AKS Home | CEFIA Home |  Korean homepage

Culture Focus

History of Korean Ceramics - 3

Ceramics of Joseon

1. Background of Production of Buncheong Ware

Buncheong ware is a generic term that refers to the ceramics of the Joseon Dynasty, which were made of celadon clay, dressed with white clay, and then fired. After Mongolian and Japanese invasions, the working environment at celadon kilns was degraded at the end of the Goryeo period. The central control of top celadon production sites in Gangjin and Buan was weakened, and the advancement of techniques was halted due to various economic and political difficulties. Master potters scattered across the country, leading to a geographical expansion of celadon production throughout the kingdom. Then, the quality of ceramics was diminished, but the base of their use was widened. As master celadon potters from Gangjin and Buan scattered to different regions and settled down there, ceramics came to have special features in different regions. In such circumstances, the glazing color and clay quality of celadon were downgraded by the end of Goryeo, and their patterns became much simpler, making the decorative design rather rough. In order to cover up such poorer quality, the grayish-blue clay body was covered with white clay and glazed with transparent enamel. Then, patterns were also added on the surface in a variety of methods. In short, ceramics were covered with white clay in order to conceal the body that had become rougher.

However, in the process of organizing the in-kind tax system collected from different regions to be delivered to the capital after the founding of the Joseon Dynasty, buncheong ware was selected as one of the most typical in-kind tax items. Then, buncheong ware with its common designs and decorations began to be produced, and they were used not only by the central and local government agencies but also by ordinary people. Most of the buncheong ware used at that time were inlaid ceramics that had also been widely used during the Goryeo era, as well as ceramics with stamped designs.

2. Various Techniques for Buncheong Ware

Buncheong ware was widely used over 200 years until the end of the 16th century, as the degraded quality of Goryeo celadon was recovered and the court of Joseon accepted it. At first, Buncheong ware followed celadon's shape and decorative techniques, but it gradually came to have its own features. There were diverse decorative techniques for buncheong ware, which differed between regions and time periods.

The decorative techniques for buncheong ware were largely divided into inlaying, stamping, scraping, engraving, iron-painting, brushing, submerging, and so on.

The inlaying technique drew directly from the technique of Goryeo's inlaid celadon, so the designs applied were similar to those of Goryeo's inlaid celadon. The two main techniques used in inlaying were line inlaying, which uses white clay only, and surface inlaying, which can be used, for example, to express petals. Joseon's inlaying technique differed from that of Goryeo in that the area of the white-inlaid surface was larger and the proportion of surface inlaying increased.

In the stamping technique, designs are stamped on the surface of still-hardening ceramics after forming the figure, and then white clay is applied on the design and scraped out to allow the design to be expressed on the stamped part. As the same stamp can be applied to many pieces, the stamping technique is advantageous in that the size and quality of ceramics produced by it can be evenly maintained at a certain level. It was because of such merits that the buncheong ware manufactured in the stamping technique was selected as an in-kind tax item. Then, similarly stamped buncheong ware was produced from across the dynasty and various inscriptions were engraved on them for the sake of convenient management. Stamping was conducted to express diverse patterns such as chrysanthemums, butterflies, lotuses, flowers, circles, straw ropes, and more, which were stamped tightly over the entire surface of the ceramics. Those stereotypical decorations were applied to stamped buncheong ware without any significant change in the type or composition of the pattern. As the quality of the stamped decoration became rougher and gradually degraded, stamped buncheong ware almost disappeared by the beginning of the 16th century.

The brushing technique is to paint white clay liquid on the surface of ceramics with an uneven brush made of pig bristles or horse hair in order to make the grain and texture of the brushstrokes naturally expressed as part of the design.

The submerging technique is a method of dipping the entire piece or part of the piece into white clay liquid. When it is done perfectly, the ceramics produced in this technique obtain a decent quality that can even be mistaken for white porcelain. The buncheong ware manufactured in the submerging technique became widespread in the latest period of buncheong ware's production, and it is understood as the outcome of pursuit of "whiteness" for ceramics.

There was also a scraping technique of first covering all or part of the ceramic with white clay by brushing or submerging and then creating patterns by scraping off parts of the white clay. This is similar to the engraving technique, in which the artisan covers all or part of the ceramic with white clay and then scrapes thin lines off to make a design and reveal the color of the body.

The most unique and dynamic decorative technique for buncheong ware was iron-painting. In this technique, the surface of the piece is covered with white clay and a pattern is painted on it using a high iron-content pigment. When fired, the pattern is rendered in a dark brown or black color. As the pattern is painted with a brush, even the same designs could be expressed in diverse styles including abstract, pictorial, or schematic. This technique was used mostly in the region of Hakbong-ri, Banpo-myeon, Gongju, Chungcheongnam-do, in the latter half of the 15th century. There exist more than 40 kiln sites in the area.

