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The Yaozhou Kiln History & Glaze 耀州窯

Early History and Tang Dynasty Production

The Yaozhou kilns, located in Huangbao town, Tongchuan prefecture, Shaanxi Province, began their ceramic production during the Tang dynasty. Initially, they produced a variety of high-fired monochrome glazes in yellow, white, green, brown, and black. These early wares bore similarities to those made in northern China kilns of Hebei and Henan. Yaozhou potters introduced unique decorative innovations such as biscuit forms with brown/black glaze decoration. Among these early creations were unique green-glazed wares with carved decoration inlaid with white slip, a technique that later influenced Korean ceramics.

Five Dynasties and Northern Song Periods

During the Five Dynasties period, Yaozhou kilns shifted their focus primarily to the production of greenwares. By the Northern Song dynasty, Yaozhou had become the most important center for Northern Chinese greenware production. The celadon wares from this period are characterized by a fine paste and a clear, transparent, and silky glaze. Common items produced included bowls, dishes, plates, cups, boxes, pillows, vases, ewers, lamps, burners, inkstones, water droppers, Chinese chess pieces, and a wide array of porcelain sculptures.

Yaozhou ware is typically a Northern Song ‘greenware’, and the kilns were established during the Tang dynasty and prospered during the Northern Song dynasty. Yaozhou Kiln was one of the most well-known ‘celadon’ kilns in China. The typical style of the Song Dynasty Yaozhou celadon ware included dark green glazed vessels such as bowls, dishes, saucers, jars, vases, small bottles, and cups, which were decorated with carvings or impressed with dragon, phoenix, and floral patterns.

The Yaozhou celadons of the Northern Song period are renowned for their elegant forms and exquisite carved decorations. The carving technique was perfected, producing motifs that were strong, deeply cut, and beveled along the outline. The resulting designs, often floral or foliate, stood out clearly under the green glaze, with the dark outlines where the glaze pooled contrasting beautifully with the lighter surfaces of the motifs.

Towards the end of the Northern Song period, the kilns began using molds to create impressed decorations on their wares. These impressed designs, although sometimes difficult to distinguish from carved motifs, became a hallmark of later Yaozhou production. Typical motifs included floral patterns, birds, fish in waves, and occasionally mythical creatures such as dragons and phoenixes.

Jin and Yuan Periods

The Jin period saw significant changes in Yaozhou kiln operations. To increase production volume, the kilns were enlarged, and the firing atmosphere became more challenging to control, leading to a decline in glaze quality. Bowls from this period often featured an unglazed ring on the inner base to accommodate stacking during firing. The motifs became more simplified and sketchy, and a new glaze called “Yue bai” (moon white) was introduced. This whitish glaze had a jade-like glossy quality and represented a notable innovation of the Jin Yaozhou potters.

During the Yuan period, the production of greenware continued on a much-reduced scale, and the quality of the vessels deteriorated further. By the late Yuan period, Yaozhou kilns had largely transitioned to producing Cizhou type wares with iron-black painted motifs.

Characteristics and Techniques

Yaozhou ware is distinctive for its green celadon glaze, which varies from light greyish green to light bluish green. The clay sources in Yaozhou were rocks that were turned into workable clay for ceramics through grinding and washing. The decoration was mostly molded or incised with a knife with a curved blade, and the pieces were bisque fired before they were glazed, making the decoration come out as different shades of the thick green glaze. The kilns employed a characteristic “horseshoe-shaped” or mantou kiln, fired by coal. This method influenced the glaze color, which ranged from olive green to dark tones without the bluish tinge found in earlier wood-fired wares. The firing process, including the use of saggars and later, the introduction of unglazed rings to prevent stacking pieces from sticking together, also played a significant role in the final appearance of the wares.

Export and Influence

Although Yaozhou ware was not extensively exported, some fragments have been found in locations such as Indonesia, Vietnam, and Islamic Spain. The influence of Yaozhou greenware extended to other Northern Celadon kilns in Henan and Hebei, and even some Southern kilns in Zhejiang. These kilns produced similar greenwares, often with impressed motifs, but generally of lower quality compared to the original Yaozhou products.

Yaozhou ware represents a significant achievement in Chinese ceramics, combining technical excellence with artistic innovation. Its influence on both domestic and foreign pottery traditions underscores its importance in the history of ceramic art.

Modern Yaozhou Production

Yaozhou ware is still made today in the mountainous area of Chenlu, one of the sites of the old Yaozhou kilns. The present-day kilns in the area are located in Huangpuzhen and Chenluzhen in the Yaozhou area of Shaanxi province and are built in the same way as in the Song dynasty 1000 years ago.