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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

In Pursuit of White: Porcelain in the Joseon Dynasty, 1392–1910

Porcelain may be defined broadly as high-fired, vitrified, and translucent white ceramic. Often the raw materials include kaolin (a type of white clay) and petuntse (also called Chinastone). In Korean, porcelain is known as baekja, or white ware.

If green is the operative word in Korean ceramics during the Goryeo dynasty (918–1392), then white becomes the preferred color under the Joseon (1392–1910). Although white ware was made in small quantities prior to the Joseon period, it is adopted as imperial ware in the fifteenth century, following a similar development in China during the early Ming dynasty (1368–1644). Beyond its elite status, white ware became the most popular and widely manufactured ceramic type in Joseon Korea.

In the 1460s, the royal court helped initiate and manage a group of kilns called bunwon (in today’s Gwangju, just outside of present-day Seoul), which would produce white ware for the court’s use. The Bunwon would continue to function as the official court kilns until their privatization in the 1880s. The products made at the Bunwon kilns reveal that in fact several grades of white ware were manufactured there. Not all were intended for the court; many were probably made for different bureaus of the central government, and also for wealthy private patrons. By the sixteenth century, white ware was no longer the sole domain of the court or even the privileged few living in the capital. Regional kilns all over the Korean peninsula began actively producing white ware—albeit of lesser quality than those from the Bunwon—to satisfy the exploding demand. The growth of the white ware industry is one of the major reason for the decline of buncheong ware, a distinctive type of ceramic decorated with white slip that made a relatively brief, two-century run in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, dishes, bowls, bottles, and jars of severely simple yet elegant forms were preferred. They were used as special tableware and also as ceremonial or even burial vessels. An example of the latter is the placenta jar, usually made in sets of two, one inside the other, for holding and burying the placenta of a prince or princess. In the eighteenth century, large bulbous vessels known as moon jars became fashionable (1979.413.1). Later, in the nineteenth century, white ware brush holders (11.142.1) with pleasing openwork designs competed for attention alongside other more colorfully decorated porcelain scholar’s accoutrements. The elite’s penchant for plain white ware, at least during the early Joseon period, reflects in part the minimalist and purist aesthetics associated with the new ruling ideology of Neo-Confucianism. This aesthetic and philosophy may also have contributed to the lack of multihued or enameled white ware in the later years, despite the type’s popularity in China and Japan. But it may just as likely have been due to economic factors: Chinese polychrome porcelain was known to have been imported into Korea and admired by elites.

Color was not entirely eschewed in Joseon white ware. On the contrary, as early as the fifteenth century, white ware painted with cobalt blue was highly prized, perhaps even more than undecorated white ware because of its rarity and difficulty of manufacture. From the seventeenth century onward, white ware decorated with iron brown became popular, especially during periods when the cost of cobalt was exorbitant or its quality uneven. Iron-brown painted images on white ware can be highly sophisticated in style and literary in subject matter, as in the best examples produced at the bunwon kilns, or more carefree and even humorous, like the dragons circling the rotund jars most likely made at regional kilns. More unusual and difficult to make than white ware with either cobalt-blue or iron-brown painting are those with copper-red decoration (1979.413.2). Successful pieces, dating primarily to the eighteenth century, are refreshing for their dazzling red color and fresh images.