The spirit within korean ceramics
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The spirit within Korean ceramics. Deborah Cohen EDUC9884: Arts of Asia (Sources and Contexts) . Critical questions. 1. What historical, cultural and technological factors influenced the development of ceramics in ancient Korea?. 2. What forms of ceramics are synonymous with Korean culture?.

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The spirit within korean ceramics

The spirit within Korean ceramics

Deborah Cohen

EDUC9884: Arts of Asia (Sources and Contexts)

The spirit within korean ceramics

Critical questions

1. What historical, cultural and technological factors influenced the development of ceramics in ancient Korea?

2. What forms of ceramics are synonymous with Korean culture?

3. What impact did Buddhism and other spiritual beliefs have on the development of Korean ceramics?

4. What cultural and social factors influenced the role of the potter in Korea?

The spirit within korean ceramics

1. What historical, cultural and technological factors influenced the development of ceramics in ancient Korea?

The spirit within korean ceramics

2. What forms of ceramics are synonymous with Korean identity and culture?

Bronze Age (2000 - 300 BCE)

Early bronze technology was probably first introduced to Korea by Manchurians between 2000 and 1000 B.C. Shamanism, a pervasive religion throughout much of Korea's history, probably also began at this time. After the Han emperor Wu Di established a colony at Lolang (near present-day P'yongyang) in A.D. 108, Korea felt the impact of China more strongly. With the introduction of iron technology, the potter's wheel, Chinese writing, Buddhism, Confucianism, Chinese culture became firmly embedded on the Korean peninsula.

Iron Age Pottery  (300 -50BCE)

The ceramics of the Iron Age take on many diverse forms. Unlike the previous period, when clay objects were hand built, the Iron Age saw the introduction of the potter's wheel. Changes in mortuary practices were also partially responsible for new kinds of ritual vessels that may reflect the influence of material culture of the Chinese Han dynasty (206 BC–AD 220). In particular, objects raised on a foot or pedestal appear relatively suddenly in Korea, although such footed vessels had already been used in Bronze Age China. The earliest extant sculptural forms also date from this period, as seen in this imposing bird-shaped vessel of the second to third century. Such objects may represent tribal totems or specific beliefs in the afterlife. Made of a soft, low-fired clay, they are clearly distinguishable from the more utilitarian pots found in great quantities at residential sites. 

The spirit within korean ceramics

Three Kingdoms (57 BCE-668 A.D.) – (Goguryeo, Baekje and Silla)

From the first century B.C.until the 7th century, Korea was divided into three states. The kingdom of Koguryo, in the north, defeated the Chinese commandery at Lolang in 313, but because of its geographical closeness to China continued to be heavily influenced by Chinese culture. The kingdom of Paekche, in the southwest, also maintained ties with China and, like Koguryo, adopted Buddhism in the 4th century. Buddhist sculptures produced during this time, reflected styles prevalent in China's Northern Wei dynasty.

The storage jar has a round base; raised black lip; two black handles with openings on shoulder; horizontal black, brown and tan bands of decoration with vertical incised lines running through them; incised bird print shape on side near bottom; has lidded wooden box.

Paekche Tiles

This seventh-century tile attests to the refined and sophisticated culture of the kingdom of Paekche, situated in the southwestern part of the Korean peninsula. None of the resplendent palaces of the Paekche aristocracy mentioned in historical records survives, but the lively decoration of this unglazed tile hints at the opulence of those structures and provides important evidence of early Korean pictorial art. The grimacing creature seems to be a guardian figure.

United Silla (668-935AD)

The kingdom of Silla, in the southeast, was slower to absorb Chinese culture and did not embrace Buddhism until the sixth century. In 660, the Silla rulers allied their armies with forces from T'ang China to defeat both Paekche and Koguryo. The resulting Unified Silla Kingdom (668-935) experienced a golden age, and its resplendent capital Kyongju became one of Asia's greatest cities. Gold crowns remain as some of the more opulent objects from that time, as well as stoneware jars and bowls on dramatic pedestals with geometric perforations.

The spirit within korean ceramics

Goryeo (Koryo) Dynasty (918 -1392CE)

Early in the twelfth century, Korean potters developed the celebrated glazes, refined forms, and naturalistic designs that won high praise from Chinese observers, one of whom pronounced Korean celadons as “first under Heaven.” Koryo glazes were prized for their exceptional translucence and subtle blue-green or gray-green color, which derives from the presence of small amounts of iron oxide in the glaze. The clarity of the glazes facilitated the development of decorative techniques, such as incising, carving, and sculpting, that were not possible with the thicker, more opaque celadon glazes of China. 

The technique of painting in iron oxide under a celadon glaze was fully exploited during the Koryo period to produce bold decorations on robustly shaped vessels. Celadons painted in underglaze iron are fired in oxidation, resulting in yellowish or brownish glazes as opposed to the green tones of celadons fired in a reduced oxygen atmosphere. The designs are painted directly onto the ceramic body and thus tend to be more spontaneous in execution than the laboriously applied inlays. 

This is a Maebyong (Prunus Vase) with a celadon glaze and an underglaze of iron-brown decoration depicting a bird, butterflies, and vines. The Korean maebyong derives from the Chinese maebyong, a jar with small mouth, short neck, broad shoulders, and sloping sides. It was a storage vessel.

Sanggam, or inlaid, celadon wares are unique to Korea. During the Koryo period, that inlays were used in the decoration of celadons. In this technique, the design is carved into the moist clay body, then filled in with a white or black substance before the vessel is glazed and fired. The design is clearly visible through the glaze, an effect impossible to achieve with the earlier, more opaque glazes introduced from China.  