As such, a wide variety of decorative techniques were applied to buncheong ware, and, as explained above, different techniques were preferred by each region. Most of the buncheong ware of Gyeongsang-do were stamped buncheong ware, while most of the buncheong ware made in the Gyeryongsan Mountain area in Gongju, Chungcheong-do, were iron-painted buncheong ware. Also, buncheong ware decorated in the scraping and engraving techniques were mostly manufactured in the Jeolla-do region. Different techniques were popular in different ages. In early period, the most popular techniques were inlaying and stamping, and from the later 15th century, buncheong ware decorated in the brushing and submerging techniques became more popular.

There was also a scraping technique of first covering all or part of the ceramic with white clay by brushing or submerging and then creating patterns by scraping off parts of the white clay. This is similar to the engraving technique, in which the artisan covers all or part of the ceramic with white clay and then scrapes thin lines off to make a design and reveal the color of the body.

Buncheong ware used rougher clay and had a darker color than celadon or white porcelain, but they show greater vitality with freer and rather informal designs that expressed unique individuality. Notably, brush-painted buncheong ware, in which patterns are actively painted with a brush on a surface covered with white clay, gives a dynamic and rhythmical feel. Iron-painted buncheong ware, on which flowers and fishes are freely painted, reveal a more modern, relaxed, and witty beauty.

There existed a wide variety of decorative techniques for buncheong ware. They differed between regions and times. Stamped buncheong ware was the most widely-used buncheong ware for government offices. Stamped buncheong ware was produced by stamping patterns on the surface of the still-drying body after forming the shape of a vessel, covering the body with white clay, and then scraping it off to reveal the pattern in white. When compared with inlaid celadon, whose quality differed greatly according to the technique of the potter, stamped buncheong ware had an advantage of guaranteeing at least a certain level of quality and standards, as the same stamp was used repeatedly for many pieces buncheong ware. That was why stamped buncheong ware was selected as a ceramics item to be offered as a tribute to the government. Stamped buncheong ware in a similar form was produced across Korea, and diverse inscriptions were carved on them for the sake of convenient management. Various patterns including chrysanthemums, lotus flower cups, lotus flowers, circles, and straw ropes were stamped on them to fill the entire surface tightly. Stamped buncheong ware maintained a standardized type and pattern, but its stamping became rougher and gradually degraded, leading to buncheong ware's disappearance in the end.

Another type of buncheong ware that well reveals the specificity of Joseon's buncheong ware is scraped buncheong ware. The scraping technique is done by coating the surface of a vessel in white clay liquid by using a brush or dipping the body, drawing pattern on it, and then scraping the white clay off the background to reveal the clay of the body. In such a way, the pattern is expressed distinctly in white. This technique was usually applied along with the engraving technique. As the entire surface except for the pattern should be carved off, the technique required more devotion from the potter. Also, the technique was mostly used for large vessels such as vases or double-headed drums, since the area of the pattern carved on them is larger because of their characteristics. The patterns used for buncheong ware were usually peonies, peony vines, lotus flowers, lotus vines, or fish. Scraped buncheong ware was produced largely at kilns in Jeolla-do: Yongsan-ri, Gochang, Jeollabuk-do; Udong-ri, Buan, Jeollabuk-do; Chunghyo-dong, Gwangju, Jeollanam-do; and Undae-ri, Goheung, Jeollanam-do.

While the body of the white porcelain bottles of the Joseon Dynasty were created by spinning on the wheel with the flat side facing the floor to make it flat, the bodies of buncheong ware flat bottles were first formed by spinning on the wheel and then pushing both sides of the body lightly, like other earthenware flat bottles produced since the era of Unified Silla.

The Buncheong Flat Bottle with Sgraffito Lotus and Fish Design was made with the scraping technique of covering the body with white clay with a brush except for its mouth and foot, drawing the design, and then scraping the white clay from the background around the design to reveal the original color of the clay. Therefore, it has a white pattern and dark background, which creates a strong color contrast. Two rings are put around its shoulder, and petals are put under the rings. On either of the widely bulging sides are blossoming lotus flowers between lavish lotus leaves, yet-to-blossom flower buds, and fishes swimming between lotus pips, drawn in a vivid and free touch, displaying the outstanding skills and the potter's confidence in his own proficiency. The narrower sides of the body are divided into three layers; a flower pattern is drawn in the first two layers, while a lotus flower cup is drawn in the lowest layer. The boundary between each layer and pattern is marked with two lines. The scraping technique and the technique of drawing flowers on ceramics are appropriately applied to enable free expression and demonstration of the unique savor of Buncheong ware from the rough texture revealed in the design rendered in white color. The glazing of the bottle is tinged brown, and the color of the body itself is dark.

