Cranes fly amongst floating clouds on the cool blue-green background of a curvaceous ceramic vessel. This object, called a maebyeong, is representative of Korean celadons made during the Goryeo Dynasty (918–1392). Celadons are ceramics with a distinctive green-blue glaze. The color, coupled with intricate inlaid ornamentation, are part of what has made Goryeo celadons desirable and recognizable objects for centuries. Korean potters adapted and refined celadon technology from China to create distinctively Korean ceramics revered by elites in Korea, China, and Japan alike. Many of the Korean celadons in museum collections, such as jars, bowls, and cups, were archaeological artifacts excavated from tombs and royal palaces. The combination of vibrant colors, delicate forms, and intricate decorative techniques contribute to the renown of Goryeo celadons as exemplary works of Korean art.
Materiality, technique, and aesthetic
Archaeological evidence shows that Korean ceramic technology was advanced even before the Goryeo Dynasty. Korean stoneware from the Three Kingdoms Period (57 B.C.E.–676 C.E.) was fired at temperatures of 1000°C or higher, making it the earliest example of high-fired ceramics in the entire world. However, it was not until the Goryeo period that royal patronage focused on the production of a specific ceramic type, namely celadons.
Tenth-century Korean potters modified Chinese techniques to produce their own version of celadons. Potters used iron-rich clay to form the vessels and a glaze consisting of iron oxide, manganese oxide, and quartz particles. To achieve a consistent blue-green hue, Goryeo artisans developed a two-step firing process. The first step is bisque firing, which dries out and hardens unglazed vessels to make them stable and easier to handle. The second step involves firing glazed vessels in a low-oxygen “reducing” atmosphere to produce the desired celadon color and glossy texture.
Chinese potters fired their celadons in brick kilns, but Korean artisans used traditional mud kilns that effectively blocked the flow of oxygen to produce a brilliant celadon tone. Chinese celadons from the Yue kilns, for example, have a warmer olive green glaze compared to the cooler blue-green hue of Goryeo celadons. Achieving a uniform glaze color for celadons marked a shift in Korean ceramic production.
Form, color, and ornament became important factors in ceramic appreciation. Early Goryeo celadons emulated Chinese forms, but, gradually, Korean artisans developed their own aesthetic. Potters used molds to create ideal shapes and press popular patterns onto vessels. An incision technique adorned the clay surface with subtle linear designs, which were enhanced by the pooling of glaze in the grooves of varying depths. Flowers and birds were common motifs, particularly lotuses, peonies, parrots, waterfowl, and cranes. Goryeo celadons also featured painted underglaze elements; iron oxide fired to a black or brown, and copper oxide used for red. In rare instances, gold was applied over the celadon glaze to enhance underglaze designs.
Fanciful forms, such as melon-shaped ewers (or pitchers), and elaborate incense burners featuring latticed openwork, demonstrate the careful handiwork involved in making luxury celadons.
In the mid-twelfth century, Goryeo potters began using an inlay technique called sanggam to adorn celadons. Potters stamped or carved out a design, then filled it with white or black slip before the first bisque firing (slip is a mixture of clay, water, and typically a mineral pigment). The inlay on a maebyeong decorated with cranes and clouds best exemplifies this technique of sanggam. The potter used white slip to depict the cranes and clouds, adding intricate details such as feathers and curlicued wisps. The addition of black slip accentuates the crane’s form. Such inlaid creations, uncommon in China, became emblematic of a Goryeo ceramic aesthetic.
Royal patronage and maritime trade
Goryeo celadons adorned the lives of the elite. Potters fashioned celadons into tableware, such as bowls, plates, cups, and ewers, ritual implements, such as incense burners and kundika bottles, and decorative vessels, such as flower containers and cosmetic cases. Some monumental buildings even featured elaborate celadon tiles.
The Goryeo royal court heavily invested in celadon production and the development of its refined ornamentation. Archaeological evidence indicates that celadon production started in the Goryeo capital of Gaeseong in the second quarter of the tenth century. In the late eleventh to early thirteenth centuries, celadon kilns were re-established in Gangjin, located in today’s South Jeolla province.
