Northern Song Ru Ware Ceramics

Ru Ware, Norther Song Dynasty. Cover of Mandarin Duck-shaped Incense Burner, 15.0 x 22.0 x 8.0 cm

RU WARE IS the most celebrated of Northern Song (960-1127) ceramics. These utensils were made exclusively for the court and were ranked among the Ding, Jun, Guan and Ge as the ‘five classic wares’ of the Song dynasty (960-1279). They began to be collected as early as the Southern Song (1127-1279) and as the rarest of all surviving classical wares, were transmitted from generation to generation.

No Copies Reproduced Until the Qing Dynasty

No copies were reproduced until the Qing dynasty (1644-1911), when the Yongzheng emperor (r.1723-1735) allowed prototypes from the imperial collection to be made at Jingdezhen. Today, only around seventy pieces of Ru ware are extant and might be found at The Palace Museum, Beijing, the National Palace Museum, Taipei and the British Museum, London.

However, the ‘official’ kilns producing Ru wares have eluded the most dedicated of scholars until only recently. The search for their origins began already in pre-war China, when excavations focused on cemeteries, where the most concentration of preserved remains – more than dwelling sites or settlements – were gathered. A major method for finding and dating kiln sites at the time was shard identification, which is still widely used today. The Japanese, who highly esteem Ru ware, were the first to lead the way.

Harada Gentotsu and Count Otani Kozui

In 1931, Harada Gentotsu and the Count Otani Kozui examined shard specimens collected from six kilns in Linru county in the Henan region south of Kaifeng, the Northern Song capital, and established that Linru was the production site for imperial Ru ware. Their assumptions were extremely important and remained a system for classification until after the founding of the People’s Republic of China.

Discovery of Kiln Site in 1950s

In the 1950s, Chinese archaeologists using systematic and scientific excavation methods, discovered a kiln site in Qingliangsi, Baofeng county in Henan, where shards resembling Ru ware were found in 1977. In 1986, a pale celadon sherd discovered lying on a field near Qingliangsi village turned out to be a seminal find when it was confirmed authentic by the Shanghai Museum.

The museum sponsored two more surveys to excavate the site and the results were published in 1987 as The Discovery of Ru Ware. Thereafter the Henan Provincial Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology conducted extensive investigations at Qingliangsi between 1987 and 2002, leading to one of the major archaeological findings of all time. A complex of workshops was discovered with the remains of production, confirming the actual presence of kilns, as recorded in a full report, Baofeng Qingliangsi Ru Ware of September 2008. The kiln site has been recognised by the State Council and is now classified as one of China’s ‘foremost nationally protected cultural heritage sites’.

Only three Ru Wares Were in Japan

These developments generated intense enthusiasm in Japan. Only three Ru wares are extant in the country: one at The Museum of Oriental Ceramics, Osaka, and two in private collections. One of the leading Japanese institutions devoted entirely to the collection, exhibition and research of ceramics, the museum, in a special three-year partnership with the Henan Provincial Institute, is currently staging an unprecedented exhibition, Northern Song Ru Ware: Recent Archaeological Findings. 

Displayed for First Time in Japan – 125 Works

Displayed for the first time in Japan are some 125 items that have never previously left China, including intact subject matter and kiln furniture from Qingliangsi and a newly discovered site, Zhanggongxiang at Ruzhou city, Henan. One of the most valuable accessories to understanding archaeology are the ceramics on show. They yield important information because the Ru ware kiln seems to have been active for a mere two decades, from 1086 to 1106. More than a dozen representative categories introduce new forms, dismissing ideas that they were limited to only a few styles.

They are fully covered by a celadon glaze, ranging from sky blue – technically very difficult to achieve – to blue-green and grey-green with an occasional crackle. Glazing was an important skill in court utensil production, since only tiny spur marks, numbering no more than six, were left on some vessel bases after firing.

Study of Ru Ware Relies on Sources from the Past

Because of its rarity, an important framework for the study of Northern Song Ru ware relies on written sources from the past. Existing 12th-century texts from major cataloguing projects documenting the Song imperial collections are particularly relevant. The emperor Huizong’s (r.1101-1126) Xuanhe Bogutulu, ‘Illustrated Catalogue of the Conspectus of Antiquities of the Xuanhe Era’ remains indispensable as a basis for classification.

