975.99) in the CMA collection reflect such trends at that time. As in the prunus vases, one can clearly note the inlaid designs in three tiers from shoulder to base. Between the lotus petal on the shoulder and the lower body, the lotus pond, one of the most favored motifs of Goryeo celadons, is placed in the quatrefoil borders on the flattened sides. The decoration on the curved sides features bamboo and plum blossoms on one and flowering plants on the other. The two animal-shaped ornaments on the shoulder further bedeck the vase inlaid with lotus, plum, and bamboo designs, making it rare and exquisite (1918.471).

Goryeo celadon stands out as the epitome of ceramic production of the era. Over the centuries, the integration of foreign and domestic designs and technologies are featured in the Korean Goryeo period celadons. Even after the Goryeo dynasty collapsed, the technology and aesthetic value of Goryeo celadon endured. Its firing techniques laid the groundwork for the ceramic production of buncheong ware in the following Joseon period (1392–1910). The fascination for the styles of Goryeo celadon also lasted into the early Joseon dynasty, as examples of buncheong wares in the CMA collection show (1990.14, 1963.505). The artistic importance of Goryeo celadon transcends the boundaries of time and space, making it a crucial link in the intertwined ceramic traditions of East Asia.


Support for this web article publication provided by the National Museum of Korea


Collection in Focus Category: 
Museum Collection