Celadon Fit for the Royal Treasury By Ethan Thompson

Celadon Fit for the Royal Treasury By Ethan Thompson

According to most versions of the story, the Shogun Ashikaga Yohimasa (1436-1490) had been give a Song Dynasty Celadon bowl for tea and it had become his most prized possession. Through use, the bowl developed a crack. The shogun sent it back to China to be replaced. Apparently, the Ming potters returned the bowl with a metal clamp fixed over the crack, apologizing that no one alive at the time could replace the bowl. This story, and others like it, would affect potters up until the modern day: it became gospel that even the official kilns of the Ming Dynasty could no longer reproduce celadon masterpieces, called "qing ci" in Chinese. The art of Song Guan would remain a thing for museums over the course of the next few centuries. Only in the modern era, would potters of China, Taiwan and Japan begin to confront this art form again.

There have been many great names in this tradition, all with innovations and awards of their own. Walking around a modern pottery town in Taiwan, one can see all kinds of celadon cups, bowls, teapots, storage containers, etc. of all different colors, styles and quality. For several years, our eyes were drawn to certain cups, gaiwans and containers that seemed to have a color, shine and craftsmanship the others were lacking. Furthermore, when we took these cups home, we found that they enhanced our tea -especially Newborn Sheng Puerh - in a way that outshone even their beauty. Later, as we began inquiring in several different shops about their provenance we found out that even though they had all been purchased in different shops, they had amazingly been made by the same man. Of course, we had to meet him.

What is qing ci? This special kind of pottery was invented and mastered during the Song Dynasty (960-1126 AD). The clay and glaze both have minute amounts of iron in them which is reducing during the firing process. The work then develops blue, bluish-green or even jade-like green colors. However, it is the sky-blue celadon pieces that have always captured the admiration of collectors and potters alike. Sometimes the glaze is intentionally crackled and cracked. These cracks usually force the tea drinker to only use them for one kind of tea, but the cracks will eventually stain brown and give the piece an antique appearance. The high temperature and temperamental nature of the clay and glaze make this form of pottery very difficult and time consuming. Potters regularly lose pieces to flaws. The iron will often react with the heat and come to the surface, causing a blemish that will send the piece to the scrap pile. Sometimes potters will add powdered iron to cover the surface with these dots, but should one or two occur accidentally in the pieces, the piece must be abandoned.

Part of what distinguished the pieces that we were seeing in so many shops was the clay. Traditionally, the best Song Guan pieces used dark brown clay with traces of iron in it. When fired it will have the "brown rim and iron foot", as it was referred to in ancient times. Because of the iron, the clay fires a deep-purplish kind of dark brown. This is seen in the foot. As the layers of glaze roll down the cup or bowl, the translucent rim also takes on a purplish-brown hue. Many of the potters in Taiwan and elsewhere have started using iron-free red clay. The bottom of these pieces will be red and the rim a golden brown. Though not as beautiful, these pieces are far less sensitive and can therefore be produced in large quantities in less time. Knowing this only enhanced our respect for the man behind the pieces we had been buying for years.

Wu Yuen Zhong is still young, born in Hua apprenticed to several masters in the 90's, and was learning how to make teapots, "Like all Chinese people, I always liked celadon art. I respected it as something that is part of my heritage, but I thought it was a bit of a lost art from the Song Dynasty." Mr. Wu then saw the art of the modern Japanese master, Shimada Koichi, and was inspired to begin walking the same road himself. There was no one to hand been crafting, so Mr. Wu set out on his own. He says that his kiln was busy firing experiments every day for several years, and most of the results were smashed to shards before some worthwhile pieces started coming out. "The soft, serene elegance of a high-quality celadon piece doesn't come easily. Even now, I lose quite a few pieces as bits of iron pop through the glaze or it drips down improperly. Sometimes the color is just off. The celadon should be sky blue, sometimes with a tint of green like the ocean. The rim should be a purple that shines and invites one, and the base should be deep and dark like iron."

For several years, Mr. Wu suffered economic and artistic frustration as he tried to find the secret to this ancient technique. Finally, in the early 2000's, he started making some pieces that were worth selling in tea shops. He moved to the pottery capital of Taiwan, Yingge, and started selling small quantities of his celadon bowls, cups, pitchers and occasional gaiwans or teapots. Then in 2003, his work was displayed in several shows, including the Taton Cultural Center. He says that he continues to experiment and develop his style all the time. "I only send maybe one out of thirty pieces to market."

We asked Mr. Wu why his pieces were so different from all the other celadon floating around the market. He said that a big difference was the clay. Hardly anyone is using the dark clay with iron inside anymore. "This clay isn't indigenous to Taiwan. I use clays primarily mined in Japan. The same clay composition can be found in China, though, too." This darker clay is far more difficult to work with, he says, because as was mentioned above, the iron in the clay can sometimes blemish the glaze. Mr. Wu says that most potters would rather use mixtures of Taiwanese red clay. "You don't get the same color on the rim or base, which will be tan and dark red, but most customers don't notice anyway and you can then make a lot more money." He complimented us on our ability to recognize the more traditional style. He admitted that he wasn't the only one practicing the old way, but that there weren't too many around anymore.

We took some cups back home to experiment with, including some of the more common variety found all over. We found that the ones made in the traditional style did have a dramatic impact on the tea we drank. The glaze on the darker, traditional ones seems softer, thicker and more beautiful. Beyond aesthetics, the tea in Mr. Wu's cups was smoother and clearer in taste. We have found that this kind of celadon teaware, especially the cups, is most useful for drinking Puerh teas, and especially young sheng Puerh. The obvious reason why this kind of celadon is good for Puerh is that the glaze is one of the thickest in all kinds of pottery. The soft, thick glaze keeps temperature in, which is important for Puerh, and adds a nice cottony texture to the liquor as it enters the mouth. Why these cups are so excellent for young sheng, however, is still a mystery to us. We experimented several times with several different cups and found that Mr. Wu's celadon cups always provided a cleaner, clearer taste of the newborn, raw tea. In fact, we recently had a guest from America who mostly enjoys newer Puerh, and when he tasted the liquor from Mr. Wu's cups he immediately went out and bought a set of six. We now also use Mr. Wu's gaiwans for evaluating any new sheng Puerh that we are considering purchasing, as the taste is always more accurate.

Celadon has always been a refined ceramic, attracting the attention of royalty and connoisseurs for centuries. Holding a beautiful cup is more than just pleasing to the eyes. The colors change in the light from jade to sky blue, to a cyan of the deepest, clearest ocean. Beyond that, the cups are so soft and smooth, and don't really feel like ceramic at all. The liquor, then, is smooth and softer when sipped, and the taste clearer. There is nothing more one could desire from teaware than to enhance the beauty, taste and ambience of a tea session. Traditional celadon teaware has the power to inspire a session, and lend it an ambience of refinement. It's not difficult to look down at a set of Mr. Wu's teaware and imagine oneself in a garden tearoom of some wealthy merchant's house centuries ago.