3. Buncheong Ware with Inscriptions and Their Meanings

Unlike buncheong ware produced in other techniques, many pieces of stamped buncheong ware had inscriptions on them. There are many types of inscriptions including the name of the government agency to which the buncheong ware was to be offered, the name of the place of its manufacturing, the time of manufacturing, the place of its use, marking of its grade, the name of its producer, and so forth. Notably, the name of the government agency and name of the production site were inscribed on many pieces of buncheong ware used for the in-kind tax system in which ceramics needed by government agencies were collected as tax.

Since its founding, the Joseon Dynasty implemented a system of receiving completed ceramic products to be used at the royal palace, by the central government, and by local governments after their manufacture in different regions. However, the management of those ceramics offered from different regions continued to fail due to the social confusion at the end of Goryeo and the absence of a well-operating system in the early Joseon period. In order to resolve the problem, the central government required inscriptions on ceramic products. The inscription of the name of government agencies to use the Buncheong ware was done for the purpose of clarifying who was responsible for the process of its use from manufacturing to post-manufacturing management, and the inscription of the name of each place of use from the even the manufacturing stage made the grouping of those ceramic products possible to be managed efficiently.

Inscription of letters that are presumed to be the surnames or given names of potters were found on the feet of ceramics discovered from the kiln site in Chunghyo-dong, Mudeungsan Mountain in Gwangju, Jeollanam-do, which is known to have been one of the leading kiln sites for buncheong ware. Such inscriptions seem to have been made in the interest of efficient collection of the ceramic offerings.

4. Joseon Dynasty's Royal Palace and White Porcelain

Joseon's white porcelains are compact ceramics fired at a high temperature of over 1,250–1,300℃ after making the body with clay and then glazing. Notably, as kaolin-type clay was used for them, the selection and refinement of earth, as well as the process of molding and firing, was very complicated for the completion of high-purity white porcelain. As the clay used for white porcelain had a high level of viscosity and low level of plasticity, it was not easy to form large pieces. White porcelain began to be produced from the early period of Goryeo. It was manufactured along with celadon from around the 10th century at kilns in the central region of the Korean Peninsula.

However, it was from the later 15th century when the royal palace of Joseon established the Bunwon ceramics workshop under Saongwon in Gwangju, Gyeonggi-do, that the full-fledged production of white porcelain began in accordance with the establishment of an institutional framework and standards of ceramic products. As Saongwon was a government agency in charge of food-related tasks that required formalities and procedures, including the king's daily meals, palace banquets, and envoy reception, Bunwon under Saongwon led the production of Joseon's white porcelains from the 15th century until the end of the 19th century.

One of the purposes for establishing the royal kiln in Gwangju, Gyeonggi-do, in the later 15th century was to manufacture quality ceramics to be used at the royal palace and different government agencies. The use of the royal ceramics manufactured at the royal kiln was strictly restricted according to users' social status and ranks from the early period of Joseon. White porcelain with top quality were for kings. Gyeongguk daejeon juhae (a compilation of interpretation and notes on the Gyeongguk daejeon/em>, which was the book of Joseon's codes) defined that "white porcelains are used for king's eating." Yongjae chonghwa/em> (a collection of miscellaneous writings that describe Korean culture from the Goryeo period until the reign of King Seongjong of Joseon, written by a man named Seong Hyeon), published in the early period of Joseon, re-corded, "The usage of white porcelain dishes was exclusive for the king during the reign of King Sejong."

Joseon's awareness of the importance and necessity of ceramics from before the establishment of a royal kiln is also proven from Sejong Sillok "Jiriji" (Annals of King Sejong—Geography) that mentioned the establishment of 139 porcelain workshops and 185 earthenware workshops. The 324 ceramics workshops marked in Sejong Sillok "Jiriji" were important sources of tax income, as ceramics were an important in-kind tax item of local products offered to the central government. They were also needed as tribute demanded by Ming China. Mass production of ceramics as utensils for the daily lives of people at the royal palace became desperately needed, so the operation of a ceramics workshop exclusively for royal ceramics was a critical issue.

The demand for ceramic products for daily use at the royal palace increased substantially from the reign of King Taejong until the years of King Sejong. During the years from King Taejong to King Sejong's reign, the use of gold and silver tableware, which were in short supply, was banned, and white porcelain tableware was used for everyday life at the palace. Notably, King Sejong himself used porcelain tableware or wooden lacquered ware instead of gold or silver tableware that promoted extravagance. Records in Yongjae chonghwa which say that "white porcelain was used from King Sejong's reign" suggest the fact that a large volume of white porcelain was needed by the royal palace from the days of King Sejong. Records also say that the silverware used at ancestral shrines was also replaced with white porcelain from sixth month in the 29th year of King Sejong's reign (1447). So it is possible that the majority of tableware used for royal ceremonies was white porcelain from around 1447.

