What is Celadon Pottery? - History & Facts

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

There are many kinds of ceramics in the world; each has impacted different cultures. In this lesson, we'll explore celadon pottery, where it came from, and what makes it so special.

Celadon Pottery

Have you ever wondered why we call fancy flatware ''china''? It's because Europeans had never seen porcelain before encountering it in this East Asian nation. China quickly gained a reputation in Europe for having some of the highest quality ceramics in the world. Of course, Europe was discovering something that Asian nations had known for centuries.

Amongst the many influential ceramic styles to come out of China is one known as celadon. While some ceramics are defined mainly by the treatment of the material, celadon pottery is defined by its color: green. More specifically, it's a semi-translucent shade of green that closely emulates the appearance of jade, one of the most precious substances in Chinese civilization. Celadon pottery is just an imitation of this stone, however. It's important to keep that in mind; we wouldn't want you to feel jaded.

Celadon bowl of the northern style
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Origins of Celadon Pottery

The exact origins of the glaze and firing technique used to create celadon pottery is unknown. Some archeologists claim it dates back to some of China's very first imperial dynasties. Celadon pottery belongs to a class of sturdy ceramics made with a high-quality kiln and some sort of green glaze collectively called green ware. These ceramics are generally treated as the ancestors of porcelain.

The oldest green wares appeared way back in the Shang Dynasty (c. 1600-c. 1050 BCE) and were developed into a distinctive style by the Han Dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE). During these ancient times, kilns were sometimes inconsistent in temperatures and potters experimented with new glaze recipes.

The green wares display a range of shades, ranging from green-grey to green-brown and everything in between. The most consistent and highest quality workshops were in the Yue region, producing sophisticated green wares we collectively call Yue ware. This is where the first true examples of celadon pottery seem to have emerged, likely in the 2nd century CE.

Song Dynasty Celadon

Over the next several centuries, Chinese potters refined their kilns, their glazes, and their techniques. Celadon pottery became more standardized and more sought after. The height of celadon pottery production, however, came in the Song Dynasty (960-1279 CE). Song Dynasty celadon ceramics achieved the most famous version of this color, which often contained subtle blue or grey hues but very closely imitated the appearance of jade.

Northern and Longquan Pottery

We can divide the Song-era celadon wares into two distinct varieties. First is northern celadon pottery (c. 960-1450). Northern celadon ware was produced in the Shanxi province, located in (you guessed it) northern China. The actual ceramic body was grey and decorated with designs of flower, waves, fish, dragons, or clouds. An olive-green celadon glaze was then applied, and the pot was fired in the kiln.

Song Dynasty Longquan style celadon ceramic
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However, the highest achievements in this art form are generally seen as belonging to Longquan celadon pottery (c. 960-1279). Longquan ceramics (also spelled Lung-ch'uan) were made in a southern Chinese province called Zhejiang. The body was essentially porcelain, covered first in a blue-green glaze, then finally achieving the true jade-color glaze that defines celadon pottery today.

Longquan celadon wares were also noted for the simplicity, symmetry and elegance of the ceramic body itself. While later Chinese dynasties would revive the tradition of celadon pottery, they were emulating Longquan ceramics which have retained their reputation as the pinnacle of Chinese celadon ware achievement.

Celadon Outside of China

The Song Dynasty was a transformative era for China. New innovations and technologies led to a wealthy and educated population that doubled in size. China's economy flourished, and they enthusiastically opened themselves to international trade. This brought them in contact with numerous foreign cultures (something many Chinese dynasties tried to avoid). One of the cultures to redefine their relationship with China was Korea.

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