Celadon kilns flourished in Gangjin: its ecological features provided material resources for ceramic production such as raw clay and firewood, and the geography offered a natural port where ships could dock to load cargo for transport. The strategic placement of Goryeo royal warehouses along the entire Korean coastline consolidated local goods from different districts to be sent yearly to the capital of Gaeseong as tax payment. Gangjin shipped large quantities of celadons to the capital for the royal court and and the nobility to display, gift, and use in their palaces. The structure of the flat-bottomed Goryeo ships allowed for stable, smooth sailing, especially when loaded with a cargo of heavy ceramics. Compared to bumpy travel over land, maritime travel facilitated the safe handling of large quantities of ceramics, keeping these valuable goods intact.
Goryeo celadons travelled across the sea to China and Japan. The 1976 excavation of the Shin’an shipwreck off Korea’s southwest coast unearthed a massive cargo of ceramics, coins, lacquerware, incense, and herbs. The ship departed from the Chinese port of Ningbo and was headed for Japan when it sank in 1323. Though the majority of excavated ceramics were Chinese, there were seven Goryeo celadon vessels on the ship specially selected for the Japanese market. Goryeo celadons have a substantive presence at medieval Japanese (1130–1600) archaeological sites, revealing that Buddhist monks, urban dwellers, military elites, and nobility enthusiastically collected these Korean ceramics.
Korean celadons in historical records
Historical accounts speak of Chinese appreciation for Goryeo celadons. The Chinese Song Dynasty (960–1279) envoy, Xu Jing, visited the Goryeo capital, Gaeseong, in 1123. Xu noted the similarity of Goryeo celadons to ceramics at China’s famous Yue and Ru kilns. Xu expressed personal praise for Goryeo ceramics, stating that “those recently made show excellent craftsmanship and much improved color.” In a contemporaneous collection of writings, Brocade in the Sleeve (Xiuzhongjin), Song Dynasty author, Taiping Laoren, mentioned “jade-colored celadon of Goryeo” along with other luxury items as “the best under heaven” and “incomparable to any.” These records reveal how Chinese elites during the Song Dynasty acknowledged and admired the beauty of Korean celadon glazes.
The History of Goryeo (Goryeosa) records a diplomatic episode where Kublai Khan examined a Goryeo gold-painted celadon vessel (the Mongol ruler had defeated the Chinese and established the Yuan Dynasty). He asked a Goryeo envoy, Jo Ingyu, if the gold strengthens the vessel. Jo replied no, explaining that it is merely decorative. Next, Kublai asked if the gold can be reused. When Jo answered no, Kublai demanded that such ceramics no longer be made. Since the Goryeo usually offered metal vessels to the Mongol khans as tribute, these rare gold-painted celadons were most likely exclusive gifts for the Mongol court. Though the Goryeo court wanted to impress Kublai, his disappointment at the wasteful use of precious gold reveals a clash between Mongol and Goryeo aesthetics. Nonetheless, Goryeo celadons remained a popular item among Mongol elites, and under Kublai’s rule, an active ceramics trade unfolded between Korea and China.
Goryeo potters successfully produced exquisite celadons, which gained recognition within East Asia as ceramics unique to Korea. Goryeo celadons are now iconic objects—they are the earliest Korean ceramics studied and appreciated for their aesthetic and art historical value, making them important objects to study today.
Notes: Namwon Jang, “Introduction and Development of Koryŏ Celadon,” in A Companion to Korean Art, eds., J.P. Park, Burglind Jungmann, and Juhyung Rhi (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley and Sons, 2020), pp. 144–145
Cranes and Clouds: The Art of Korean Ceramic Inlay, National Museum of Asian Art
Lee, Soyoung. “Goryeo Celadon.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History
Jang, Namwon. “Introduction and Development of Goryeo Celadon,” in A Companion to Korean Art. Edited by J.P. Park, Burglind Jungmann, and Juhyung Rhi (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley and Sons, 2020), pp. 133–156.