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The serene beauty of Korean ceramics

By Lee Ji-yoon
Staff writer

Buncheong Jar with Tiger Design, which porcelain master Kim Jeong-ok donated to the British MuseumCeramics are generally considered Korea’s greatest artistic legacy. Although the serene beauty has sometimes been overshadowed by Chinese and Japanese art, now Korean ceramic art is gaining attention from the world’s critics and collectors for its simple and modern styles.

As Korea, China and Japan are linked geographically, historically and culturally, the history of ceramics in eastern Asia is also entangled with one another. But those who appreciate the beauty of the art can differentiate the traditional ceramic wares of the three countries.

Chinese ceramics are generally more colorful and diversified, while Japanese ceramics are characterized by sophisticated styles and delicate designs. Korean ceramics, on the other hand, demonstrate modesty and natural beauty.

Korea led the world’s ceramic culture with China until the 17th century. The high points of Korean ceramics occurred during the Goryeo (918-1392) and Joseon (1392-1910) Dynasties.

Korean celadon during the Goryeo period is renowned especially for its pale, jade-colored glaze, which represents the advanced understanding of color composition of the potters at that time. Although early celadon was influenced by the Chinese, Korean potters developed the borrowed art to the new and unique level.

Celadon Incense BurnerThey added graceful designs onto the surface of the ceramics by using the remarkable inlaying technique, an entirely Korean invention. It is said that even the Chinese considered Korean celadon the "best under heaven" and more valuable than gold.

While the Goryeo celadon reveals aristocratic and luxurious beauty, you can feel simple and natural beauty from Joseon ceramics.

With the fall of the corrupt Goryeo elite and continuing invasions from neighboring countries, celadon workshops across the nation closed and skillful potters fled. Some potters kept producing celadon, but it was difficult for them to express the graceful color without the right materials.

So they disguised the surface with white slip or clay, which is a creative technique called "buncheong." Because the buncheong wares were usually produced at privately-run workshops, they are varied in shape and technique.

To distance themselves from the Goryeo Dynasty, the Joseon emperors and elite turned to Confucianism. The all-white porcelain, which is clearly glazed and virtually undecorated, is the most representative ceramic ware reflecting the spirit of the period.

Buncheong Jar with Fish DesignThe uniqueness of the Joseon potters is also found in the 40-centimeter-tall "moon-shaped white porcelain jar." It was impossible to produce such a big jar with a hand-operated wheel at that time. But potters made the tall, pure white jar by joining two thrown bowls together. Last year a Joseon moon-shaped white porcelain jar fetched nearly $1.3 million at a Christie’s auction in New York.

In the 1500s the tea ceremony was introduced to Japan through Korea. Japanese were amazed by the Joseon vessel, "maksabal," associating the rough tea bowl with the composure they felt from drinking tea.

During the Japanese invasions of Korea in 1592 and 1597, a number of Korean potters were kidnapped to Japan to help in kiln construction and the development of porcelain in the country. That’s why the war is also known as "the War of the Ceramics."

After the Japanese stole more than 200 tea bowls from the seaside of Gyeongsang-do, three of them were designated national treasures and 20 as important cultural properties. Among them is the world’s renowned "Kizaemon Ido," a Japanese national treasure, which was found by a Japanese soldier during the war.

While Japan accelerated the development of the ceramic industry, Korea couldn’t internationalize its excellent porcelain skills because of the isolation policy and Confucianism that forbade trading with neighbors.

After that Korean ceramics became sometimes estranged from common people. They were regarded as luxury goods that were possessed by the affluent.

As simple and natural shapes meet tastes of modern people, Korean ceramics are now widely enjoyed by many as daily kitchenwares.

The major production sites of traditional porcelain have launched their own local festivals, helping the general development of Korean ceramics. Icheon and Yeoju in Gyeonggi-do have held their own ceramic festivals for about 20 years. And in Gyeongsangbuk-do, Mungyeong tea bowl festival has also attracted many Korean and foreign visitors since it started 10 years ago. (Photos courtesy of Youngnamyo, Gangjin County)

Source: Korea Policy Review June 2008

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