All fired up: A town’s kiln makes it to the world stage

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All fired up: A town’s kiln makes it to the world stage


Archeologists have a saying: “Through their garbage ye shall know them.” The inside joke is that in archeology, the garbage is gorgeous; nastier stuff like food and sewage disappears over time, and only the pottery remains.
So it’s no surprise that Korea, which has some of the finest pottery in Asia, can produce digs like the one in Kaesong, North Korea. It was there in the first few years after Korea’s liberation that archeologists uncovered hundreds of celadon tiles that had been on the roof of the palace of King Uijong, the 18th ruler of the Goryeo Dynasty (935 to 1392). The king was said to have built a pavilion in the palace and covered the roof with the finest celadon tiles. But what was shocking about the discovery is that the tiles were traced back to Gangjin county, South Korea.
The county’s quiet little fishing village learned that it had once been the maker of the finest celadon in the peninsula, if not the world.
Gangjin residents had already suspected that their county had been a major producer of pottery in the Goryeo period. In 1913, a Japanese official in Gangjin unearthed hundreds of kilns and countless celadon pieces. What the Kaesong discovery showed, though, was that these kilns were producing celadon of royal, even legendary, quality.
In the decades since the Kaesong discovery, Gangjin has gone a long way toward restoring its tradition of pottery-making. The county organized a committee in 1977 to oversee the resurgence of a celadon industry, and the county’s first modern celadon factory opened in 1986. Nearly 20 years later, Gangjin celadon is so renowned that the county’s official kiln has been selected to produce gift replicas of a Goryeo Dynasty bowl for dignitaries at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting, which begins today in Busan.
The bowls are modeled on an original work on display at the Leeum Museum in Seoul; the piece is titled simply “Celadon Lidded Bowl and Stand,” and is one of the most elaborate celadon works from the late 13th century. The bowl was used mainly for rice porridge and has been awarded national-treasure status.
The bowl’s intended use might have been humble, but the design is far from modest. Reflecting a Persian influence that most likely came to Korea through the Yuan Dynasty (1271 to 1368), the lid was shaped to accomodate a ladel, and the knob in the middle was shaped to resemble a dragon. Both the bowl and the lid are elaborately decorated, with dragons, phoenixes, clouds, cranes, peony tendrils, lotuses, meander and pearl and scroll bands, inlaid in black and white slips. The only difference in the replicas is that they substitute chrysanthemums for the peonies.
“The most difficult thing to make was the stand, which has a round ‘sheet’ extending outward,” said Yoon Jae-jin, the head of research at the official Gangjin county kiln. “It takes a struggle and a lot of focus to make it, although no celadon piece is perfect, just like no person is perfect.”
The publicity over the reproductions has given the county’s kiln a boost: excluding those for the APEC delegates, 200 orders have come in so far, according to Park Jae-ryong, the head of Gangjin’s official kiln.

Celadon was the predominant ceramic ware of the Goryeo Dynasty (918 to 1392) and used mainly in the court, Buddhist temples and the homes of aristocrats. Celadon was first made under the Southern Song Dynasty (420 to 589) and Korea began making it between the 8th and 9th centuries. Trade between China and the Unified Silla Kingdom (which preceded the Goryeo Dynasty) and Gangjin’s proximity to China, as well as the availability of clay and wood for fuel, helped the county come to the fore of Korean pottery.
Of the 400 kilns that existed in Goryeo times, 188 were in Gangjin.
The seaside village on the southern end of the peninsula, far from the Goryeo capital of Kaesong, remained the chief producer of celadon for 500 years, from the late 9th century to the late 14th century; 80 percent of the Goryeo Dynasty celadon that is now given “National Treasure” or “Treasure” status was made in Gangjin.
If Gangjin was making the best pottery in Korea, it could arguably have been the best in Asia. Even old Chinese documents testify to the prominence of Goryeo celadon ― one envoy from the Southern Song known in Korean as Seogeung wrote the book of his travels, “Goryeo Dogyeong,” in 1123. The book mentions a lion-shaped incense burner as an example of the beauty of Goryeo pottery.
Taepyeongnoin, another Southern Song envoy, wrote in his book that the jade color of Goryeo celadon is the best in the world.
Goryeo celadon is easily distinguished from Chinese celadon: the Goryeo pottery has finer drawings and a thinner glaze.
In 1964 and 1965, art historians and archeologists conducted an extensive excavation in the Gangjin area, unearthing numerous broken pieces of celadon. These pieces belonged to end products that would have been similar to the kind of celadon now given ‘Treasure” status and preserved in many museums worldwide. The style of the fragments clearly indicated that they were produced in Gangjin; The pieces are now on display at the Celadon Material Museum in Gangjin.
“The pieces must have belonged to cracked works that were destroyed intentionally,” said Cho Eun-jung, a curator at the Celadon Material Museum.

Goryeo celadon is famous for its nearly perfect balance and shape, with most of its artwork derived from Buddhist symbols and natural objects such as the flowers, clouds and animals seen on the bowl and lid at Leeum Museum.
Celadon-makers were influenced by Buddhism from the beginning. “Celadon was first used to make tea sets,” Ms. Cho said. “In Zen Buddhism, drinking tea was a part of meditation, a way to clear one’s mind.”
Jeongbyeong (a bottle to contain pure water for Buddha), incense burners and even Buddha statues were made of celadon.
Sanggamcheongja (jade-colored inlaid celadon, usually with white or yellow clay and inlaid drawings), is famous for its unparalleled beauty and sophistication, and is considered by many Koreans to be one of their country’s foremost inventions.
Live by Buddhism, die by Buddhism ― when the Goryeo Dynasty was overthrown by the militant neo-Confucians under Yi Song-gye, Buddhists were persecuted and ceramics artists spread around the country like wet clay under a fist. To make matters worse, their biggest customers, the aristocrats, were out of power. The preferred style in China also changed to white procelain, influencing Korea. People in the Joseon Dynasty liked the more plebian but technically-advanced style, which so impressed European traders that they simply named it “china.”

Making celadon isn’t easy. There are usually 24 separate steps, from selecting clay to forming, setting, engraving, glazing and firing, all of which can take as long as 70 days. The soil must be carefully filtered and dipped in water in order to use only fine clay. After the engraving process, the piece must be dried evenly ― if not, it will likely break during the firing process. The first firing requires a kiln to reach 800 degrees Celsius (1,472 degrees Fahrenheit), the second firing, 1,300 degrees. The firing takes two or three days.
The combination of several factors, such as glaze, clay, weather and firing, determines the celadon’s color, and even a slight change in temperature or atmosphere can ruin it.
“Creating the right color is the most difficult part,” Mr. Yoon said. “To get the jade color, celadon is fired in imperfect combustion (insufficiently oxidized air).”
Making sanggam cheongja (jade-colored inlaid celadon), is even more complicated, because white and yellow clay is worked into the inlaid parts. Clay contracts during the firing process, and the slightest difference in the degree of contraction of different clays can result in cracks or even the entire thing breaking.
“You have to make sure everything is perfect from the beginning,” Mr. Yoon said.
The most important criterion in judging a celadon is its color. “A bad color means a lower price,” Mr. Yoon said. If the quality is too low, the piece is destroyed, he added.
For now, Gangjin county is tentatively registered as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Every year more than 1.1 million tourists visit the county during the Celadon Cultural Festival from late July through early August.
“I believe [the APEC meeting] is going to be an opportunity let the world know more about Korean celadon,” said Park Jae-ryong, the head of the kiln.

by Limb Jae-un

The Celadon Material Museum provides visitors with an opportunity to make celadon at a small charge.
For information, visit
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