Essay by Kim Hyunjung
The official ideology of the Joseon Dynasty was Neo-Confucianism, which promoted an intense reverence for the nobility of literati scholars and the dignity of the royal court. Hence, such virtues were often expressed in various types of artworks. In particular, this sense of honor and nobility, imbued with spiritual wealth and self-cultivation through scholarship, defined the aesthetics of Joseon white porcelain. This is especially true of the white porcelain produced during the reigns of King Yeongjo and King Jeongjo, which marked the second golden age of the Joseon Dynasty. In this period, the nation recovered from the devastation of the Imjin War (1592–98) and the Byeongja War (1636–37) and regained its former political, social, economic, and cultural prosperity.
Many styles of white porcelain vessels were produced in this period, including monochrome white porcelain, blue-and-white porcelain, white porcelain in iron-brown underglaze, and white porcelain in copper-red underglaze. Today, the white porcelain vessels that best represent the late Joseon period are large round white porcelain jars, colloquially known as “moon jars” because of their resemblance to a full moon. Moon jars first appeared in the late seventeenth century and remained popular until the mid-eighteenth century. However, they were not nicknamed “moon jars” until the 1950s. With their pure white color and large bulbous surface, moon jars have come to be seen as the quintessential examples of Joseon white porcelain. Notably, this type of vessel is completely unique to the Joseon Dynasty, having never been produced in China or Japan.
White Porcelain: Icon of Joseon Principles
Joseon society was based on Neo-Confucianism, which prioritized “propriety” (禮) above all else. Thus, the Joseon rulers established a set of social and behavioral norms to guide the interactions and activities of the people, and also implemented Neo-Confucian rites to be performed according to strict procedures. According to “Yan Yuan” (顔淵), the author of Analects of Confucius (論語), “propriety” was a way of practicing “benevolence” (仁), which Confucius taught was the key to overcoming self-interest and restoring propriety (克己復禮爲仁).
One of the keys to achieving propriety and quelling self-interest was restraint, through which one could appropriately control desires and emotions. With this in mind, the Joseon literati pursued a life of austerity and purity, with an emphasis on cultivating internal cleanness. Rejecting the pettiness of greed, they cherished plainness and simplicity, ultimately seeking a life of modest contentment in harmony with nature. Hence, Joseon white porcelain is the physical embodiment of all of the Joseon ideals: restraint, order, simplicity, modesty, contentment, and acceptance of one’s station in life.
Early in the Joseon period, white porcelain was chosen as the preferred material for vessels for the royal court. This caused some difficulties, however, since white porcelain is more difficult to produce than celadon, requiring finer clay, higher temperatures in the kiln, and more advanced technology. White porcelain vessels must be made from highly refined clay with no iron content, and then fired at extremely high temperatures of more than 1250°C. Notably, great quantities of firewood were needed to generate such high temperatures in the kiln. The first official kilns of the Joseon royal court were established in Gwangju, Gyeonggi Province, which offered access to both high-quality white clay and an abundance of firewood. After ten years, however, the local supply of firewood had been almost exhausted, so the kilns were moved to a new location. This pattern continued for some time, with the kilns moving approximately every ten years after depleting the surrounding forests of firewood. But in 1752, the kilns were permanently settled in present-day Bunwon-ri, Gwangju, where firewood could be shipped from around the country, allowing for more stable production.
In the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century, the production of fine white porcelain was virtually impossible because of the Imjin War (1592–98) and the Byeongja War (1636–37). This was a serious issue for the society, as white porcelain vessels were still needed for the Neo-Confucian rites that were required by the state. Thus, white porcelain continued to be produced in this period, but it tends to be more ashen in color than pure white. Also, the expensive cobalt pigment needed to make blue-and-white porcelain could no longer be imported from China, so iron-brown pigment was used instead.
During the reign of King Sukjong , however, the Joseon society became more stable, and the white porcelain regained its milky white color. In the early eighteenth century, the official kilns in Geumsa-ri, Gwangju began to produce moon jars with a pure white color. Soon enough, the culture of Joseon white porcelain was again thriving, with various white porcelain vessels representing the aesthetic taste of the royal court and literati.
Gaining easier access to the cobalt pigment, Joseon artisans began painting blue-and-white porcelain vessels with designs of the “four gracious plants”—plum blossoms, orchids, chrysanthemums, and bamboo—which symbolized the dignity and virtue of the literati. Other popular painted designs included Chinese themes such as “Autumn Moon on Dongting Lake” (洞庭秋月) and “Zhang Han Is Going East of the Yangtze River” (張翰歸江東), which were reinterpreted according to Joseon tastes.
