What is Yue ware and where is it found?

Looking at the ancient technique of Yue ware and its history

An example of ancient Yue pottery with a green glaze
An example of ancient Yue pottery with a green glaze. Getty

What is the history of Yue ware?

One of the earliest prolific periods of ceramics to have been found date back to the Han dynasty in China, which is roughly recorded as having existed between 206 BCE and 220 BCE. The dynasty itself was established by a man named Liu Bang (after he founded the Han dynasty, he went on to be the Gaozu emperor). Much of the Han dynasty ware was typified by a baluster shaped (usually tapered at the top and bottom and swelling out in the middle) vases.

It was also a period, which saw very defined types of glazes being brought in. In northern China there were low-fired lead glazes and copper oxides, but in the eastern Han, new wares were being experimented with in the Zhejiang Province (formerly known as Yue), hence the name of these new works being Yue Ware. While Yue ware started in the Han dynasty, it carried on right through the Six Dynasties, which was the period that stretched from the end of the Han dynasty (220 BC) to the final conquest of South China (589 BC). The type of pottery that they used was hard stoneware and it was fired in a dragon kiln. Dragon kilns are an incredible ancient Chinese invention (there are very few still left in operation). The kilns, which are also known as anagama kilns have very long humped tunnels built onto a slope (which looks like a dragon’s back) with holes in the sides to stoke the fire with. The shape of the kiln is important in the firing process and also in that of the patterns the hot ashes and oxides create as they flow through and around the tunnel.

The original kilns had a bamboo frame and were built in clay.

What kind of glazes were used on Yue ware?

Alongside the unique firing process, Yue ware glazes were imperative to their distinct look. The glazes sat within the famous celadon family. Celadon is defined as ‘a type of pottery having a pale green glaze, originally produced in China’.

The variations in Yue ware were that their tones were almost olive or brown/green glaze, these colors later moved on to a darker green in as the movement developed. The glazes were applied thinly in a wash of slip. Potters tended to apply a large quantity of iron over the body before glazing it, this meant that when the work was being fired it reacted to the iron and created an incredible colour when it came out of the kiln. The properties of Yue glazes were thought to contain wood ash, clay and also in some cases, limestone. It’s been recorded that around the 9th century a ‘secret color Yue ware’ was discovered, which was a ‘thin glaze of light color, either yellowish or bluish green’.

How did it influence other ceramics around that time?

It’s been said that Yue ware has been ‘one of the most successful and influential of all south Chinese ceramics types’. Once of the places that took the most inspiration from Yue ware was Korea. These types of Korean celadon have often been found in tombs from the Koryo (or Goryeo period as it was also known) and like the Chinese Yue ware were made on a stoneware body. While much of the Korean celadon draws comparison with Chinese Yue ware, the glazes were different, ranging from a bluish green to in some cases a putty color.

These blue glazes were created with a lower iron count. One of the other main differences is that a lot of Yue ware tended to be undecorated, relying on the shapes and colors, while Korean celadons were sometimes adorned and even painted with mishima at times. While there is not much information found of Yue ware in Europe, it was exported to the Middle East and it had great influence on much of the Islamic pottery.