This is why ceramics of Joseon developed differently from the splendid colorful ceramics that achieved great commercial success in China and Japan at that time. It is thought that the institutions and conservativeness of Joseon were materialized in the mostly white single-color design, to distinguish the beauty of Joseon's porcelain from the ceramics of China or Japan.

The reason for the location of Bunwon in Gwangju, Gyeong-gi-do, seems to have been because of the distance to Hanyang (now Seoul) and the matter of transport. The records in Goryeosa jeoryo (Essentials of Goryeo History) for the first year of King Gongyang (1389) say that there were many difficulties in producing royal ceramics in far-away areas and transporting them to the capital. Therefore, it is believed that an area near the capital of Hanyang of Joseon from which completed ceramics could be easily transported was selected for the location of the royal ceramics workshop in the Joseon Dynasty period.

The practice of Confucian formalities and Confucian hierarchical order were the foundation of the Joseon Dynasty. For all its people, from the royal family to ordinary citizens, many different utensils were needed for the exercise of formalities systemized in orye (five national rituals). Those utensils were used to visibly display the authority and justification of the royal family. That is why much effort was made to produce craftwork that satisfied a certain standard of quality in compliance with the Confucian rules and formalities. For example, white porcelain and design items were used in line with the rules for the 60th birthday banquets of kings or queen mothers, in order to fulfill the filial duty. In the same context, wine was contained in white porcelain pots, and flowers were put in white porcelain vases, for the purpose of realizing the philosophy of "peace with everyone" by creating an ideal space for banqueting. Actually, records about the white porcelains and objects used for diverse banquets and ceremonies hosted at the royal palace were left in the checklist for royal ceremony items or illustrated accounts included in uigwe (The royal protocol of the Joseon Dynasty), revealing the quantity, type, and procurement method of the necessary white porcelain.

The color, size, and pattern of white porcelain were restricted according to the nature or participants of banquets. While diverse decorative techniques including blue and white coloring were applied, the basic principle of respecting Confucian hierarchical order and frugality was kept for the production of white porcelain. For example, different varieties of foods were served to the royal family members of different ranks, including Lady Hyegyeong, King Jeongjo, daegun (princes), and guests, at the 60th birthday banquet for Lady Hyegyeong, the mother of King Jeongjo, which was hosted in 1795 at Hwaseong Fortress in Suwon. The type and number of white porcelains used to serve the foods also differed according to the ranks of the guests.

Formalities were also important for funeral rites, so the number and type of porcelains used as burial goods and memorial stones for a memorial service held in front of a grave were also restricted. The number of white porcelains produced for the burial of placenta after the birth of babies increased in line with the spread of the placenta burial ceremony. Notably, it was deemed that the funeral rites and placenta burial ceremonies of the royal family were tied to the fortunes of the country, so their procedures and utensils were important. This resulted in the development of various white porcelains for burial.

Therefore, the royal family and different government departments' concern and interest in the entire process of producing white porcelains, from the collection and transport of white clay used at Bunwon for the production of white porcelains to their refinement and firing, rose continuously from the early Joseon Dynasty period. The deep concerns over the structure of kilns are seen in the remains of kilns, based on the fact that the length and slope of kilns were specified for effective firing; the cleanliness within kilns was maintained by covering the inside with white clay; high temperatures and purity were secured by using plates used to support ceramics inside kilns; and filtering was conducted multiple times, as mentioned in written records and as can be seen from the remains at the kiln sites.

5. Various Decorative Techniques for White Porcelain

The proportion of plain white porcelains without any design on them was high for the white porcelains of the Joseon Dynasty, but a wide variety of designs were also applied in diverse techniques. In some cases, white porcelains served as the means to display their owners' social rank, as the design on them indicated the social class of their user. Some of them were produced to express the taste or desire of their users, thereby reflecting certain trends or values of the times. The technique or materials used for decorating white porcelains with patterns were chosen selectively in accordance with the social circumstances of the times. As a hierarchy existed between the decorative techniques and materials, the value and status of white porcelains were perceived differently according to how they were made.

