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The Jun Kiln – 鈞窯 Junyao Song Dynasty

Jun ware (Chinese: 鈞窯; pinyin: Jūn yáo; Wade–Giles: Chün-yao) is a celebrated type of Chinese pottery, renowned as one of the Five Great Kilns of Song dynasty ceramics. Despite its historical significance, much about Jun ware remains shrouded in mystery and is the subject of ongoing scholarly debate. This article delves into the intricate history, production techniques, and distinguishing features of Jun ware, offering an academically rigorous and historically accurate portrayal.

Historical Context and Development

Jun ware’s production spans several dynasties, from the Northern Song (960–1127) to the early Ming dynasty (1368–1644). The term “Jun ware” encompasses various types of pottery produced over these centuries, primarily in Henan province. The ware’s development is marked by two main phases: the production of popular market wares and the creation of “official Jun wares” for the imperial court.

Song Dynasty Origins

The exact start date for Jun ware remains uncertain, with many pieces tentatively dated to the Song dynasty based on their stylistic similarities to other contemporary wares. However, no Jun ware has been definitively recovered from Song-era tombs, leaving its early history somewhat speculative. The name “Jun ware” derives from Junzhou, the region where it originated, now known as Yuzhou City in Henan province.

Evolution through Dynasties

During the Jin (1115–1234) and Yuan (1271–1368) dynasties, Jun ware production expanded significantly. By the Yuan dynasty, production had spread beyond Henan to Hebei and Shanxi provinces. The ware’s quality varied, with some pieces reflecting high craftsmanship, particularly those intended for imperial use. The production increased dramatically during the Yuan dynasty, resulting in larger vessels with coarser bodies and thicker glazes.

Official Jun Ware

The term “official Jun wares” refers to items believed to have been produced for the imperial court, though they are not mentioned in contemporary documents, and their dating remains contentious. These wares are distinguished by their sturdy shapes and relatively low-status functions, such as flowerpots and spittoons. Official Jun wares are typically characterized by their blue and purple glazes, with some pieces displaying intricate splash patterns.

Technical Characteristics

Jun ware is classified as high-prestige stoneware, notable for its distinctive glaze colors, ranging from light greenish-brown to deep blue and purple. The ware’s most striking feature is its blue to purple glazes, often accented with white and created using straw ash. The glaze effects include “splashes” and “streaks” of purple, the latter described in Chinese as “worm-tracks.”

Glaze and Firing Techniques

The Jun glaze is a complex and flamboyant blue glaze developed during the Northern Song and Jin dynasties. This opalescent glaze, created using iron and copper colorants, exhibits variations such as light sky-blue, moon-white, and red or purple splashes. The vivid blue appearance results from the glaze’s minute bubbles and phase separation during cooling, causing reflected light. The glaze, when examined through transmitted light, is actually yellow. The technique of yaobian, which involves varying kiln temperatures to alter color tints, was frequently employed.

The firing of copper red in a reducing atmosphere, initially invented by Changsha potters in the Tang dynasty, was further refined by Song Jun potters. This innovation laid the foundation for the fresh red (xian hong) glaze achieved in Jingdezhen during the Ming and Qing dynasties.

Shapes and Forms

Jun ware encompasses a variety of shapes, from simple bowls and dishes to more elaborate vases and wine-carafes. The walls of these pieces are typically thick and sturdy, with later period examples showing a marked increase in wall thickness compared to the more refined Song dynasty pieces. The foot of the ware is usually unglazed and brown, with the rim of bowls sometimes displaying a brown or greenish tint where the glaze is thinner.

During the Yuan dynasty, production increased dramatically, and many large vessels were fired. However, the body became coarser, and the glaze often stopped halfway downwards on vessels such as dishes and bowls. Bowls measuring 21.5-22 cm in diameter and larger were produced from the Northern Song through the Yuan, with size alone not indicative of the period.

Archaeological Insights

Excavations at Jun ware kiln sites have provided valuable insights into its production and distribution. Notably, the Qingliangsi site, also known for producing imperial Ru ware, and the Juntai site, revealed as the production center for official Jun wares, have been pivotal in understanding Jun ware’s historical context.

In 2001, archaeological excavations unearthed kiln site remnants at Hebeidi and Liujiamen in Shenhou town, Yuzhou. These findings allowed scholars to divide Jun ware production into three periods: late Northern Song through early Jin, late Jin through early Yuan, and the Yuan period. The earliest period produced small vessels often fully glazed with miniature foot supports and pale bluish glazes, while later periods saw an increase in vessel size, glaze thickness, and the prevalence of red splashes.

Historical Recognition and Influence

Jun ware’s historical recognition is relatively late, with the first mention by the painter Song Xu in 1504. The ware’s influence extended beyond its initial production period, with later imitations and adaptations reflecting its continued prestige. The early pieces in light blue may be linked to the quasi-mythical Chai ware of the 10th century, although definitive examples matching historical descriptions have not been identified.

Authentication and Imitations

Jun ware has been widely copied in China and Japan, making authentication challenging. Authentic Jun pieces are distinguished by their earthworm-track markings on the glaze surface, a feature rarely seen in later imitations. Additionally, many authentic pieces are finely or coarsely pitted.

A number of Jun ware vessels, mainly bulb bowls, flower pots, and stands, bear Chinese numerals stamped under the glaze. These numbers, ranging from one to ten, relate to the size of the vessels, with ten representing the smallest and one the largest. Theories suggesting these numbers relate to pairs, decoration, or the ordering process have not been supported by extant examples.

Conclusion

Jun ware represents a significant achievement in Chinese ceramic art, characterized by its distinctive glazes and forms. Despite ongoing debates about its exact origins and development, Jun ware’s legacy as a high-prestige stoneware is undisputed. Continued archaeological discoveries and scholarly research promise to shed further light on this enigmatic and beautiful ware, ensuring its place in the annals of ceramic history.