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Korea in Focus: White Porcelains and Rituals

October 14, 2020
Jar with Dragon Design, 1700s. Korea, Joseon dynasty (1392–1910). 1986.85

By In-Hee Song, PhD candidate, Ewha Womans University
Published October 14, 2020

In its effort to model the state on neo-Confucian values, the Joseon dynasty’s ruling house (1392−1910) underscored the significance of formal rituals in conducting every aspect of state matters. In accordance with such political formalization, ritual implements including vessels, furnishings, musical instruments, and attire were systemized for royal usage.

In the early decades of the 1400s, potters of local kilns supplied vessels for the upper class, the way they did for centuries during the preceding Goryeo dynasty (918−1392). Based on the firing technology used for Goryeo period celadons, many Joseon potters produced ceramics called buncheong wares (literally, “gray-green ceramics decorated with slip”), which display such techniques as inlaying with stamps and brushing with white slip (1963.505, 1921.649, 1962.153).


Jar with Scroll Design 분청사기 상감 당초무늬 호, 1963.505
Wine Flask with Incised and Sgraffito Peony Design 분청사기 박지 모란무늬 편병, 1921.649
Bottle with Incised and Sgraffito Fish Design 분청사기 조화 물고기무늬 병, 1962.153

To control the overall high quality of ceramic works for royal consumption, the Joseon ruling house established the official kiln complex in the vicinity of the new capital, present-day Seoul, in the late 1460s. Included in a series of actions were protocols to supervise the production of raw materials such as white clay (kaolin) and firewood, and to appoint officials to be in charge of supervising kilns and their products.

After opening, the official kilns were the center of supplying vessels to the royal court to the end of the Joseon period. Over the course of its 420 years, the official kilns produced a wide variety of white porcelains for royal and governmental uses, from daily utensils to ritual vessels. The hollyhock-shaped cup in the CMA’s collection (1969.85) is one among only a handful of remaining works from the official kiln in the early phase. A flower that turns toward the sun throughout the day, the hollyhock symbolizes loyalty to the king; thus, cups in the shape of hollyhocks were produced for royal consumption.


Hollyhock-Shaped Cup 백자 규화배, 1969.85

Dragon Jar as an Emblem of Royal Authority

Dragon jars were one of the ritual vessels reserved only for the king. The earliest appearance of a dragon jar in Joseon dates back to the 1400s; it was originally a blue-and-white porcelain with a dragon design, a gift from the Chinese Ming Emperor Xuande (r. 1425−1435) to Joseon King Sejong (r. 1418−1450).[1]

Due to the devastating destruction of two wars, Japanese invasions (1592−1598), and Manchu invasions (1627 and 1636), dragon jars dated from the 1400s to 1500s have rarely survived. Thus, the most urgent project of the Joseon royal house after the wars was to restore porcelain works for ritual purposes, although the production of blue-and-white dragon jars was temporarily on hold for decades because of the lack of cobalt blue. During the period of dynastic changeover from Ming (1368−1644) to Qing (1636−1912) in China, this expensive foreign mineral became extremely difficult for the Joseon potters to acquire. While Joseon officials strove to re-establish the import of cobalt blue, they had to find provisional substitutes such as underglaze iron. This explains why some of white porcelain jars with dragon design dated to the 1600s were done in underglaze iron.

Archaeological findings and historical records imply that making blue-and-white dragon jars could have been resumed in the late 1600s, but it was not until the early 1700s that there was some stabilization in production in the official Joseon kilns. Responding to an urgent need for ritual vessels, including blue-and-white dragon jars, state potters received commissions from the upper and middle classes who wanted high-quality ceramic wares for their household rituals. The blue-and-white jar with dragon design in the CMA’s collection (1986.85) exemplifies one of the few remaining examples dated to the 1700s, a period when the supply of cobalt blue once again became stable.


Jar with Dragon Design 백자 청화 운룡무늬 호, 1986.85

White Porcelain

During the 1600s, potters of the official kilns started to produce white porcelain jars in a large globular shape, as seen in this jar in the CMA’s collection (1983.28). Archaeological findings show the production of such moon-shaped jars began in the official kiln in the early 1600s and became popularized through the early 1700s, resulting in the emulation by nearby local private kilns.


Jar 백자호, 1983.28

With their upper and lower parts separately thrown on the wheel and then joined before glazing to form a complete work shaped like a full moon, this kind of jar has long been called the “moon jar.” This white jar is often discussed as the epitome of the Confucian aesthetic of austerity.

Blue-and-White Porcelains

By the end of the 1700s, blue-and-white porcelains saw a new era of revival. The jar with four auspicious characters in relief in the CMA’s collection (1981.3), for example, is a high-end white porcelain spherical jar possibly produced in state kilns. Historical records attest that white porcelains in relief had been a coveted ceramic item for wealthy consumers to celebrate festive occasions, such as birthdays and weddings.


Jar with Four Auspicious Characters in Relief 백자 양각 주름·문자무늬 호, 1981.3

Two blue-and-white jars from the CMA’s collection provide valuable insight into the widespread use of blue-and-white porcelain works in the 1800s. The jar with bird and flower design (1985.19) has one of the most popular motifs of Korean consumers—from literati elites to commoners. The design of twittering birds sitting face to face on flowering trees connotes conjugal harmony, while the flowers in full bloom symbolize wealth. The vase with bird and flower design (1989.117) typifies the style of blue-and-white porcelain jars of the 1800s. The set of motifs comprising peonies, chrysanthemums, orchids, and birds displays an excellent blend of literati and popular symbols.


Jar with Bird and Flower Decoration 백자 청화 화조문 호, 1985.19
Vase with Bird and Flower Design 백자 청화 화조문 호, 1989.117

White porcelains mark Korea’s identity during the Joseon period, where rituals served as the core of statecraft. The examples discussed here demonstrate that ruling elites’ aesthetics did not simply convey the Joseon state’s political ideology, but rather were differently translated across various social classes, serving as agents to blur the divisions between socioeconomic classes toward the 1800s.



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