The technique of adding decoration to white porcelains can be divided into two-dimensional and three-dimensional expressional methods. The two-dimensional expression methods include an inlaying technique of expressing a pattern by adding clay of a different color to the white body, as well as blue and white, iron-painting, and copper-painting techniques that use pigments to paint designs on the surface of white porcelain. When the wide porcelain surface is painted by using such pigments, they are also called blue and white, iron-painted, or copper-painted porcelains. The methods of expressing a design in a three-dimensional way include relief and openwork techniques. In addition, white porcelains modeling certain three-dimensional figures, not just putting patterns on the surface, were produced, too. Some pieces utilized a singular decorative technique, while others made simultaneous use of multiple techniques.

(1) Inlaid white porcelain : It was not only the blue and white technique that was used to decorate white porcelain from the early period of the full-fledged production of white porcelains in the Joseon Dynasty. The inlaying technique that was an important decorative technique for celadon and buncheong ware developed before it continued to be applied to the white porcelains of Joseon. The inlaying technique is thought to have been used for Joseon's white porcelains around the 15th to 16th centuries. Most of the inlaid pattern was expressed with black lines. Flat bottles and memorial stones decorated in the inlaying technique were discovered among burial goods of a grave made in the mid-15th century, increasing understanding of the time period when inlaid white porcelains were produced.

(2) Iron-painted white porcelain : For iron-painted white porcelain, the design is painted with pigment that bears a brownblack color from an oxidized iron substance on the surface of biscuit-fired white porcelain, and then they are glazed and fired again. The pigment was called "iron red" in the records of the Joseon Dynasty. The iron red pigment made from earth that contains an oxidized iron substance was able to be obtained relatively more easily than iron red pigment imported from China. It was after the 17th century that the iron red pigment was used as an important decorative element for white porcelains. Reconstruction of the ruined foundations of the country was the most urgent task for Joseon, devastated after the Japanese and Manchurian invasions from the end of the 16th century into the early 17th century. Diverse utensils for royal and national ceremonies and rituals had to be newly produced. However, royal kilns did not have enough source materials to make the necessary amount of ceramic products. Blue and white porcelain, such as the Dragon Jars used for important royal ceremonies, could not be manufactured because it was difficult to supply the blue pigment. Records from the early 17th century indicate that the central government of Joseon continued its effort to secure the blue pigment for the production of blue and white porcelain and tried to import completed blue and white porcelain products from China. But such efforts do not seem to have been successful. In such circumstances, Dragon Jars, the most luxurious utensil used at the royal palace, began to be manufactured with iron pigment instead of the blue pigment. As the production of such iron-painted white porcelains was a temporary measure taken to fill the shortage of blue and white porcelains, luxury utensils for royal use such as Dragon Jars were not manufactured in the iron-painted technique any longer after the production of blue and white porcelains was resumed. The design expressed in deep brown or black colors on the white background gives a feel like ink wash painting or calligraphy. That is why the artistic taste of literary men was expressed by putting such pictorial pattern or lines of poems on iron-painted white porcelains.

(3) Copper-painted white porcelain : Copper-painted white porcelains are those painted with pigment made from oxidized copper and then glazed and fired to express a design in a reddish brown or purple color. This technique is also called the jinsa technique, but the origin of the word has not yet been clearly identified. No case of copper-painted white porcelains from the early period of Joseon have been discovered, which indicates that they developed mostly in the later period of the dynasty. Copper-painted white porcelains left until today mostly have simple flower or stem designs or the subjects of folk paintings, hoping for good luck.

(4) Relief white porcelain : Relief white porcelains are decorated not by painting with pigment, but by relief-engraving a design to stand higher that the background in a three-dimensional way. It is a method of expressing a design to protrude, by shaving the surroundings of the design part off or stamping the design, or attaching a separately-stamped design on the surface. In other cases, design was expressed by painting and applying a goopy white clay on the surface with a tool. It was in the later period of Joseon when the relief technique began to be used to decorate white porcelains. The relation between the production of relief white porcelains and blue and white porcelains has been drawing attention. Many of relief white porcelains have a design of flowers, such as peonies or apricot flowers, inscribed letters, or symbols of longevity.

There were also openwork white porcelains on which the design was expressed by carving the surroundings of design or the design itself through the surface, leaving the center hollow, as well as white porcelains that are modeled after certain figures. Even though there are not many pieces of such white porcelain left today, they are known to be the ones with the highest level of difficulty and diversity of production. Most of the openwork white porcelains are stationery items, ornaments, and ritual goods, and they are thought to have been produced based on an idea borrowed from other types of handicrafts like jade, ivory, or wood. They were mostly produced in the later period of Joseon when the demand for luxury stationery goods was high.

