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◆Text by Hu Pingfan
For more than 10,000 years ceramics have remained an important element within China’s cultural composition. The ancient product, the art and the craft rose in value, symbolic significance and societal stature to contribute to the cultivation of a civilization.
According to The Classic of Tea by Lu Yu, a noted scholar during the Tang Dynasty (618-907), the Hongzhou Kiln in Jiangxi Province was one of the six major sources of celadon porcelain. Due to a lack of relevant historical records and relics, little was known about the long ago techniques and processes of creation, and for a very long while the location of the ancient kiln was debated – until its discovery in 1974.
That year local archeologists came across many celadon pieces in and around Shanghu Village, along the Gan River in Gangshang Township, Nanchang County. During the dry season, more porcelain pieces and telltale signs of burnt earth were discovered. The archeologists asserted this was the site of an ancient celadon kiln. Three years later, an even larger kiln site was unveiled in nearby Luohu on the opposite bank of the river, in Qujiang Town of Fengcheng. Later, the Jiangxi Archeological Institute and the Archeology Department of Peking University organized several excavations of that site. There they discovered the Round Kiln dating back to the Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220) and the Dragon Kiln of the Sui (581-618) and Tang Dynasties. Also unearthed were nearly 20,000 pieces of ceramic wares and manufacturing instruments. In geographical scope, the kiln site spans more than 20 kilometers along the Gan River.
To date, 30 ancient kilns were discovered scattered across a total area of 400,000 square meters. All lie along the Gan and Qingfeng Rivers and on the hillsides around Yaohu Lake. Through plentiful archeological finds, as well as comparative study taking into account relics unearthed from the tombs of the early 3rd Century to the late 6th Century, archeologists eventually determined with certainty that here was located the legendary Hongzhou Kiln.In 1993, the site of the Hongzhou Kiln was cited as one of China’s Top Ten Archeological Finds of the Year.
The discovery of the Hongzhou Kiln is significant to the ongoing research into ancient ceramic history and techniques; especially the saggar firing technique, rice-pattern decorated porcelain and unglazed-mouthed porcelain. It was recognized that rice-pattern porcelain originated during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), but similar porcelain wares excavated at the Hongzhou Kiln site date back to the Sui.
At one time the Ding Kiln in Hebei Province was claimed to be the birthplace of unglazed-mouthed porcelain. But findings at the Hongzhou Kiln site traced that porcelain’s origin back 1,500 years to the Southern Dynasties (420-589). Moreover, the various kinds of saggars unearthed in the kiln site revealed that the saggar firing technique prevailed as early as the Eastern Jin Dynasty (317-420). This is the earliest such example to be found in China.
Many relics are under state first-class protection. It was proven that the kiln, in use for more than 800 years, originated during the Eastern Han Dynasty, prevailed during the Jin (256-420) and Southern Dynasties, reached its zenith in the Sui and Tang Dynasties, and ceased to be used during the Five Dynasties (907-960).
As early as the late Eastern Han Dynasty, the kiln was already producing beautiful celadon porcelain wares, mainly large jars with deep bellies. The jars featured primitive beauty and a luminous celadon glaze. Some were decorated with arc, eddy and ripple designs on the abdomens and mouths. During the Eastern Jin Dynasty, artisans using the Hongzhou Kiln began to decorate the mouth of porcelain wares with brown glaze. The porcelain wares produced in the Southern Dynasties were characterized by light-blue and yellowish glaze, thin cavity membrane and refined texture.
The porcelain wares included incense burners, wine warmers, and cups with fitted stands. At the time, porcelain burners with feet, cups with stands, and trays became prevalent burial objects, later discovered in tombs. Besides engraving, cutting and printing, decoration techniques also involved sculpting and through-carving. During the Southern Dynasties, Buddhist culture prevailed here. This was evidenced not only by the construction of a number of temples in Yuzhang (present Nanchang, capital city of Jiangxi Province), but also by porcelain wares produced in the Hongzhou Kiln. Many cups, bowls and plates unearthed from ancient tombs of the Southern Dynasties are decorated with lotus pedal designs, which manifest the makers’ homage to Buddha, as well as their superb craftsmanship.
During the Sui and Tang Dynasties, some slight changes were found in respect to the color of glaze. Brown-colored glaze gradually prevailed. Common burial objects included pots used in touhu (a game played during feast in which the winner was determined by the number of arrows thrown into a distant pot), as well as porcelain ink slabs with 12 bamboo node-shaped feet or 16 horse hoof-shaped feet. According to The Tang History • The Biography of Wei Jian, the Hongzhou Kiln produced tributes for the imperial court in Chang’an, the Tang Dynasty capital.