Eternal Warmth of Pure White Color of a Moon Jar
Obviously, the defining characteristic of white porcelain is its pure white color. But this white color can convey a variety of effects and sensations, depending on whether it is monochrome white porcelain, blue-and-white porcelain, or white porcelain in iron-brown underglaze. Also, there are so many subtle tones of white that almost no two vessels are exactly alike. Some of the various tones can be classified as milky white, snowy white, ashen white, and bluish white.
Although all moon jars are white porcelain, they are not characterized by a particular tone of white that matches any of these categories. They are not the pure white of early Joseon porcelain, nor the ashen white of the mid-Joseon period, nor the bluish-white often produced at the official kilns. Generally speaking, they are a milky white, but this is not true of every moon jar. In many cases, a spectrum of different white hues can be found within a single vessel.
Also, some moon jars have yellowish spots caused by oxidation or incomplete combustion, or discoloration caused by the seepage of liquids. Not only do moon jars show different tones of white at any given time, but their color also subtly changes over time. This variety of tones that organically change and evolve over time likely explains why these supposedly “cold” ceramic vessels can make us feel such incredible warmth.
It is exceptionally rare in world ceramics to find such large jars with a completely undecorated surface. The large white sphere of a moon jar is like a blank space, which thus triggers our natural desire to fill it. But once patterns or decorations are added to the surface, the vessel can no longer be considered a moon jar. The blank space is a perfect manifestation of restraint and anonymity, devoid of greed or selfishness. These are some of the diverse thoughts and inspirations that can arise from contemplating the stern yet delicate surface of a moon jar, the embodiment of the unique aesthetics and beauty of Joseon.
Relaxed Form and Simple Lines
The genius of a moon jar can also be felt in its relaxed form and simple lines. Ideally, the height and widest diameter of the jar should be identical, so that the body is a perfect sphere. This is extremely difficult to achieve, given that most moon jars have a height of 40 cm or more. Moon jars also have a short neck, which is flared outward in early vessels, but vertically straight in vessels produced from the mid-eighteenth century.
Moon jars are too large to form as a single piece on the potter’s wheel, so the upper and lower hemispheres are made separately and joined. This method of joining two hemispheres, which is believed to have originated in the early Ming Dynasty (1368–1644), is a very effective way of producing large jars. Notably, most large Chinese jars produced via this method were smoothly trimmed, so that the connecting line in the middle of the body does not show. On the other hand, the connecting line of Joseon moon jars had a tendency to crack or warp during firing, often preventing the formation of a perfect sphere.
Because of this slight irregularity, most moon jars assume the shape of a waning moon, rather than a full moon. However, this grants them the “symmetry of asymmetry,” causing them to look different when viewed from various angles. Rather than a perfect geometric circle, they have a more natural look that recalls the subtle changes and movements found in nature. Indeed, being so organic, ample, and robust, their imperfect round shape is more akin to the real moon than a perfect circle would be. With their simple lines and “indefinite definition,” moon jars are a unique form that can only be found in Korea. As such, they represent the true culmination of formal aesthetics.
Like the Moon Shining on All People
Over the years, the marvelous moon jars of the Joseon Dynasty have inspired countless artists, including many of Korea’s most renowned painters. Perhaps most famously, the great modern artist Kim Whanki (1913-1974) used moon jars as the motif for many of his paintings.
Kim openly acknowledged that his painting style was inspired by white porcelain, and by moon jars in particular. As recorded in the catalogue from the special exhibition Ode to White Porcelain (1999), Kim once said that, whether he was depicting a woman, a mountain, the moon, or a bird, every line and stroke that he painted originated from white porcelain.
Another esteemed Korean artist who is widely associated with white porcelain is the photographer Koo Bohnchang, whose remarkable photos capture the exquisite subtlety of white porcelain. According to Koo, he takes his photographs at the precise moment that white porcelain looks most true to itself. In this way, he is able to derive new colors and spirits from moon jars.
The moon shines down on every one of us. Gazing up at the night sky, we are all looking at the same moon, but it looks different to every person. Likewise, each mystical moon jar entices viewers to discover their own version of its beauty. With their pure and profound white color, exemplifying restraint and simplicity, moon jars are the essence of the unique beauty of Joseon aesthetics. At the same time, a moon jar is a gateway connecting the people of the past, present, and future with new inspiration and creativity.