The Beauty of RU
Exhibition of Northern Song Dynasty Ru Ware

Ru Ware and “Guan Ware”, Qingliang Temple and Zhanggongxiang

In 1950, the Qingliang Temple kiln site in Baofeng was first discovered when Chen Wanli was searching for ruins of ancient Ru kilns. In 1987, a preliminary excavation was carried out by the Henan Provincial Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology, recovering 12 specimens of classic imperial Ru ware, thereby confirming the location as a Ru kiln site. In 2000, the Henan Provincial Institute conducted the sixth phase of the excavation of the site. Four households in the Qingliang Temple Village had to be relocated. From the 900 m2 newly excavated site, the remains of key ceramic-making facilities, including 20 kiln furnaces, 3 workshops, as well as wells and clay refining pits, were discovered. A large number of relatively complete Ru ware vessels, kiln furniture, and moulds were also found and the central firing area was located.

In spring 2000 and summer 2001, the Henan Provincial Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology completed two phases of small-scale excavations in Zhanggongxiang, Ruzhou, in association with a residential housing reconstruction project. A variety of Ru ware, kiln furniture and biscuit fragments were uncovered, which generated immense interest among scholars of ancient Chinese ceramics. Between February and April 2004, the Henan Provincial Institute opened up two test pits with a total of 124 m2, unearthing the remnants of 4 building foundations of different historical periods, including 4 wells, 79 ash pits and 1 filter pool, as well as a number of celadon ware vessels and kiln furniture. Compared with the Qingliang Temple Ru ware, the celadon ware of Zhanggongxiang consists mainly of vessels of thin body and thin glaze. Its glaze tone is lighter, and has a glassy look. The sky-blue tone of the Qingliang Temple Ru ware is rarely seen here. The clay body colours can be in the hue of chalky white, greyish white, off white or, in lesser cases, pale grey. The incense ash grey body of Ru ware is almost unseen here. The fine, hard texture of its clay is also superior to that of Ru ware.1

Baofeng and Ruzhou lie in central Henan, while the Qingliang Temple and Zhanggongxiang kiln sites are today under the administration of Pingdingshan and Ruzhou municipalities respectively. The two kiln sites, however, are only some twenty kilometres apart, both governed by the Ruzhou prefecture during the Northern Song period and located within a 200-kilometre diameter of the dynastic capital Kaifeng. The greater Kaifeng region, then called the Jingji (i.e. capital) Circuit, was the political, economic and military heart of the Northern Song. Immediately to the west of the Jingji Circuit was the “Jingxi-Bei Circuit”, where Ruzhou was located. Ruzhou and the Jingji Circuit were only separated by the Yingchang prefecture (present-day Xuchang), so the transportation and the exchange of goods between the two regions were normal.

Ru ware, named after its geographical origin, is a renowned variety of ceramics from the Song dynasty. Its status as “tribute ware”2 gave it a remarkably high value and it had already become “especially rare” by the Southern Song times. The extant Ru ware vessels have been documented in various studies, illustrated catalogues and reviews. According to The History of Chinese Ceramics, “Fewer than 100 vessels are extant today, which makes it the rarest among the production of the best-known kilns of the Song dynasty.”3 Detailed records of 65 Ru ware artefacts are listed in a table in The Discovery of Ru Kiln, which also notes their sources of information and the vessels’ collectors.4 A later survey indicates the number of known Ru ware artefacts as 77, as confirmed by experts in the field.5 As the surveys grow in their comprehensiveness, the known extant Ru ware vessels in the world now number at over 90, with two of them in Japan.6 In recent years, alongside the interest of institutions and connoisseurs at home and abroad and the increasing inheritance and circulation of ancient ceramics, a considerable number of Ru-type celadon ware can be identified, some of which might be comparable and authenticated against extant Ru ware vessels. Yet, the total number of extant Ru ware vessels should not, therefore, exceed more than one hundred examples. The examination and study of such Ru-type vessels will be an important subject for scholars in the field.

