Gone are the apricot blooms,
Touch of pink remains,
Young verdant green fruits still tiny.
Swallows dart gracefully over fields,
Jade green river winding down cottages.
With wind in the willow,
The catkins wave away.
Sweet scented green grass adorns,
However remote corner.
This beautiful poem written by the famous Song dynasty poet Su Shi vividly described a vibrant scene of early Spring. The word green is emphatically clear in the poem – green apricot fruits, green river, green willow trees and green grass. Such poetic depictions are often times the visual themes of the fabulous blue-green landscape paintings popular in the Tang and Song era.
Marvelous verdant green mountains, with jade green river flowing through, and a bright moon rising above – on a deeper level, the aesthetics of beautiful classic Chinese romanticism paintings such as this one carried Taoist ideals – nature and man co-existing harmoniously together.
Taoist aesthetics played an important role throughout Chinese art history.
“Be natural, nobody can compete with a natural beauty”, Taoist master Chuang Tzu said. Simplistic styles were therefore highly valued, and naturalistic colors were greatly favored. The epitome of Taoist ideals would be the pursuit of harmony between man and nature.
Beautiful shades of green could also be found in the ceramic art of the same period. The Tang Dynasty poet Lu Guimeng was so impressed by what he had seen in the famous “Secret Formula” Yue Yao celadon wares, he wrote a poem exalting the fantastic forest green glaze. A group of these famous ceramic works were discovered at the Dharma Temple in Xi’an, an eight-lobed water vessel is shown below:
The Yue Yao green glaze was also praised in another poem from the Five Dynasties: “Delicate as the Moon’s reflection on a Spring river, and light as green tinted clouds touching a layer of thin ice.”
Taoist aesthetics played an important role in the creation of Song Dynasty’s imperial commissioned ceramic wares, i.e. Ru Yao, Guan Yao. These Song Dynasty imperial kilns excelled at making blue and green glaze ceramic wares, which had mystic jade like textures, enchanting colors and simplistic styles.
Lao Tzu taught in Tao Te Ching that “a sage might dress in rags, but his heart and soul are as pure and noble as that of jade”. Green jade was also viewed as a protector from evil spirits and a defender of health throughout Chinese history.
The pursuit of jade green texture and resemblance, the painterly effects of Spring rivers, the romanticization and respect of nature and the natural, the poetic sensibility and creativity, technical innovations and breakthroughs, all came together and made Song Dynasty imperial ceramics unmatched in world art history.
This extremely rare Northern Song celadon dragon bowl has an exquisite body shape, elegant and light in weight. The soft green glaze was evenly applied on the outside of the bowl and inside of the foot rim as well, leaving the inside in transparent glaze. The cup’s beautiful jade green glaze is reminiscent of nature’s lush greens.
A pair of dragons chasing the flaming pearl were masterfully incised on the outside surface of the bowl. The five-clawed dragon motif indicated this bowl was exclusively made for the emperor. In Chinese history and tradition, the five-clawed dragon motif was reserved only for the emperor, the rest of the imperial court and high officials would use four-clawed dragon motif instead.
The dragons came vigorously and fiercely alive – in the midst of heavenly green peaks and mystic Spring rivers, with their lightning speed and motion, thundering power and passion.
Tang Dynasty (618-907 A.D.)
Five Dynasties (907 – 960 A.D.)
Northern Song Dynasty (960 – 1127 A.D.)
Su Shi (1037 – 1101 A.D.)
Zhuangzi (370 – 287 B.C.)
Laozi ( ? – 533 B.C.)
Recently an American client brought several Chinese antiques to show me, they were all collected in the early 20th century.
I was instantly drawn to the elegant dragon bowl at first glance, it had many traits of an early imperial ware.
After further examination and research, I came to the conclusion that this is a Northern Song dynasty imperial ware, a significant piece in ceramic art history.
A beautiful art is usually created out of many inspirations and influences, historical or from the same period, it would never be an isolated occurrence. In order to fully understand one particular art form, we need to broaden the horizon and tackle the subject from related angles and perspectives.
The above article is an attempt to explain the cultural background in the creation of the legendary Northern Song dynasty imperial wares, I would reference historical contexts in Chinese literature, poetry, paintings, aesthetics, philosophy and ceramic workmanship, especially during the Tang and Song dynasties.
Please feel free to contact me if your museum is interested in hosting an exhibition.
Tiffany M. Wang
「特别推介」千峰翠色 – 北宋御窑青瓷龙纹碗
Tiffany M. Wang