Rewriting the History of the Longquan Kilns
By staff reporter ZHANG XUEYING
Large quantities of porcelain fragments unearthed from a Longquan Kiln in Yunhe County, Lishui City, Zhejiang Province in May 2004. Photos by China Foto Press
IN August 2009, archaeologists excavated the Ming Dynasty Longquan Kiln in Hexia Town, Chuzhou District, Huai'an City, Jiangsu Province, unearthing porcelain fragments weighing 21.8 tons. All these fragments were confirmed as originating in the Longquan Kiln. With a few exceptions from the late Yuan Dynasty, most were made in the Ming Dynasty, including more than 30 varieties of vessel, such as bowls, plates, stem cups, small cups and burners.
The latest dig yielded porcelain fragments from the Hongwu to Tianshun reigns (1368-1464) of the Ming Dynasty, witness to the final splendor of its ceramic works. Celadon was produced here for the imperial court, then shipped to the capital via the Grand Canal. Huai'an was the seat of the director-general of Water Transport, and tributes for the throne from the Longquan Kilns were selected on this spot. Only the best ones were chosen as tribute; porcelains with even the slightest flaw were broken on the spot.
Longquan porcelains are known as the best of all celadon items. They were sought after by domestic and foreign nobles for their sea-green color, mirror-like smooth surface and clear sound when struck.
Production of the Longquan Kiln porcelains started in the third century around Longquan City in East China's Zhejiang Province, and reached their zenith in the Song and Yuan dynasties. Some scholars believe that Longquan was the porcelain capital during that period. Certainly Longquan became a famous center of porcelain making, and the commodity became popular for export. During the Chenghua Reign (1465-1487) of the Ming Dynasty, the porcelain capital shifted to Jingdezhen in Jiangxi Province, on a trend following the emperor's fondness for colored porcelain.
The latest excavation site is in Dayao Village of Longquan City, called the "center of Longquan Kilns" by archaeologists. The Archaeological Institute of Zhejiang Province and the China Archaeological Research Center of Peking University jointly started excavation of Longquan Kilns in Zhejiang Province in September 2006. In fact, the distribution of Longquan Kilns is extensive. More than 600 sites of the Longquan Kilns have been found in Fujian, Guangdong, Jiangxi and Hunan provinces. Within the boundary of Zhejiang Province, Longquan Kiln sites have been found in 13 counties and cities, and Longquan City has a concentration of 355 of them.
"The porcelains unearthed from the Dayao Village site are the best," said Qin Dashu, professor of the School of Archaeology and Museology of Peking University and one of the leaders of the excavation project. The excavation site at Dayao Village covers 1,600 square meters, including remains of eight kilns, six houses, two clay storage ponds, pebble-paved paths, and drainage facilities. To the pleasure of experts, they found a long dragon-shaped kiln – the most complete discovered so far – consisting of seven overlapping periods of use. "The chambers show that people had been making porcelains here for the full 400 years from the Yuan to the Ming Dynasty. From the strata of the excavation site we have found accumulations from distinct eras, and artifacts unearthed bear the marks of different historical periods and their relationships," said Qin Dashu. "The large size and fine quality of the objects that have come to light enable us to redefine our estimates of the production scale and level of the Ming Dynasty Longquan Kilns. It's obvious that the Ming Dynasty was not a period of decline for the Longquan Kilns, but another peak. This goes beyond our past knowledge, and the evidence calls for reinterpretation of that historical period."
A number of large and exquisite porcelain utensils from the early period of the Ming Dynasty have been unearthed, and their exquisiteness is seldom seen. These include straight-walled bowls, foliate-rimmed dishes, stem cups and jue cups (a tripod vessel with handle and open spout). One foliate-rimmed dish has a diameter of 65 cm, and bears an interlocked peony pattern. "When I saw this dish, I concluded that it was not made for ordinary use. Such big Longquan porcelains are found in foreign museums, such as the Topkapý Palace in Istanbul, Turkey, and the Toguri, Hakutsuru and Tokugawa Art Museums of Japan," said Qin Dashu.
The patterns on the unearthed porcelains are also similar to those from the imperial kilns of Jiangxi's Jingdezhen of the same era. Referring to historical records, the experts concluded that the designs were from the same source provided by the central government, so these porcelains were very likely ordered by the imperial court. One fragment of a dish bottom bears auspicious patterns of fish and waves, and also the Chinese character 官, which means "official." "From this we can conclude that the kilns here received orders from the central government, producing custom porcelains for government use. They were not only used by the imperial court, but also distributed as official awards," said Qin Dashu.
The identification of "government ordered porcelains" means the Longquan Kiln porcelains can fetch higher prices at auction. Although Longquan porcelains enjoy high prestige worldwide, the prices they fetch at auction are not as high as expected. The highest bid was RMB 2.376 million at the Hong Kong Christie's 2007 auction, for a 32-cm-high celadon pomegranate-shaped zun with interlocking peony patterns from the Yuan Dynasty Longquan Kiln.
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