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All through Korean history ceramics and pottery have played a big role. Initially ceramics and pottery fulfilled a utilitarian role. They were used to cook, store food, and carry water. At some point in history the ceramics for daily use parted ways with the ceramics made as an art form. Ceramics and pottery made for utilitarian uses have been found in great numbers at living sites. Ceramics and pottery made as art were not found mixed with the utilitarian ceramics and pottery. Korean ceramics and pottery were initially greatly influenced by the Chinese. The history of pottery began with the coil method of building a vessel where coils of clay were placed on top of each other and then beaten with a paddle to give it a smooth surface (Microsoft Encarta).
Techniques were created by the Koreans as well as adopted from other cultures. In turn, Korean ceramic techniques have been adopted by other cultures such as the Chinese and Japanese. Hagi ware are a uniquely Japanese ceramic art (tea bowls) that was introduced by the Ri brothers (Ri Shakko and Ri Kei) of Korea. They traveled to Japan in 1604 and introduced the art of making bowls there. Korean rice bowls became Japanese tea bowls (Hagi-yaki) (Yellin, p.2).
The Three Kingdoms Period
From approximately 18 B.C. to A.D. 668 Three different kingdoms held power on the Korean Peninsula. They were the Silla Kingdom, Koguryo Kindom and the Paeche Kingdom. Many of the early techniques used during this period were borrowed from China. It is during this time frame that the potter’s wheel was introduced on the Korean Peninsula. This tool helped increase the rate of production of ceramic pieces. Another contribution to Korean ceramics and pottery was the high-firing kiln introduced from China. Prior to the Kiln’s introduction, most ceramics on the Korean Peninsula were soft, low fired, clay (called wajil t’ogi)(Timeline of Art History, p.2). After the introduction of the high-firing kiln Korean ceramics comes into its own. The Koreans produced a high-fired gray stoneware called Kyongjil t’ogi. The Koreans were the first producers of high-fired ceramics.
Kiln development helped the Koreans develop unique techniques used in their ceramics. Gray color ceramics were the Koreans specialty during the Three Kingdoms Period. They used the high-firing kiln and could control the amount of oxygen used during firing. The reduced oxygen environment in the kiln created the gray color that the Koreans were famous for creating.
Prior to the use of the pottery wheel Korean Ceramic art forms were mostly made to look like things in their environment like birds or totems. The main usage of pottery prior to the pottery wheel was utilitarian. They created vessels used for storing food and for carrying water.
A Unified Silla Dynasty
The Three Kingdoms become the Unified Silla Dynasty. Under Silla control the Koreans pushed out the Chinese creating a unified Korean culture all its own. Silla adopts Buddhism as its state religion. During the Silla Dynasty there still existed a close working relationship with Japan. The Koreans pass on to Japan art and technology. The Koreans also passed on to Japan Buddhism. The Silla’s sent Korean priests to introduce the religion in Japan. “The influence of Korean sculptors can be traced in Buddhist works of the Asuka period (538–710) from the Nara area” (Timeline Of Art History, p.2).
The years of the Silla Dynasty were filled with conflict. The Silla’s asked for China’s help a number of times to conquer their enemies (the Koguryos). China did help but was more interested in conquering the Korean Peninsula and keeping it as part of China. Korea stayed in the Silla dynasty though. The Silla’s drove their Chinese counterparts out of the Korean Peninsula. The newly whole Korean peninsula is called the Unified Silla Dynasty. It is after the creation of the Unified Silla Dynasty that cultural exchanges begin to Tang China and Japan.
With Buddhism as its state religion Korean arts began to reflect the Buddhist influence. Korean ceramics included those made for the purpose of worship and observance of Buddhism. Celadon ceramic wares were made to use during ceremonies. Celadon ceramic wares have a jade-green finish and are called Cheong-ja in Korean. Cheong-ja were popular during the Koryo period. The were used in the Koryo Royal Court for both everyday use and as objects of fine art. (Korean Arts, p1). By the 12th and 13th century the art of high-fired glazing techniques allowed for the production of Cheong-ja. It is during this period that the Koreans perfect their glazing tencniques and refined their designs. The Koreans also perfected their use of inlays (white and black) The Korean ceramics of this timeframe were very popular.