6. Blue and White Porcelain

Blue and white porcelains were sought after as a luxury ornament item throughout the Joseon Dynasty period. After biscuit-firing, the design was painted in a cobalt mineral pigment called Hoehoecheong (blue pigment from Arabia) on white porcelains, to be glazed and fired. The design in blue stands out against the white background. The design on the blue and white porcelain is thought to have been painted by royal painters dispatched to Bunwon. Sinjeung Dongguk yeoji seungnam (a government-published geography completed in the early 16th century after surveying the geography and local products nationwide from the early period of Joseon) mentions ceramics as the local product of Gwangju, Gyeonggi-do, where the royal kiln was located, recording that "government officials from Saongwon go to Bunwon with royal painters" to supervise the firing of royal ceramics. Royal painters participated in the process of producing the blue and white porcelains, because the blue pigment imported from China was a very precious product and excellent painting capabilities were required to skillfully paint on the curved surface of the ceramics. Indeed, the popular subject matters for painting, such as bamboo, apricot flowers, chrysanthemums, and pine trees, were expressed sophisticatedly with the blue pigment on the surface of white porcelain pieces discovered from the site of the kiln operated in the early Joseon period.

The time of the first production of blue and white porcelains in Joseon has yet to be determined, but a blue and white porcelain memorial stone produced in the mid-15th century has been passed down until today. In addition, as people had a great interest in blue and white porcelains imported from China, the upper class of Joseon seems to have had an awareness of them. Blue and white porcelains began to be produced in Joseon in earnest in line with the introduction of the cobalt pigment as the pigment for white porcelains during the era of the Yuan Dynasty of China. Blue and white porcelains that advanced during the Yuan and Ming dynasty periods of China spread to Joseon early. According to records written during the reign of King Sejong, blue and white porcelains were introduced to the royal palace of Joseon in the early period of the Dynasty as gifts from the royal court of the Ming Dynasty or products purchased by Joseon's envoys during their visit to China. After their introduction, Joseon tried the production of blue and white porcelains for the first time themselves, and they were deemed as a luxury item.

Yongjae chonghwa, written by Seong Hyeon in the mid-Joseon period, includes a record that goes, "From the reign of King Sejo, colored ceramics were used together. The Arabian cobalt blue pigment was imported from China to paint figures on liquor pots, liquor jugs, wine glasses, and goblets." The liquor pots, liquor jugs, wine glasses, and goblets stated in the book were used for rituals and memorial services to contain liquor. This statement indicates that blue and white porcelains were used as the top-quality tableware for special purposes at the royal palace in the early Joseon period, along with white porcelains.

The fact that blue and white porcelains were used as the highest quality tableware at the royal palace in the mid-15th century is revealed from the records in the Sejo Sillok (Annals of King Sejo) written in 1455. It talks about an episode wherein the kitchen of the queen resort's palace called junggung requested manufacture of golden glasses, but Gongjo, a department in charge of the production of objects for the use at the royal palace, ordered to the golden tableware to be replaced with painted ceramics. As those painted ceramics had to substitute for golden tableware to be used by the queen, they must have been valuable high-quality products comparable to golden utensils. The use of white porcelains was limited only for the top ranks among the people at the royal palace, so it can be presumed that the kind of painted ceramics that could replace golden glasses were the blue and white porcelains.

This fact is also indicated by records left in books, relics discovered in the capital of Hanyang, and privately-produced blue and white porcelains discovered in Jingdezhen in China. It can also be conjectured from records written in the sixth year of King Seongjong's reign (1475) which went, "The scholar-gentry houses do profligate spending habitually day after day and they compete with one another to boast their luxury, to an extent that they don't use other ceramics than expensive blue and white porcelains for small or large banquets. . . . Blue and white porcelains are mostly produced in China, so it is difficult to transport them from China to Joseon, but still, every scholar-gentry house has them. . . . Please prohibit the use of blue and white porcelains by them." The record shows that blue and white porcelain was a very precious and luxury item, even though it is not clear whether the porcelain mentioned was made in China or Joseon.

As the cobalt pigment was an expensive product imported from China, it was of course not easy for Joseon's craftsmen to skillfully paint blue and white porcelains, because of lack of experience. That is why only a few pieces were manufactured by royal kilns in the early period of Joseon and royal painters painted the design on them. Accordingly, blue and white porcelains made in the early Joseon period and passed down today are mostly those with special figures, such as bottles, saucers, or jars.

This seems to be why there existed grades for the pigments used for white porcelains of Joseon. White porcelains with blue-colored designs were mostly high-quality products. This is shown in how different blue and white porcelains and plain white porcelains were used according to the social rank of guests of royal banquets, as well as from the fact that the main design in a white porcelain item with both main and subsidiary designs was painted in blue, as in the case of White Porcelain Jar with Mountains and Lightening Design in Underglaze Cobalt Blue and Iron (Treasure No. 1056), kept by Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art. In other words, the existence of design on ceramics and the rarity of the pigment used for them was not just a matter of people's taste or preference, but served as an indicator of the users' social status and the tool to fulfill the objective of ceremonies.

