Masterworks of pottery and porcelain

Kyoto National Museum

Masterworks of pottery and porcelain
Ceramics vary greatly, usually depending upon where they were made. There is porcelain and pottery, different clays and glaze materials, and different methods of decoration and firing. East Asia has produced a huge array of ceramics, with an extensive range of patterns, shapes, and colors. Ceramics made in different parts of East Asia were traded and exchanged via land and sea routes, prized and cherished by people, and preserved carefully to this day. The Kyoto National Museum’s collection includes a great variety of richly individual ceramics primarily from Japan, China, and the Korean Peninsula.

Woman Holding a Pekinese
8th Century


In Tang China, ceramic figurines were very often interred with the deceased in aristocratic tombs. This lady cradling a little dog, apparently a Pekinese, in her arms, is one such tomb figure. While many Tang-dynasty tomb figures were decorated with the characteristic green, brown and white ‘three-color’ glazes of the era, this piece only has an underglaze. The slightly reddish base clay was coated with a thick white slip which was then painted, but because the piece was not refired to fix the paints, they have largely flaked off—only faint traces of black in the hair and crimson on the cheeks remain.

In the Sui and early Tang dynasties, female tomb figurines were usually slender, but by the height of the Tang dynasty, full, rounded figures like this one were produced in large numbers. This contrast is encapsulated in a phrase ‘Plump Yang ; Slim Zhao’, referring to the fact that whereas the beautiful Zhao Feiyan, consort of the Han dynasty Emperor Cheng, was of slim build, the famous Yang Guifei (719–756), much loved by Emperor Xuanzong (r. 712–756), was said to be a full-figured beauty. So it appears that the changing form of tomb figurines reflects changing perceptions of beauty during the Tang period.

Horse Figurines with Three-color Glaze
8th Century


These tomb figurines in the form of horses have been glazed in the green, brown and white known as ‘Tang tri-color.’ For the Tang-dynasty aristocracy a great horse was not simply for riding, but served to display the owner’s personal power and wealth. That is why the carriage horses accompanying aristocratic parades were fitted with elaborate decorative trappings that far exceeded any practical function. Although their excavation site is unknown, the splendid decorative saddles and palmettes on these horses leave us in no doubt that they were tomb figurines buried together with high-ranking individuals.

Tang tri-color horse tomb-figurines were produced in very large numbers, but this black horse is extremely rare; we know of only a few black pieces, such as that excavated from Tomb 120 at Guanlin in Luoyang, Henan province. The white horse too, has a very unusual dappled coat achieved by applying spots of white slip over the reddish clay base, instead of the overall white slip covering usually used, thus bringing out the beautiful glaze color.
Both are highly accomplished pieces displaying great technical prowess, masterpieces of Tang tricolor tomb sculpture. Although a little static in feel, they stand up in comparison with imperial burial items, like those excavated from the tomb of Crown Prince Yide (Li Chongrun, 683–701).

Yuezhou Celadon Ewer
10th Century

This ewer was unearthed around 1937 from a tea plantation at Kanakusahara, Kowata, in the city of Uji, Kyoto prefecture. This site is not far from the place where Fujiwara no Michinaga (966–1027) built his family temple of Jōmyō-ji, and presumably the cemetery of the Northern House of Fujiwara was located in the same area. That the ewer survived many years underground to be recovered in near perfect condition was probably due to its being a cherished item buried along with one of the Northern Fujiwara members. Characteristics like the form and glaze-tone of this piece lead us to think it was made at Yuezhou kiln in Zhejiang province, China, during the Five Dynasties or early Northern Song dynasty.

The Heian-period narratives Utsuho Monogatari (The Tale of the Hollow Tree) and Genji Monogatari (The Tale of Genji) contain references to the term hisoku (literally ‘secret color’), and according to Kakaishō (The Rivers and Seas Commentary), a fourteenth-century commentary on The Tale of Genji, hisoku refers to a type of green-colored porcelain brought from Yuezhou in China. In view of the fact that that this celadon ewer dates from virtually the same era as The Tale of Genji, we can conclude that the Heian term hisoku refers to just this kind of piece.

Bottle with Engraved Peonies
11-12th Century

The design on this bottle was created using a very painstaking technique in which grey-brown clay was coated with thick white slip and overpainted with black iron paint. Then, sections of the iron layer were scraped away to reveal a contrasting black-on-white design, which was then given a coat of clear glaze before firing.