The spirit within korean ceramics

“……the oriental spirit is epitomised in tranquility, and tranquility in turn is epitomized by nothingness. Goryeo celadon which is born of this nothingness, is the essence of the Oriental spirit”.

(Uchiyama Shozo, a Japanese ceramic expert)

The spirit within korean ceramics

Joseon Dynasty (Choson) (1392-

Punch’ong (“powder-green”)

Punch’ong ware was characterized by the use of white slip on a grayish green body and a bluish green clear glaze, were produced in Korea in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. With the establishment of the Choson dynasty in 1392, the ceramics industry, which had begun to deteriorate during the final years of the preceding Koryo period, was revived and porcelains as well as punch’ong wares were manufactured.  The ware is typified by hand-carved inlay or stamped designs. The most innovative punch’ong wares are decorated with sgraffito designs of striking vibrancy or brushed with slip, creating startlingly abstract and dynamic patterns. 

Blue-and-White Porcelains

The Chinese blue-and-white wares of the Ming dynasty served as one model for Korean potters, who adopted the technique of underglaze cobalt-blue decoration. The motif of bamboo and plum, which is on many Choson blue-and-white porcelains, symbolizes steadfastness in the face of adversity, a Confucian ideal espoused by Chinese and Korean scholar-officials alike. Bamboo was revered for its ability to yield to the wind yet grow upright and straight, whereas plum blossoms, which thrive in the harsh conditions of early spring, were likened to a man of virtue. Bamboo and plum, which together with the orchid and the chrysanthemum are referred to as the Four Gentlemen, became among the most popular motifs in Korean art. 

Late Choson Porcelains 

A variety of high-quality objects, such as the peach-shaped water dropper, were made for use by the scholar-official class. This small object, an indispensable implement for the scholar's studio, combines sculpture, relief decoration, and painting in underglaze cobalt-blue and copper-red. 

The spirit within

3. What impact did Buddhism and other spiritual beliefs have on the development of Korean ceramics?

…….the spirit within

A sophisticated aristocracy standardised government operations and cultivated artistic expression during the Goryeo dynasty, which as a Buddhist state committed a sizable portion of its resources to the practice of its faith and to the creation of ritual implements and artworks as expressions of devotion.

Asian Art Museum, Goryeo Dynasty: Korea’s age of enlightenment,

Spiritual motifs

Spiritual motifs

The spirit within korean ceramics

4. What cultural and social factors influenced the role of the potter in Korea?

Icheon Ceramics Village produces traditional Korean ceramics, which are of high quality. The village became the center of traditional pottery during the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) for about 500 years due to the easily obtainable materials in the areas. Icheon Ceramics Village was also the center of Joseon Baekja ceramics. Presently, about 80 pottery factories are congregated at the village, and about 300 pottery kilns are in use.

The spirit within korean ceramics

Shaping:  A terracotta pot is thrown on a wheel.  The pot is allowed to dry, becoming leather hard.  Using either a metal or bamboo stylus, the artist cuts out various designs into the surface of the pot, leaving depressions.  Sometimes a hand-carved wooden stamp is used. 

Inlaying: Coloured clays are inlaid into the depressions.  Usually white clay is first inlaid, then green (looks black) and finally red, if these colours are used. Between each inlay, the pot is re-centered on the wheel and smoothed with sand.  After the pot hardens again, the next details are cut and filled, until the pot is done.  Some pots are completed with an overlay instead of inlay

Drying: Once all the inlays and or overlays are finished, the pot is allowed to dry fully which can takes several months depending on the weather.  It is then fired.  A large percentage of pots are lost in this initial firing (a tiny air bubble will cause the pot to explode in the kiln). 

Firing: After the first firing, the glaze is added and the pot is re-fired at a higher temperature.  This firing, done in a reduced atmosphere environment is what gives celadon its unique color and crackle glaze.  In actuality there are many steps in making a celadon vase. 

The traditional hand hewn kilns were built on a hill and had a series of small chambers all connected to the main hearth at the base. Each chamber had an access door on the side in which the pottery was put in or removed. After the fire was built in the hearth the heat would rise up through the series of chambers creating the necessary temperature for each type of firing in each of the chambers.

The spirit within korean ceramics

Born anew from Korean clay and fire and the spirit of Goryeo craftsmen, celadon is more than a cultural asset - it is a reflection of the "Korean soul," an expression of the Korean spirit and character.

(Ko-Chong, 2008)

The spirit within korean ceramics

Clark, Donald, 2000, Culture and Customs of Korea (Culture and Customs of Asia), Greenwood Press, USA

Korea Foundation, 1994, Koreana: Korean Cultural Heritage, Volume 1, Fine Arts, Painting, Handicrafts, Architecture: Jade green:

Koryo Celadon by Kim Jae-yeol, Korea Foundation, Korea

Shim, Jae-Ryong, 2006, Buddhist Thought of Goryeo, Seoul National University Press

Internet references:

Chung Yang mo, 2006, A Brief History of Korean Ceramics:

Kim Jeong-ok, 2004, Borne from wind and fire:

Art 186 - Intro to ceramics, kilns - History and basic designs:

Asian Art Museum, Goryeo Dynasty: Korea’s age of enlightenment, 918-1392, October 18, 2003-January 2004:

British Museum, Celadon:

Brown, Haines, 1997, Korean Shamanism:

Buddhist studies, Korean Buddhist Art:

Wikipedia, Celadon:

Goryeo Celadon:

Lee, Soyoung, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, 2003, Goryeo Celadon:

Info hub: Robbins, Neal, History of Korea: Tea and Tradition:


Lee, Yong Ik, Korean Society depicted in its Folklore - Goryeo and Joseon period, 2006:

Minneapolis Institute of Arts, The Art of Asia, Explore the collection:

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