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Celadon Wares and Tea Culture

August 25, 2020

In-Hee Song, Ph.D. candidate, Ewha Womans University 
Published August 8, 2020

Introduced from Tang China (618−907) as early as the seventh century, the practice of drinking tea, under the patronage of royalty came to hold a central place in the culture of nobility in Korea’s Goryeo period (918−1392). The royal court established a special bureau for serving tea for both ceremonies and daily practice. Kings often presented high-quality teas to their retainers. Tea culture also developed within Buddhist communities: Buddhist monks drank tea during their meditation practice and also offered a cup of tea to Buddhist deities as part of their daily rituals. According to historical records, the cultivation of tea in Korea was initiated with seeds from Tang China in 828.[1]


For drinking tea, Goryeo elites strove to acquire a proper set of utensils and vessels. Along with locally produced stoneware produced, elite tea drinkers competitively imported tea pots, ewers, and bowls produced from reputable kilns in China, such as Changsha wares from Hunan province, Yue wares from Zhejiang province, three-color wares, and white waresfrom kilns in Hebei and Henan provinces.


Foreign Diplomat’s Memoir

One of the most well-known descriptions about the spread of tea culture in Korea is found in the report of the Chinese envoy Xu Jing (1091−1153) of the Northern Song dynasty (960−1279).[2] Xu visited Korea in 1123 and stayed in the capital city, present-day Gaeseong, for about a month. During his stay, he reported that Korean people at that time were fond of drinking tea, both domestic and Chinese.

According to Xu, Goryeo people used many kinds of tea wares not only for special ceremonial occasions, but for daily use. In his diary, Xu described various colors and decoration of tea wares made of a wide range of materials—jade, silver, gilded, and celadon—and in different sizes and shapes he had seen during his visit. In addition to the tea wares, Xu recorded some of the names and functions of the ceramic wares and were amazed how Goryeo ones looked similar to Song Chinese counterparts. He also noticed that the Goryeo ruling class valued celadon wares as much as gilded-gold and silver wares.

Diverse and Distinctive Decorations


The celadon production in Korea’s Goryeo period was at its height in the 1100s.[3] Alongside the mastery over firing, various inspirational sources helped potters to establish distinctive styles of celadon. As a good example, a group of celadons with minimal decorative design (above) illuminate Goryeo potters’ achievement of glazing techniques and elegant shapes, inspired by the Chinese Ru and Ding kilns of the Song period.


A bowl with a flowering vine design in relief and a group of bowls with various designs in relief represent a new style of decoration introduced from Song China in the twelfth century. The bowls were pressed over the dome-shaped molds with carved patterns. This technique is most well known in the Chinese Yaozhou wares, as seen in these examples (top row of three below), but the motifs of Goryeo celadon wares embrace much more diverse sources including those of Yaozhou wares and Ding wares (second row below, left and center). This molding technique enabled Goryeo potters to produce bowls and dishes in standard shapes with complicated patterns. Goryeo potters of later periods continued to develop further elaborate skills. The bowl with fish and waves in relief (second row below, right), for example, exhibits sophisticated craftsmanship for both interior and exterior décor: mold technique for the inside, and inlaid technique for the outside.


Besides tea bowls, the CMA collection has a few fine examples of ewers featuring exquisite décor and shapes deeply inspired by nature. While borrowing forms from nature has long been a shared decorative idea among potters in East Asia and beyond, Goryeo potters excelled in elaborate details. The ewer with an incised bamboo shoot design and the lid for bamboo shoot-shaped ewer epitomize such exquisite modeling. Some of the prominent shapes of Goryeo celadon ewers are a double gourd and a melon (below center and right).

Goryeo potters also employed natural motifs as an important source of designs. A pot with an incised design of chrysanthemums is a good example of established stylistic patterns. The slightly lobed vessel is adorned with sprays of chrysanthemums and the flattened shoulder is decorated with a band of stylized ruyi heads resembling heavenly clouds—one of the most common border patterns on Goryeo celadons. Likewise, the pot with an incised lotus design shows a high level of refinement with bevel-cut sprays of lotus flowers.


In comparison with the prevailing designs of natural motifs on Goryeo celadon, the figure and willow design on the pitcher in the CMA’s collection (below) is a rare example with a scene of elegant scholarly life. On both sides of the body, circles embellished with an arabesque pattern frame the inlaid design of two gentlemen under a large willow tree, playing chess, or baduk in Korean. Only a handful of Goryeo celadons have survived intact with this type of narrative design.

Celadon wares were served on the tables of Goryeo’s ruling class for tea, wine, and dining. For the taste of high-ranking consumers, Goryeo potters refined forms and decorations of their products with diverse inspirational sources from famous Chinese kilns. Such endeavors of potters and patronage of the ruling classes eventually transformed daily utensils into works of art, shaping the upper-class elegant lifestyle of the Goryeo period in tune with global consumerism.

Support for this web article publication provided by the National Museum of Korea