This technique of black-on-white sgraffito with a thick layer of white slip under the glaze has been used a lot in the northern Chinese ceramic tradition since the Sui and Tang eras. Of the northern Chinese kilns, commercial sites producing objects for everyday use, like Cizhou in Hebei Province, were particularly well-known for decoration with lead paints, and this specific technique of applying a layer of lead paint and carving away the design was very popular in the Northern Song dynasty. Pottery shards bearing very similar peony scrolls in black-on-white sgraffito were excavated from Guantai, one of Cizhou’s best-known kilns, leading us to attribute this piece to Cizhou.

An elegant, flowing peony scroll motif covers the body of the bottle—its accomplished workmanship compares favorably with other pieces of its type.

Taihi Tenmoku Tea Bowl with Long-tailed Bird
12th Century

At one time, monks at Buddhist temples in the Tianmu (J. tenmoku) mountains of China’s Zhejiang province used tea bowls decorated with an iron-rich black glaze. As a result, in Japan black-glazed tea bowls became known as tenmoku or tenmoku jawan. The term ‘taihi’ refers to the shell of a hawksbill—a type of sea turtle—and is therefore used to mean ‘tortoiseshell’.

When a glaze consisting primarily of plant ash is applied over the layer of black glaze, the color after firing resembles tortoiseshell, giving this particular type of tenmoku teabowl its name of taihi-san or taihi tenmoku. In the Song and Yuan dynasties, the Jizhou kilns in Jiangxi Province specialized in the technique of applying two layers of glaze; this piece is thought to have been brought to Japan through trade between Japan and the Song and Yuan dynasties. Inside the dish we see motifs of a long-tailed bird and plum branch, achieved by placing paper stencils onto the first layer of glaze so that the ash glaze does did not adhere to these areas and thereby allowing the lower black glaze to be exposed.

This renowned tea bowl was previously owned by the Kaga domain Maeda family, and appears in the catalogue of famous teaware Taishō Meikikan by the tea devotee Takahashi Sōan (1861–1937). The black-ink calligraphy ‘taihi samu’ (tortoiseshell cup) on its box is reputed to be by the distinguished early Edo-period tea master Kanamori Sōwa (1584–1656).

Bottle with Incised Lotus and Peony Design
12th Century

The Goryeo dynasty was the golden age of celadon production on the Korean peninsula, whilst production of white porcelain saw a general decline. Surviving examples of white porcelain from the Goryeo dynasty are therefore extremely rare, but study of excavated shards has revealed that items similar to this piece were made at kilns in Yucheonri, Puan-gun county, Chollapuk-do province, and these have been named ‘Puan white porcelain’ after their place of origin. This piece is one such extremely rare example of Puan white porcelain, of which only a very few examples remain, such as those in the National Museum of Korea, and the Museum of Oriental Ceramics, Osaka, Japan.

Although the incised peony and lotus branch design on four sides of the bottle are a little stiff in comparison with examples in the well-known large Ataka Collection of Chinese and Korean ceramics (Museum of Oriental Ceramics, Osaka), the scrolls around the collar of the bottle are conversely both complex and luxuriant.

This piece is one of seventy-seven items forming the Ryūsenkyo collection, a single donation made to Kyoto National Museum in 1984 by Kasakawa Masaaki, who was inspired by Yanagi Muneyoshi (1889–1961) 's folk crafts movement to collect Korean ceramics during the late 1930s and 1940s.

Square dishes with the Chinese monk poet Hanshan (Kanzan) and Shide (Jittoku)
by Painting by Ogata Kōrin / Ceramic by Ogata Kenzan
18th Century


This pair of square dishes was press-molded. The walls are straight, and the base is chamfered. Each piece is covered with slip, onto which the figure and inscriptions in underglaze iron, and seals in cinnabar are applied before coating the piece with clear glaze. The well of each dish is bordered, and filled with an image of a figure, flanked by an inscription, signature, and seals. An oval-shaped cinnabar seal bearing the characters “乾山” (Kanzan) is applied before each inscribed Chinese poem.

The dishes entered the museum collection as a pair, but it is not known if these are the correct match. The pieces are the collaborative work of Ogata Kenzan and Ogata Korin. Recent studies of signatures, seals, and styles of handwriting indicate that the two began collaborating after Korin returned to Kyoto from Edo in 1709. This pair of dishes is therefore thought to have been made during the seven years between Korin’s return to Kyoto and his death in 1716.

Nail Covers
by Attributed to Nonomura Ninsei
17th Century

These ceramic pieces seem to replicate inlaid metal cloisonné nail covers. They were biscuit fired before being given a coating of transparent glaze for a principal firing, and then decorated with polychrome paints, which were in turn fired onto the surface. Because gold paint cannot be fired together with other colors, these pieces must have passed through the kiln at least four times before completion.