The fanghu, a ‘four angled’ jar recently unearthed and very rare, might be identified from its woodblock printed images of ancient bronzes. The jar, an imitation of an original bronze prototype traceable to the Han dynasty (206 BC-220 AD), is covered by a grey-green glaze. It has a rectangular mouth and bevelled edges curving down its body to a larger rectangular foot rim. Two lugs with taotie, animal masks, on its sides are usually found on archaistic vessels.

Ru Ware at the Qing Imperial Palace

Offering another means of identification are rare vessels ‘handed down’ the generations. During the 18th century, some Ru ware objects circulating in the Qing imperial palace had been identified by the Qianlong emperor-connoisseur (r.1736-1795) who alluded to ‘the glaze of celadons of the Song House of Zhao established in Ruzhou’ as being ‘made from agate powder’.

There is reason to believe Northern Song Ru ware formed part of the imperial collection since they were registered in two 18th-century Qing court albums, compiled at Qianlong’s behest during his reign. Now found at the National Palace Museum, Taipei, the objects and albums allow a systematic study of form. A comparison might be drawn between an oval basin on show and a ‘boat-shaped brushwasher’ in the album, Fangong Zhangse, ‘Skilled Firing, Conspicuous Quality’. Both objects stand on flat bases, and were thinly potted with curved sides thinning out towards the mouth rims.

One of the Most Common Forms Unearthed is a Washbasin

One of the most common forms unearthed, a washbasin, had been documented as a ‘wide-mouthed washer’ in the album, Yanzhi Liuguang, ‘Long-lived Clay radiates Light’. These wheel-thrown basins were wider and deeper with slightly arched walls. A mallet vase with a dish-shaped mouth also has a distinguished near counterpart in the ‘fenghua mallet vase’ from the imperial collection now at the museum.

It has a copper band lining its mouth and a poem by Qianlong inscribed on its base, accompanied by large ideograms for fenghua, ‘offering splendour’, added later, after the residence of a concubine of Southern Song emperor Gaozong (r.1127-1163), indicating its possible provenance. Such tall-necked vases are apparently of non-Chinese ancestry and hint at exchanges with the Persian world and Egypt where glass bottles of like shape stored oil, wine and rose water. An extremely rare vase unearthed has bowstring lines on its bulbous body, probably emulating spiralled or pinched threads from glass bottles of Abbasid Persia (750-1258).

Basins form only three per cent of vessels excavated at Qingliangsi. Many could not be repaired but one specimen with traces of restoration mirrors the ‘narcissus basin’, a rare elliptical shape modelled after lacquerware. It might be compared to only five specimens extant; the one at The Museum of Oriental Ceramics, Osaka, which was displayed at the Oriental Ceramic Society, London in 1950, and four at the National Palace Museum.

The Osaka basin is covered by a distinctive sky blue glaze that is smooth and dense, an exceptional technical achievement, and pooled at the base. A copper band along its mouth rim covers places chipped off, indicating it once had taller walls. It is supported by four small legs and has six spur marks on its outside base. Cups also account for three per cent of findings. Those that were wheel thrown had everted mouth rims and sides tapering down to small trimmed feet. Cups with rounded sides tended to have splayed foot rims made separately and applied later on.

Core Group of Bowls: The Sacred Lotus in Chinese Ceramics

Some newly excavated forms contribute significantly to existing knowledge. A core group of bowls, typical court utensils, comprise 28 per cent of those unearthed. Their mouth rims and bodies have been modelled after the sacred lotus, Nelumbo nucifera, suggesting it was a classical Northern Song form. One of the primary symbols of Buddhism and of purity, the lotus had emerged in painting and textile as the ‘flower-petalled lotus’ throne.

These influences, augmented by simultaneous Song interest in nature and the botanical world, come together in the ‘open lotus flower’ form unique to the Northern Song. A representative warming bowl with a ten-petalled or scalloped mouth rim and lobed sides curving down to a raised foot rim, has a renowned counterpart at the National Palace Museum. Lotus petals are embodied in the five foliated flanges of a rare bowl stand, said to be one of only three in the world. The lotus form also surfaces on dishes, a tenth of excavated material.