In the 19th century, Bunwon began to produce more blue and white porcelains to meet the increasing demand. Bunjuwonbodeung records the operation of Bunwon by the end of Joseon, saying that there were as many as 14 master painters who painted on white porcelains with blue pigment at Bunwon. It was a quite different situation from the early Joseon period when royal painters were dispatched to Bunwon each spring and autumn so that they could commit themselves to painting on white porcelains. Craftsmen specialized in painting on ceramics stayed at the workshop for mass production.

Blue and white porcelains were very rare even at the royal palace at first, but their use gradually spread to the ordinary people of Joseon in a few centuries. Ordinary people became able to use them regardless of their social rank, even though those ceramics were still expensive, to widen the spectrum of blue and white porcelains' use from royal rituals to the daily lives of ordinary people. Furthermore, copper-painted porcelains painted with oxidized copper were used in parallel with blue and white porcelains, and such an expansion of the use of patterned white porcelains was the most remarkable signal for changes in the society of Joseon―the breakdown of the boundaries and barriers between different social classes and their culture.

Blue and white porcelains began to be used at the royal palace again after the 18th century in line with the increase in their production volume, resulting in the production of white porcelain used for appreciation, apart from rituals. The most prominent examples of such porcelains include white porcelains that express pictorial composition or subject matters such as the Four Gracious Plants (plum, orchid, chrysanthemum, and bamboo), landscapes, flowers and birds, and verses of poems. Notably, the style of ceramics on which lines of poems are written as a design, which had already emerged in the Goryeo period, was more actively produced after the founding of Joseon, showing that ceramics were not only daily utensils but also expressed the tastefulness of seonbi (Confucian scholar-cum-government officials). Some of those ceramics had the poems written by seonbi themselves or famous lines from poets of the Tang or Song periods. A substantial proportion of them sang about daily activities such as drinking, to arouse many people's interest.

Such tastefulness is also seen in blue and white porcelains painted with landscapes. Those porcelains draw attention in that they express ideal natural spaces. Considering statements about blue and white porcelains painted with landscapes in historical records and materials, the chance of their use for rituals seems to be low. Rather, it seems that they were produced for the purpose of appreciation, by reflecting pictorial compositions, much like landscape picture books, landscape painting folding screens, and landscape painting items, to maximize both practicality and decorativeness. It is also related to the royal family's trend of sightseeing around natural landscapes, as well as the popularity of the landscape poems and paintings among the new scholar-official class.

In addition, a wide variety of patterns or decorative figures that symbolize good luck were applied to blue and white porcelains. Designs made with the figure of Chinese character 壽 (longevity) and 福 (luck), as well as figures of peaches, which symbolize life, and bats, which symbolize luck, were drawn on them. Also, white porcelains modeled after peaches and turtles were created. Notably, decoration with Chinese characters such as 壽 and 福 is thought to have been spread in line with the social atmosphere in the later Joseon period, when people followed many trivial rituals in their everyday lives to wish for good luck, as well as growing focus on filial duty that followed the process of expansion of the royal palace's ceremonies and rituals.

The mouth of the White Porcelain Jar with Grape Design in Underglaze Iron (National Treasure No. 107), which stands high and upright, its round shoulder, and dramatically narrowing base together create a noble look, giving a breathtaking feeling of tension. The entire surface of the jar itself works as a canvas without any special decoration, just showing vines rambling between wide leaves, grape fruits, and branches naturally hanging down from the shoulder toward the middle of the body of the jar in bold lines and natural composition, as well as appropriately placed white space. The comfortable scene even gives a feel of the movement of the vines swinging with the wind. The carefree brushstroke and elegant atmosphere look like that of a painting rather than a design on a jar. Notably, the effect of light and shade created by controlling the use of iron pigment is expressed very realistically and appropriately as in black and white grape paintings. The thick part is colored brown while the lighter parts are in a more greenish brown to look realistic, indicating that the one who painted on this jar was very adept in painting.

The "Porcelain" chapter of the "Local Products" section in the part about Gwangju-mok, Gyeonggi-do, in Sinjeung Dongguk yeoji seungnam said, "Every year, officials of Saongwon go to Bunwon with royal painters to supervise the production of ceramic vessels to be used at the royal palace." As such, it is highly likely that royal painters directly went to ceramics workshops to put such pictorial designs on porcelains until the late Joseon Dynasty period.