The Choson dynasty brought big changes to the Korean peninsula. Buddhism was officially out and Neo-Confucianism was in. Korean ceramics were again popular as an industry and white porcelain is created. For a short period punch-ong wares were crafted. Punch-ong were very much like a cross between celadon and other glazed ceramics. Punch-ong had a powdery looking exterior.
The Choson Dynasty included a class of society called the ‘yangban’ or literati class. This class was responsible for both the civil and military branches of government. It is also this class that takes an interest in the arts, to include ceramics. It was common for others to examine the yangban household’s belongings. Art was a form of identification for the yangban. The art in the household gave a person’s status as well as his moral standards. (Timeline of Art History, 1400-1600 p.1).
Throughout the Choson Dynasty the Korean Peninsula was under siege by Japanese marauders. The Koreans tried diplomacy as a way to curtail future attacks from the Japanese. The Koreans gave the Japanese trading privileges that were rescinded and reinstated several times.
During the mid 1400’s the Koreans began producing white porcelain. It is this porcelain that the Choson high court uses and prefers. White porcelain is also manufactured for export to China and Japan. White porcelain that was undecorated was preferred by the ruling elite in Korea and China.
During the 17th century came another development in Korean ceramics. The use of cobalt to create the much desired blue and white designs on Korean ceramics becomes popular. When it became difficult to obtain cobalt Korean crafters switched to iron brown. The countless assaults by Chinese and Japanese invaders made production of ceramic pieces all that much harder.
The relationship between Japan and Korea has always been a rocky one. But, it is Korea that has had the greatest influence on Japanese ceramics. “Japan’s famous Hagi ware originated when Korean potters were brought back to Japan during the ‘pottery wars’ of 1592 AD and 1597-1598 AD. (Schumacher, p1). It is well known in Japan that, although Hagi ware is uniquely Japanese, ceramic techniques were introduced to the Japanese by Koreans. In the 400 years that Hagi ware has been produced in Japan it has evolved into something that is uniquely Japanese. Japanese Hagi ware tea bowls are on display in the Kyushu Ceramic Museum in Arita, Japan.
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Korean ceramic art is a result of a historical progression of tools and techniques passed from one culture to another as well as passed down from one generation to another. It is clear that the Koreans first learned of pottery and ceramics from their northern neighbors, the Chinese. The first Chinese method of creating vessels was using the coil method. Pottery was created entirely by hand using such tools as paddles to smooth out the surface of the pot.
More techniques were passed to the Koreans by the Chinese during the Three Kingdom Period. During this period of history the Chinese introduced the pottery wheel to the Koreans. This greatly increased the production of ceramics and pottery. Another innovation introduced by china was the high-firing kiln. With this tool the Koreans moved away from crafting low firing ceramics to high-firing ceramics. This was a positive addition to the Koreans as low firing ceramics are soft and tend to break easily. High-firing kilns allowed the Koreans to produce sturdier containers.
The Koreans in turn shared ceramic techniques with their neighbor, Japan. Japanese pottery became popular as well. The sharing of techniques between these three countries over many years has brought out new tools and techniques to make better and nicer pottery. Glazing techniques have been perfected and designs were added to give the pottery beautiful exteriors.
Ceramics and pottery began as fulfilling a utilitarian purpose. After many years the art of ceramics split with the utilitarian ceramics.
High quality ceramics have been used in Buddhist ceremonies, Japanese tea ceremonies, and royal courts of the Three Kingdoms Period of history. Ceramics today also belong to two classes: utilitarian (coffee cups for example) and as art.
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