Imperial Kilns

  Imperial Kilns

The Song imperial kilns were centralized in two locations; at the former capital city of Bianjing (present day Kaifeng city) during the Northern Song Dynasty, and later at the city of Hangzhou in the Southern Song Dynasty after the regime moved southward. The Northern Song Imperial kilns produced celadon, but with various shades and luster in the glaze. The glaze colors included light greenish blue, moon white, glossy gray and yellow-green. Though the colors were different, they all contained the common element of green or blue-green, and its beauty was heightened by the use of different colored bodies. The bodies can be blackish gray, dark gray, light gray or earth yellow, and when coated in glaze, produced different greens and blues. Since the body colors were quite deep, it conveyed a sense of unfathomable sophistication; it was perhaps what the literati sought for during that time.

The bodies most often used for Imperial wares contained rather high concentrations of iron, producing an effect called “purple mouth and iron feet”. At the mouth of the vessel, the glaze was thin, revealing the ground underneath and thus the purplish color; the feet had no glaze at all, showing the iron-rich body, which turned black after being fired. Imperial porcelain also borrowed from Ru kiln’s technique of decorating the porcelain and sophistication. This kind of beauty occurred naturally through the glazing process and changes in technology, and was in accord with Song Dynasty ideologies.

Historical records describe that the Imperial kilns of the Southern Song Dynasty were “located at the foot of Mount Phoenix”. At the described location, tons of shards from porcelain wares and kiln equipment were discovered, but the actual ruins of the kilns were never discovered. It was not until September of 1996 that someone unintentionally discovered the Tiger Cave kiln, a site near the ruins of the Southern Song imperial city near Mount Phoenix. The kiln site’s location was exactly where the Imperial Xiuneisi was located. Among the large amounts of porcelain fragments, inscriptions in brown coloring that read “Xiuneisi” or “Imperial Kiln” were found underneath glazed porcelain fragments that used to be the base parts of vessels. In an excavation by the Hangzhou Cultural Relic and Archeology Institute that followed, more Imperial ware fragments and kiln tools were uncovered. A second Imperial kiln was built during the Southern Song Dynasty, named Jiaotan Imperial kiln. Its ruins remain today at the southern suburbs of Hangzhou City.

Imperial porcelain of the Southern Song excelled in glaze color, the crackling effect of the glaze and form of the vessels, they were presented in modest simplicity, yet elegant. The glazing effect made it feel moist and smooth as if jade. Minimal decorations were used. Aside from the commonly seen plant and animal motifs, there were also all types of parallel lines, the eight trigrams, cloud thunder, geometric, rings, dots and so on. Techniques of decoration included engravings, mold imprints, relief, sculpturing, pierced patterns, pierced sculptures and more. Engraving was mostly used on bowls, dishes and other containers for daily use. Mold imprints were more widely adopted by the full range of vessels. Embossed sculptures were mostly used for vases, kettles, stoves and wine vessels, which were retro-styled vessels. Pierced sculpture was for decorating lids, pedestals and stoves. With the growing number of ways of decoration and improvements in porcelain firing techniques, as well as for a multitude of crafting tools, the quality of Southern Song Imperial kilns were top notch. It is clear that strong emphasis was placed on the development of Imperial kilns in the Southern Song Dynasty.