Friday, March 19, 2010

Celadon Tea Bowls: A Simple Bowl

It is one of history’s incongruities that what have become the greatest teabowls in history, like the Kizaemon Ido and the “Powdery” Matsudaira, were created during Korea’s Joseon (or Choson) Dynasty (1392-1910) when the use of tea was in decline in Korea.
The greatest use of tea in Korea took place earlier during the Goryeo (or Koryo) Dynasty (918-1392) when the royal court, aristocracy, Buddhist monks and commoners all celebrated tea for common drink and ritual.
It was during the Goryeo that the Buddhist Way of Tea was more fully developed and practiced.  The Way involved a tea bowl not a tea cup and powdered tea.  The powdered tea of Goryeo did not come in a can pre-ground into fine powder like the maccha or matcha we enjoy today.  Rather, after the tea was pressed into a block it was aged several months before drinking. 
Each detail from the preparation of the fire and boiling of water to the careful grinding of the tea into a powder, in the presence of the recipient(s), then the preparation and serving of the tea were all part of the Buddhist Way of tea during the Goryeo Dynasty. 
Of course Goryeo tea bowls were used.  Many were glazed with a celadon glaze.
Some years ago I found such a celadon tea bowl in an antique shop in the USA.  It was cracked and chipped but still authentic Goryeo.  What a find!  Not for its monetary value (which in spite of its age is slight) or its continuing function, but for its grace and color.  It is a simple bowl with no carving or inlay, which - if not cracked and chipped - would dramatically raise its monetary value.  Our bowl is one of thousands of similar bowls probably made for the common market at the time.  But the grace of its curve and the way it fits my hands is unparalleled. 
Each time I hold this bowl I am drawn back in time and sit with a monk serving tea in the Goryeo Buddhist Way of Tea.  Tea grew wild behind the temple perhaps in a grove of bamboo.  There only the fresh new leaves were picked for tea.  Then, it was processed by roasting on a hot metal plate.  The leaves were pressed into a block and aged until this moment when the monk silently breaks the block of tea and with a special spoon grinds the tea into powder and prepares it.  Pure mountain water has been drawn from the temple spring for this moment.   The taste is subtle, not strong with a very light slightly burnt flavor – delicious.  We sit peacefully and respectfully in meditative silence enjoying the tea, enjoying the bowl, contemplating the moment.  Not a word is spoken.

This ancient bowl swells up from a narrow, unpretentious foot and curves subtly near the lip to gently contain the tea.  Its color is also subtle like the form.  No more graceful form could be imagined.  

The interior narrows to a small ring shaped indentation, perhaps to catch the errant tea powder.

We are startled when we see the foot.  It is rough, marred by the gravel and clay on which it sat during the firing. 

The glaze was applied casually and reveals areas where it pooled to be slightly thicker when the glaze was poured back.  The fine crackled surface tells me it was not made in Gangjin but still, for me, it remains a bowl of quality.

Not all celadon bowls are as graceful as mine.  The forms of some latter ones are more like Joseon bowls quickly formed and uneven with less marred feet where wads of clay raised this bowl from the floor of the kiln. 

Others have upright bodies and tall feet.  Notice the difference in reduction on this bowl.  It illustrates the importance of the proper reduction to capture the best color.  The left side is too oxidized.  Had it been over reduced, it would have been more gray.

Still others are refined and fluted, testimony to the skill of the artist. 

Perhaps most surprising were copper red under-painted celadon tea bowls such as this one found in the British Museum, London.  I have heard that Korea used copper red 200 years before China.

Many others, with similar form as mine, were carved and inlayed.  Such a piece is this 13th c black and white slip inlayed tea bowl that at one time was in the Gregory Henderson Collection presumed given to Harvard University after Henderson’s untimely death. 
But for me, none can match the subtle beauty of my cracked and chipped antique shop find.
Click here to go to the next post.

I apologize to those museums or private collections whose celadon tea bowls I have displayed without credit.  I have no idea where or when I  found these images as they have been part of my image collection for some time. If the image is yours please contact me with proof of ownership and I will either credit your collection or remove the image.  Thank you.
My personal thanks to Alan Covell for permission to publish the copper red and Henderson teabowl from the book The World of Korean Ceramics.  If you have an interest in a copy of this out of print book, contact me.
For more information on celadon go to the web site Gangjin Celadon.Com.

To see some wonderful celadon, additional Korean ceramics and other art visit the Leeum Museum in Seoul.  To take the virtual tour, go to the website, click on Exhibitions and then click on Permanent Exhibitions.  The virtual tour is great but a real tour would be better.   We are planning a very special tour for May 2013.  It will combine tea and ceramics including the Mungyeong Tea Bowl Festival, the WOCEF Ceramic Biennale, great ceramic artists and trace the history of tea.  You will stay in an ancient temple, enjoy the Korean Way of Tea served by a Seon monk and pick and process your own tea.  Mention this blog and receive a free copy of The Korean Way of Tea and possibly other incentives.  I didn't mean to announce this yet but we always visit the Leeum and it seemed appropriate.  I didn't want to make this blog a commercial for tours.  All tours are non profit and sometimes partly subsidized as our goal is simply to promote Korean arts and culture.  You can pre-register at the Tea Tour website.   Preregistration doesn't obligate you to go but will keep you informed.  We have no advertising budget so please tell your friends.

