The term “Five Great Kilns” (Chinese: 五大名窑, wu da ming yao) was first mentioned in a book of imperial collections of the Ming dynasty. It referred to the five kilns that were famous for their production of Chinese ceramics during the Song dynasty (960–1279). They are respectively Ruyao, Junyao, Guanyao, Dingyao and Geyao.
The character 窑 (yao) means both ceramic kilns or wares. Before their existence, ceramics were made mostly for practical use. The Five Great Kilns started a new era of making ceramic wares that were practical and ornamental at the same time. The distinctive characteristics of the products of each kiln was highly esteemed and reproduced after. In this article we introduce and discuss of type of kiln.
Ru Ware (Ruyao)
Ruyao only existed for twenty years towards the end of Northern Song Dynasty. It was destroyed due to the war between the Northern Song and the Jin army. This made Ru wares so rare and valuable even in the following Dynasty – Southern Song Dynasty. To this day, there are no more than 70 authentic Ru wares left in the world from that period of time.
Same as Guanyao and Geyao, Ruyao was famous for its celadon vessels. Over the thick bright glaze of Ru wares, there are very fine crackles (decorative patterns of very fine cracks on the surface of the glaze that can be seen on products of other kilns too). The sleek glaze changes colours slightly with light, it was so admired that a verse compared it to the colour of the sky right after the rain. At the bottom of Ru wares, we can see burn marks of small studs that sometimes looked like sesame seeds. That’s because Ru wares were supported by those studs during the firing, so the bottom of the products could be glazed as well.
Jun Ware (Junyao)
Junyao was built in the early Northern Song Dynasty, and the site was in Yuzhou, Henan Province.
Jun wares were covered with an opacified glaze that contained a small amount of copper. During the firing, the oxide of copper turned into the colouring agent, which was the secret of the renowned various colours of Jun wares.
Depending on the amount of copper used in the glaze, after the firing, the glaze colours would range from blue/bluish to violet, celadon, pale blue, etc. On the glaze, there were sometimes irregular thin lines, which was called “earthworm creeping in mud”.
Guan Ware (Guanyao)
“Guan”, meaning the government in Chinese, showed that Guanyao was the official kiln that only produced fine porcelains for the royal family and court.
Normally, Guan Wares were simple plain-coloured, at most with straight edges and string lines as decoration. There were tiny crackles in the light grey-blue glaze. Different patterns of the crackles had different names, such as “ice cracks”, “plum blossoms” and “crab claws”. With the upper rim of a purplish color while the lower rim with a dark iron color, there was a saying that “purple mouth and iron foot” was a characteristic of Guan wares.
In addition to the usual cups, plates and washing vessels, there were many Guan wares that imitated the styles of wares from Shang, Zhou, Qin and Han dynasties.
Ding Ware (Dingyao)
Started from Tang Dynasty, Ding kiln lasted for over six hundred years. Dingyao was best known for its white porcelains made of white clay and white glaze. It also produced wares of other colours like black and brown. Ding wares usually had the rims unglazed, called “mang kou”, meaning rough rims. The rims were later covered by metals like gold, silver and copper. Occasionally there was over-glazing that looked like tear marks on the surface of the products, counted as a distinguished feature of Ding ware.
There were a variety of decorative patterns on Ding wares, such as flowers, birds, lions, phoenix and dragons. The patterns were simple and symmetrical during Northern Song Dynasty, and got more and more complicated and exquisite towards Southern Song Dynasty. Carving with knives, printing and painting were three popular decoration methods.
Ge Ware (Geyao)
Ge Kiln was established in Zhejiang Province by craftman Zhang Shengyi during Song Dynasty. However, the exact site of Ge Kiln has not been found.
The glaze of Geyao has a matte sheen with various colours, such as beige, gray-blue, ivory. There were often weblike crackles on the surface of the glaze. Cracking of the glaze was originally a defect in firing. Later on, craftmen mastered the cracking techniques and deliberately made crackles, created a unique sense of beauty. One of the typical patterns was thick black crackles intertwined with thin red/yellow crackles.
The most wonderful and the most overlooked feature of Ge wares is so-called “accumulation of beads”. It referred to the tiny bubbles that looked like little beads or water droplets formed inside of the thick glaze. Same as Guanyao, “purple mouth and iron foot” is a characteristic of Geyao as well.