There remains a trace in the middle of the body of the jar that indicates that the upper body and lower body were manufactured separately and then put together. The light blue enamel with almost no cracks also looks beautiful in harmony with the shape of the body and the design, to make the jar a masterpiece.
White Porcelain Jar with Plum and Bamboo Design in Underglaze Iron (left), White Porcelain Jar with Grape Design in Underglaze Iron (right)

7. Spread of Joseon's Potters and Ceramic Techniques to Japan

The Kyushu region of Japan emerged as the biggest center of ceramics manufacturing in Japan since the 17th century. While it is largely attributable to Japan's exchanges with China, Joseon's potters kidnapped to Japan during the Japanese invasions of Joseon in 1592 and 1597 also played a significant role in the forma-tion of the tradition. Toyotomi Hideyoshi ordered Japanese generals going to war with Joseon to kidnap the people of Joseon, the key point of such order being to kidnap useful technicians. That is why the Japanese randomly kidnapped Joseon's people and sorted through them for technicians. Approximately 50,000–100,000 people of Joseon, including master craftsmen with expertise in diverse traditional techniques of Joseon such as pottery, were kidnapped by the Japanese in the process.

The Japanese invasion to Korea in 1592 is also called the "war of ceramics," which demonstrates Japan's great interest in new ceramics techniques and their obsession with Joseon's ceramics culture. Japanese generals separately sorted master potters with knowledge of ceramic production techniques out of the Joseon people they kidnapped. The potters kidnapped from Joseon stayed in those Japanese generals' territories and received their financial support to produce ceramics, staying under their strict control for prevention of the leakage of the techniques. The Joseon potters kidnapped to Japan were mostly from Gyeongsang-do, Jeolla-do, and Chungcheong-do provinces, and most of them settled down in the Kyushu region in Japan. Kyushu is still the center of Japan's ceramics culture. Famous Joseon potters who went to Japan during those times included Yi Sam-pyeong from the Geumgang area (near Gongju in Chungcheongnam-do) and Sim Dang-gil from Namwon, who was the progenitor of the house of today's famous potter Sim Soo-gwan.

The potters of Joseon kidnapped to Japan used the style of Joseon's white porcelains in the 16th–17th centuries. Their techniques were outstanding, to the extent of resulting in the restructuring of the system of Nabeshima territory that had jurisdiction over Arita in early 17th century with focus on the potters from Joseon. Notably, Yi Sam-pyeong, who was one of the Joseon potters kidnapped to Japan, discovered a kaolin white clay vein in Izumiyama in 1616, making a great contribution to the advancement of Japan's ceramics industry.

Yi Sam-pyeong and Sim Dang-gil were included among the Joseon potters who were kidnapped to Japan during the Japanese invasion to Korea in 1592. Sim Dang-gil was the progenitor of Satsuma ware. Shimazu Yoshihiro, the daimyo (lord) of Satsuma Province, now Kagoshima, kidnapped approximately 40 potters of Joseon from Namwon in Jeollabuk-do and other regions in 1598, and Sim Dang-gil and Bak Pyeong-ui were among the group of those kidnapped Joseon potters. The two manufactured ceramics in the same region in the same age and the lord of Satsuma Province treated them with respect comparable to that for samurai. The ceramics created by those Joseon potters were named after the name of the region: Satsuma ware.

Yi Sam-pyeong was kidnapped to Nabeshima Province, now Saga Prefecture, and he settled down in the Arita region in the province. Yi Sam-pyeong discovered a kaolin white clay deposit for the first time in Japan in 1616 in Izumiyama in Zohakukawa in the Arita region, advancing Japan's production of white porcelain. Three decades later, numerous potters gathered in the region, resulting in the prosperity of the ceramics industry there. Then, government-owned kilns and private kilns in Nabeshima Province produced not only high-quality white porcelains exported to Europe, but also blue and white porcelains targeting diverse consumer groups in Japan, evolving into one of the world's most famous countries for the origin of ceramics.

It is known that many more than 100 Joseon potters were kidnapped to Japan along with Yi Sam-pyeong. As those potters came to own and operate the kilns in the Sarayama area in Arita, Japan's own production of hard ceramics became possible. Ultimately, Arita is even now famous as the hometown of Japanese ceramics, while Yi Sam-pyeong is revered as the father of Japanese ceramics. A shrine and monument were built in Arita to honor his achievement.

Infokorea 2018
Infokorea is Korea introduced a magazine designed for readers with an interest in Korea and other foreign producers textbooks and teachers. Infokorea is the author of textbooks or foreign editors and reference to textbooks, Korea provides the latest information that teachers can use in teaching resources. Infokorea also provides cultural, social and historical topics featured in Korea. The theme of the 2018 issue was History of Korean Ceramics.

Publication | The Academy of Korean Studies

Go to top