Korean Celadon Teacups


When we visited Korea in 2010, the food, culture and tea production delighted and astonished us. Ceramics and pottery production, too, was distinctive and impressive, and we returned home with many treasured tea cups and tea bowls.

For years we have been familiar with modest but lovely Korean green tea infuser cups such as the one pictured here. We sell these tea cups in our store, and hoped to learn more about Korean celadon during our visit. As with much about Korea, we were not disappointed.

We learned that the Gangjin area in the southern region of Korea is where 90% of Korean celadon wares are made. In fact, there are 9 or 10 areas in Korea that are dedicated to the production of regional ceramics. Celadon has been made in Gangjin from the 9th century to the present day, and as many as 180 old kiln sites are claimed to be scattered throughout this area. Today, approximately 16 operative kilns produce celadon wares in several different styles. While other sites in Korea made celadon wares in the past, Gangjin was always considered to produce the finest celadon, and was the most widely exported.

So we were overjoyed when our friends Arthur and Mary Park invited us to join them for a visit to Gangjin to learn about the artistry and methodology behind the production of these gleaming, jade-green pieces.

First we toured the Goryeo Celadon Museum, where visitors learn the history of celadon and view displays of historic pieces. Just a short walk from the museum – but within the museum complex -visitors are welcomed into the museum-run celadon workshops. Here, artisans create masterpiece works that are sold at auctions throughout the year to raise funds for the museum. (No worry, there is a gift shop, too, where celadon items can be purchased!)

We stayed in the workshops for a long time, absorbed in watching these skilled artisans at work, and marveling at the extraordinary detail and precise, intricate steps involved in the crafting of these fine pieces.

This gentleman is beginning to carve a design in a large vase with a sharp metal tool. Vases of different shapes are made and some of them are quite large in size. The shapes of Korean celadon vases bear some similarity to the traditional shapes of Chinese porcelain vases, but over time Korean potters have tweaked the details of the shapes so that today these pieces are uniquely Korean.

Not only are the carvers required to be skilled in their technique, but their designs must flow gracefully with the curvature and complement the form of the piece.

After each piece in carved, the incisions are carefully filled in with colored clay slip that will change to the final colors during the firing. If you look closely at the photographs above and below, you can see where the colored slip has been added. All of these pieces are awaiting the final glazing and firing steps.

Some pieces are hand-painted, too, which adds to the sophistication, beauty and value of the piece.

Here is a magnificent piece in all its glory on display in the museum.

We learned that Korean celadon is made in three colors: blue, green and yellow (a tone that is more grey-blue than actual yellow). The pieces are given a translucent glaze, while Chinese celadons receive an opaque glaze. There are 6 steps in the process from potters wheel ( or mold ) to finished piece, but the three most crucial steps in celadon production are: throwing, carving and glazing. The carving and inlay process was developed in Korea during the 12th century, which is considered the pinnacle of celadon development.

After we visited the museum we were invited to visit the Department of Ceramic Crafts at Munkyung College. After a tour of the facility, Professor Yoo Tae Keun showed us how to make a carving tool out of an old metal umbrella rib.

Celadon carvers make their own tools and use three variations of tip for cutting and incising. Afterwards, he showed us how to incise a piece of copper, which, unbeknownst to us, was going to be used as a clapper for the celadon bells that his students had made for us to take home.

Such a thoughtful remembrance of our visit!! Our bells are hanging in our sun room where we can enjoy them everyday.

For those visiting Korea, Gangjin holds a Gangjin Celadon Festival each August which celebrates all things celadon.

The only sour note to this story is that we were just informed that the Korean celadon tea infuser mugs pictured at the top of this post have been discontinued. We are saddened by this news as they have always been popular. For those interested in owning one of these cups, we only have 12 pieces left. Click here to find them on our website

Teawares Addiction

 

 

Yes, I admit it. I have an addiction to teawares.  Not to conventional tea ‘bling’, but to handmade ‘treasure’: traditional,  Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Taiwanese teawares. Treasure does not necessarily mean something that is expensive, although some teawares are extremely costly. Shockingly so. But to me treasure is something with a ‘soul’ that will harmonize with tea and teach me a lesson about tea culture.

Enought is never enough. I cannot pass up a svelt or chunky tea cup with a pleasing shape, a rustic feel or an unusual glaze. I like pieces that give me clues about where it was made by it’s shape, glaze and overall style.  I  like to use different teacups with my gaiwans and keep my friends guessing as to what my tea table will be set with each time. Old cups, new cups, shiny finishes, matte finishes, delicate pale colors or rich earth tones all catch my magpie eye in equal measure.

Teawares are my best ‘ take-home’ memento when I travel. In fact, my carry-on bags bulge when I set off for home after a tea buying trip to Asia. Because that is where the treasure lies (some tea is hand-carried too; the rest is air-shipped).

Teapots, too, are just too delicious to be limited to a useful few.

Have you ever noticed that unglazed Chinese teapots are quite different in shape and style from Japanese unglazed teapots ? Both are constructed for use with certain teas, so the form and function of each teapot  is in sync.  I like to look too, for telltale signs of the hand of the maker in the construction of the teapot or teacup. You know, the little details that let you know that it was made by man and not machine. Whatever clues I can deduce about how was the piece made, what tools were used, what type of kiln was the piece fired in, etc. fascinate me.

I also wonder about the artist who made the piece. Was it a man or a woman ? In Asian, the majority of potters are men, but talented women have been elbowing their way in to some areas of pottery and ceramics work. Did the artist work in peaceful solitude or in a jovial group with other colleagues ?  Where do they find most of their inspiration – in a bright, sunny studio space or in the middle of the night sitting beside a woodburning kiln full of their hard work ?

I use many of my teawares; others I do not. Not yet, anyway. Some tea ‘connoisseurs’ find collections of unused teawares silly or wasteful. I don’t.  Why ? Because I am supporting the livelihood of potters and ceramic artists with my purchases and using them to educate my tea enthusiast customers about tea and tea culture. And they are lovely reminders of places that I have been in Asia and tea that I have drunk there with friends and colleagues.

To me, the enjoyment of a delicious cup of tea depends as much on the teawares and the environment in which the tea is drunk as much as the quality of the tea. Each piece has a voice and a story, and together they sing so sweetly.  Here, a large cookie jar made by a Chinese artist friend can be seen proudly masquerading as a Pu-erh storage jar.