Mirroring the ‘open lotus flower’ is the only 10-petalled lotus dish extant with a gently undulating mouth rim. How the ‘open lotus’ profile was achieved might be witnessed in a ten-lobed biscuit dish, its inside shaped equally into ten petals. Sharp modelling of its thinly executed body seems to have contributed to its well-moulded form; a feat more often seen in bisque-fired celadon from Yaozhou ware of the Five Dynasties (906-960) period.

The Form of the Lotus in Northern Song Ru Ware

Lotus parts also surfaced on other forms. An incense burner cover was fashioned from the dried lotus pod with seeded protrusions, an emblem for fertility. The moulded mandarin duck with small wings perched on it, symbolising conjugal loyalty, has eyes dotted by an iron glaze. Similar objects were known in Northern Song qingbai from Jingdezhen but those reaching Goryeo Korea (918-1392) attest to exchanges with Song China.

Documentary evidence to this effect was mentioned by Huizong’s envoy to the Goryeo court, Xu Jing, in the Xuanhe fengshi Gaoli tujing, ‘Illustrated Record of the Xuanhe Emissary to Goryeo’ (1124). Goryeo celadons made for the court, he said, were modelled after Song models to resemble Ru and Ding wares.

Important New Evidence the Qingliangsi Vessels

Some unique Qingliangsi vessels preserved buried for almost 900 years have qualities absent from those ‘handed down’. They furnish important new evidence dispelling long-held perceptions. Surface ornament for instance, is not a feature usually associated with Ru ware. Carved decoration, until recently unknown, appears on the only Ru ware ‘dragon’ vase in the world.

The object has a dish-shaped mouth, a straight neck and powerful rounded shoulders tapering down its body, where a dragon spewing a flaming pearl has been carved. Details of the creature’s head, horns and claws are still discernable on the surface. Linear or impressed ornament made by moulds or stamps also refute past views. They form lotus petals with near three-dimensional effect more often seen on Yaozhou bowls. One elongated, u-shaped bowl has layers of lotus petal patterns moulded in shallow relief throughout its exterior walls.

Its shaved off foot rim suggests it was made by a flat setter. Purely impressed bowls form just two per cent of excavated pieces, and two specimens are the only known forms extant. An exceptional bowl in a pale sky blue glaze, described as ‘the colour of ashes after burning’, has impressed wave patterns evenly lining its outside walls. Inside, a rare dragon motif has been moulded on its centre. Its outside base has a circular recessed area, instead of a foot ring. Another impressed bowl bears three layers of lotus petals raised in shallow relief on its crackled grey-green surface. These objects tell us that one of Ru ware’s finest achievements was a unity of body, glaze and surface decoration.

The Discovery of Stackable Boxes in Northern Song Ru Ware

Stackable boxes reveal the Northern Song built on traditions inherited from Tang (618-906) metalwork, which was influenced by the Persian world, and found also in lacquerware. Boxes fashioned after Tang gold and silverware have recessed edges supporting others stacked on top of them. Those with four- or six-lobed corners and cylindrical forms resemble moulded Yue and Yaozhou wares from the Five Dynasties period.

The boxes were crafted by different techniques. Only six four-lobed boxes were found, all made from one principal mould impressed with flower designs on four sides. Circular stackable boxes were thrown, and had indented inside surfaces to contain food items.

One major difference between objects still in circulation and those unearthed is their respective states of preservation: the former, in air and the latter, in soil. While ‘handed down’ vessels from the imperial collections only carry information retrievable from the objects themselves, the recently excavated antiquities discovered still buried,  contain a wealth of contextual information from their surroundings.

They add immensely to the knowledge that we may derive from the objects themselves and speak about why they were created. Where they were found, in what relative positions, in what assemblage they were installed together – all these sources contain additional and complementary information absent from those ‘handed-down’. Stratification on land sites also provides a framework of order for dating.

Although the spread of human activity makes the terrestrial world more disturbed, and new strata of soil constantly forms on top of old, it is generally accepted that the deeper the stratum, the older the subjects for study. The Northern Song Ru ware utensils that are unlikely to leave China again, therefore represent only the beginning as more kilns, and more vessels, await discovery.


Until 28 March, 2010, Northern Song Ru Ware: Recent Archaeological Findings is at The Museum of Oriental Ceramics, Osaka, 1-1-26, Nakanoshima, Kita-ku, Osaka 530-0005, Japan,