The nail covers were passed down in the Kyōgoku family of Muragame. A record of tea ware dating from 1695, when Kyōgoku Takamochi (1692–1724) was clan chief, contains the entry “thirty paired fans, Omuro overglaze enamel fanshaped nail covers”, of which seventeen are thought to correspond to these items. “Omuro” indicates that the pieces were produced in the kiln of the early Edo-period Kyoto-ware master craftsman Nonomura Ninsei, whose work was known as Omuro-yaki. The chrysanthemum-shaped nail covers are mentioned in the 1734 On’in onsuki dōgu chō (Catalogue of Tea Ware), which dates from the period when Kyōgoku Takanori (1718–63) was domain chief.

Although these small pieces bear neither seal nor signature, the broad range of overglaze colors—gold, silver, red, blue, green—closely resemble those on the Kyōgoku family’s collection of Omuro-yaki overglaze-enameled tea jars and clearly display Ninsei’s salient features.

Stem Plate with Pine, Bamboo, and Plums
18th Century

The upper face of the plate is decorated with pine, bamboo, and plums in overglaze enamels, whilst the foot has numerous auspicious motifs consisting of ‘sacred treasures’ including shippō wachigai (a crest of interlaced circles enclosing diamonds or stars), hōkan (a sutra scroll), hōyaku (a key symbolizing riches), hōju (a sacred gem), hōshō (a diamond shape symbolizing luck at winning ), and chōji, (clove, a rare spice in its time).

The practice of using no red, but restricting the overglaze enamel decoration to a three-color palette of blue, green and gold is a particular characteristic of Kyoto ware from the late seventeenth to mid-eighteenth century; the box for a comparable overglaze enameled jar bears a date of 1732.

Highly proficient technique was required to fire the extremely thin plate without it warping—evidence of a relief platform fitted underneath the plate reveals how this was done. There are areas under the plate where the unglazed clay surface is exposed; these areas where the support would touch the piece were deliberately left unglazed to prevent it from adhering during firing, therefore, traces of the artist’s resourceful effort remain hidden out of the user’s sight.

Bottles with Pine and Deer
18th Century

A group of deer under a pine grove is painted in great detail on the body of these bottles using the technique of fencai (famille rose), an adaptation of European cloisonné decoration that developed in the Kangxi era (1662–1722) of Qing-dynasty China. The relief-work bats attached to the neck of the bottle are rendered in bright red, instead of the more standard black. This is thought to symbolize overflowing good fortune, because the second Chinese character for ‘bat’ is homonymous with characters meaning ‘good fortune’, ‘crimson red’, and ‘large amounts’ or ‘overflowing’.

What is more, the Chinese pronunciation of the character for ‘deer’ recalls another meaning ‘blessing/prosperity’, so with the addition of the pine trees symbolizing perpetual youth and longevity, the entire surface of the bottle is filled with auspicious motifs that are allegorical references to good fortune, prosperity and longevity.

These motifs accord perfectly with their being products of the Imperial kilns (kilns producing ceramics exclusively for the imperial court); underglaze-blue inscriptions inside the foot-rings tell us that they were was made in the Qianlong era (1736–1795).

Three-tiered Food Container with Ten Noble Plant Design
by Aoki Mokubei
19th Century

Aoki Mokubei is very unusual in that he did not come from a ceramics background; he was born into a family owning a teashop, Kiya, in Kyoto’s Gion district, and only took up pottery at the age of 30. Associated with numerous literati figures like imura Kenkadō (1736–1802) and Rai Sanyō (1780–1832), Mokubei was so well versed in literature that he was known as Shikiji Tōkō,the ‘literate potter’.

Ten varieties of flowering plants decorate the piece; alongside each is inscribed a pair of Chinese characters compiled by the Chinese Song-dynasty scholar-official Zeng Duanbo, who likened each of the ten flowers to a type of friend: ‘poetic friend’, ‘elegant friend’, ‘exceptional friend’, ‘sacred friend’, ‘hermitic friend’, ‘distinguished friend’, ‘excellent friend’, ‘lustrous friend’, ‘pure friend’ and ‘meditative friend’. This design, much loved by the literati, clearly illustrates why Mokubei was called ‘the literate potter’.

Mokubei’s signature is on the underside of the container in underglaze blue, whilst a dated inscription on this container's box, indicates that it was produced by Mokubei prior to the year 1815.

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