Your comments and questions are welcome.
Watch for my next post on the great Japanese tea master Sen Rikyu and a chawan used by him.


  1. Cho Hak,

    Thanks for such a beautiful post on Celadon.

    The collection at the Leeum Samsung Museum of Art In Seoul is really breathtaking...


  2. Thanks Matt,
    The Leeum is one of our favorite museums and the beauty of their celadon, buncheong and porcelain is unmatched in Korea. Truly a stunning museum. I'll link it above so that folks can take their virtual tour.

  3. Nice post, Cho Hak

    I am still fascinating by color of Korean celadons. Usually so clear and bright even though the clay is stoneware with iron in it.

    The Best

  4. Hi Petr,
    Thanks for your comment.
    It was the translucency of Korea’s celadon glaze that set it apart form the earlier Chinese version; that and more graceful forms and remarkable sculptural figures. The color is truly remarkable on many pieces. That is why the Chinese listed Korean celadon as, “First Under Heaven”.
    An analysis of Korean vs Chinese celadon glazes can be found in the book The Radience of Jade and the Clarity of Water from the Ataka Collection and published by the Art Institute of Chicago and Hudson Hills Press, NY. The book also includes buncheong and porcelain. I think the book is still available.
    Mary and I had the opportunity to see select pieces from the Ataka Collection when they were exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NY. We were invited to present workshops on Korean ceramic processes at the MMOA during that exhibit. Remarkable work.

  5. It is interesting to see the small round indented area of the tea bowls. This week I was given my very first tea bowl lessons. That area was a feature of one of the lessons. The first lesson was making a coiled bowl with straight sides, the second a thrown one. Then two different methods of making a foot.

  6. Hi Dwing,
    It is good to hear from you. Thanks for your comment.
    The Japanese in particular are enamored with the indention in the inside bottom of their teabowls. Japanese tea aesthetics influence most Western artists who teach about teabowls so they strongly emphasize that feature as well. In practice it is a casual thing often occurring naturally when the bowl is formed. I doubt that the Korean potter of the Choson Dynasty, who were making common rice bowls, put an indention in the bottom of their bowls to catch the remaining tea powder. Yet many of these bowls have such an indentation. Never the less in my last post I show a photo of one of Korea’s great teabowl masters Chan Han Bong. From the discussion on the post you might surmise that he is measuring the bowl with his hand. Actually he is using his thumb to place the indentation on the bottom of the bowl. His indentation, although deliberate, is very subtle and not pronounced like the indention on my celadon bowl.

  7. I should add to my response to dwing that molding, not wheel turning, formed many teabowls of the period. The interior indentation on my bowl and the last bowl on this post were probably molded. In this case the indentation may simply be a characteristic of the mold and may or may not have a deliberate tea related purpose.

  8. Getting back to Petr’s comment about the color and clay for celadon. It is certainly the case that most likely the majority of celadon in Korea were made with a clay body that contained iron, but not all. Historically many Chinese celadons were made with porcelain clay and that is also the case with some Korean work. Such is the case, I believe, with the copper red teabowl above. If you click on the link to the British Museum, you will go to that bowl. They do describe the bowl as “stoneware” however if you click on the image on that site that says “view of underside decoration” you will find that the clay body is white and therefore most likely porcelain.
    Korea was able to achieve the celadon color and its translucency in different ways. One of these was using a clay body that contained iron. That is evident particularly in Gangjin, Korea that produced about 80% of the historic celadon we find in museums today. At you can see this clay body still in use today.
    When considering the basic color, we should not ignore the small amount of manganese dioxide (about 0.5 - 0.75%) which give the slight gray color to Korean celadon. Iron was 1-2% by weight and responsible for the green. The translucency comes from microscopic bubbles along with partially dissolved quartz and small amounts of magnetite and ilmenite that scatter and absorb the light.

  9. Thank You Cho Hak for these informations. We sometime achieve the color and the character which is similar to Korean celadon but one can feel that we "achieve that" and from Korean celadon ware one can feel that they "do that". There is no-effort, if you know what I mean.

  10. I know what you mean. It is not just the color but the translucency and depth of the color, especially on some of the old pieces when the glaze is so pale and delicate - like air.
    The Korean potter's understanding of reduction from the early polished blackware to the gray 3 Kingdoms work to their unsurpassed celadons represent a remarkable linage of understanding reduction firing.