Essay by Lee Jung-in
The two representative types of Joseon ceramics are white porcelain and buncheong ware. White porcelain was produced throughout the entire duration of the Joseon period (1392–1910), symbolizing the order and principles of the Neo-Confucian society. Buncheong ware, on the other hand, emerged from the tradition of inlaid celadon of the late Goryeo period (918–1392). It was produced until the late sixteenth century, becoming a crucial chapter in the magnificent legacy of Joseon ceramics.
Dragon design, icon of buncheong ware of the early 15th Century
Buncheong ware vessels were decorated with various techniques, including inlay, stamping, incision, sgraffito, iron-brown underglaze, brushed white slip, and dipped white slip. Among these, the primary methods were inlay and stamping. For the inlay technique, decorative patterns or images are carved into the surface of a vessel and then filled with different materials. During the Goryeo period, the inlay technique was used to decorate various types of vessels (such as bronze vessels with silver inlay and lacquerware inlaid with mother-of-pearl), but it was most famously applied to celadon. For inlaid celadon, patterns or images were carved into the grayish base clay, and then filled with white or ocher clay (which darkened to black during firing). After glaze was applied and the vessel was fired, the resulting design would feature a superb contrast between white and black.
As opposed to inlay, wherein each design was individually carved by hand, stamped designs were made by pressing a stamp into the surface of the vessel, and then filling the imprinted lines with white or ocher clay. This process was much more efficient, because the stamp could be re-used many times. Hence, the majority of late Goryeo celadon wares were decorated with either inlaid or stamped designs. These techniques were then carried over to Joseon buncheong ware, becoming part of the representative aesthetics of the early Joseon period.
In particular, this buncheong jar with cloud and dragon design (National Treasure 259), which features a harmonious use of both inlay and stamping, is one of the quintessential examples of buncheong ware of the early fifteenth century. The jar is elaborately adorned with a dynamic design of two dragons in the center, embellished with auxiliary designs of stamped chrysanthemums and a large ruyi motif (visible in a detail earlier), and coated with light green translucent glaze.
Jars with this shape had been produced since the Goryeo period. For the design, the exterior surface of the jar was divided into four sections, separated by horizontal bands with black outlines and white scrolls. The primary section on the main body is filled with a black and white inlaid design of two dragons. Facing to the viewers’ left, both dragons are chasing an auspicious jewel known as a “cintamani.” Although somewhat lacking in refinement and precision, the dragon design is rendered in minute detail, with very fine lines used to depict the scales and mane. Furthermore, the design conveys a powerful energy, as the dragons surge through the clouds.
Interestingly, one dragon is actually treading upon the lower border of the design. The discrepancy of placing one dragon a bit lower than the other one adds an element of humor and surprise to the design. Notably, dragons were prominent symbols of the king, and jars with dragon designs were very special vessels that were reserved exclusively for royal ceremonies or banquets. Thus, this buncheong jar is believed to have been used by the royal court.
Unique jar with an open bottom
The mouth of this jar has been partially restored. A pattern of small chrysanthemums is densely stamped around the neck of the jar and even in the upper interior of the mouth, such that the base clay has been almost entirely replaced by white clay. This dense application of the stamping technique, leaving almost no blank space, is characteristic of the Joseon period. The same technique, which creates a beautiful snowflake-like pattern, was also used to fill in the ruyi design on the shoulder.
Rendered with both black and white outlines, the ruyi design is surrounded by a pattern of small waves, formed by concentric semi-circles. Within the wave motifs is a small lotus flower and another form that seems to resemble a waterfowl. This stamped wave pattern helps to distinguish the upper decorative section with the ruyi design from the dragon design on the midsection.
Below the dragon design, the lower decorative section features a black and white pattern of stylized lotus leaves. An elaborate design is inlaid within each individual lotus leaf, making the pattern stand out and enhancing the visual stability of the jar.
Perhaps the most interesting characteristic of this jar is that it is completely open on the bottom. Many theories have been put forth to explain this unusual quirk, but there is as yet little evidence to support any of the hypotheses. But given the finished condition of the rest of the jar, it seems that the bottom was left open intentionally, rather than being a mistake or incompletion.
Influence of Chinese blue-and-white porcelain and modification of buncheong
The dense composition of the designs reflects the influence of Chinese blue-and-white porcelain. After first rising to popularity during the Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368), blue-and-white porcelain reshaped the entire ceramics culture of China, reaching its pinnacle during the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644), when diverse new forms appeared.
Through the course of its development, Chinese blue-and-white porcelain was introduced to Korea via multiple channels, providing an early stimulus for the white porcelain culture of Joseon. Notably, the decorative composition of this jar—with a dragon design in the center, a ruyi design on the top, and a lotus leaf design on the bottom—has also been seen on Yuan blue-and-white porcelain jars and maebyeong vases. Moreover, the posture of the dragons resembles dragons on Ming blue-and-white porcelain. Thus, this jar demonstrates how buncheong ware—the primary type of Joseon ceramics at the time—adopted certain elements of Chinese blue-and-white porcelain in developing its own unique style.
Symbol of the new culture of the Joseon Dynasty
The early fifteenth century was a crucial turning point in Korean history, when the Joseon Dynasty was firmly established. This was also a significant time for Korean ceramics, which saw many important changes and developments. Combining the domestic tradition of Goryeo celadon and the international influence of Chinese blue-and-white porcelain, buncheong ware represented the shift to the new ceramic culture of Joseon, which eventually led to the creation of Joseon white porcelain within the social context of Neo-Confucianism.
This formative period is encapsulated by this buncheong jar with cloud and dragon design, which integrates the Goryeo tradition with elements acquired through cultural exchange. While this jar showcases the vibrant designs and simple beauty that characterize buncheong ware, it has special significance for exemplifying the spirit of the new era, when Joseon culture was beginning to blossom, and for expressing the authority of the Joseon royal court.
Read this essay and learn more on the National Museum of Korea website.