As Ye Zhi’s Tanzhaibiheng from the Southern Song goes: “Dingzhou’s white ware was deemed unsuitable for court use because of their rough mouth-rim. Imperial orders were then made to Ruzhou for the production of celadon ware. This is why Ru ware was ranked above all others in the north “including those from Tangzhou, Dengzhou, and Yaozhou.” Nevertheless, Qingbo zazhi records: “The firing of Ru ware was prohibited in the imperial court” (Ruyao gong zhong jin shao 汝窯宮中禁燒). The recent reinterpretation of this latter line,7 therefore, has been most enlightening. Tanzhaibiheng then goes on: “During the Zhenghe reign, a kiln was set up in the capital for the firing of ceramics, thus called the Guan [imperial] Kiln.” Gu Wenjian’s Fuxuanzalu, also from the Southern Song, states: “During the reigns of Zhenghe and Xuanhe of the Song dynasty, a kiln was set up in the capital for the firing of ceramics. It was thus called the Guan [imperial] Kiln.” If we consider the idea of a kiln firing ceramics within the imperial court (gongjin宮禁) and the fact that “a kiln was set up in the capital” was recorded in Tanzhaibiheng and Fuxuanzalu, it seems entirely plausible that a kiln existed in the Kaifeng city. With “Imperial orders were then made in Ruzhou… and Yaozhou”, we have textual evidence that Ru ware was fired in Ruzhou. Over the years, various studies have been conducted regarding Ru ware and Guan [imperial] ware, or regarding Qingliang Temple in Baofeng and Zhanggongxiang in Ruzhou; debates after debates have taken place over the distinction between Ru ware and Guan ware and their identification. From historical writings and archaeological finds, two issues should be investigated: 1. The Qingliang Temple and Zhanggongxiang kiln sites were only some twenty kilometres apart, both under the administration of “Ruzhou”. Kilns within such a distance should probably be much better coordinated in terms of naming, workshop management and technical know-how than what we might find today. It seems appropriate for neighbouring kilns under the same administration to be named together and it is understandable that a certain extent of minor differences existed with regard to their colour tone, body clay, and technical level. 2. Historical writings closest to the time point out clearly that “a kiln was set up in the capital for the firing of ceramics, thus called the Guan [imperial] Kiln”. This is hard evidence why the search for the “Guan Kiln” of the Northern Song should focus on the kiln sites, management and related business within the Jingji Circuit or under the governance of the capital Kaifeng. The kiln’s production should also possibly be identified with some certainty among the extant wares of the period, so that they can be accepted by scholars in the field as Northern Song “Guan ware”.

I have had the opportunity to look at the substantial collection of Ru ware samples at K. Y. Fine Art recently, which has proven to be a fruitful experience. Apart from the usual observations, a careful scrutiny of these samples reveals a few phenomena, which I am noting below for further studies.

First, the shaping of the narcissus bowls: Four specimens of Ru ware narcissus bowls are collected at the National Palace Museum, Taipei, and one at the Museum of Oriental Ceramics, Osaka.8 There is also a Ru ware narcissus bowl in bluish green glaze (mouth polished and metal-rimmed) at Jilin Provincial Museum.9 The narcissus bowl, oblong in shape with four legs, is a renowned form of Ru ware. The K. Y. Fine Art samples 15-251 and 10-200 show that the oblong bottom and the feet of the bowl were separately shaped and joined together, the borderline between them clearly visible. The oblong body of the bowl was shaped first, and the base and legs were then attached to it to achieve the final form. This phenomenon is worth our attention, as it perhaps signals a special technique developed to suit the local clay viscosity.

Second, the use of incised marks and inscriptions: Ru ware is known to the world for its colour and shapes. Marks and inscriptions have never been found on extant Ru ware vessels that were passed down through generations. Examples of incised marks and inscriptions, however, can be seen from the excavated vessels from the Qingliang Temple kiln site.10 The K. Y. Fine Art samples 11-210, 14-236 and 13-226 show such rare incised marks. Sample 11-210 is a lotus petal-shaped bowl, whose exterior is decorated with lotus-petal patterns. Its ring foot has an unglazed rim, revealing the clay colour of fine, pale grey. The interior of the foot bears the incised ya (“押”, i.e. signature) mark11 in its centre. Sample 14-236 has a round bottom but it is difficult to tell its overall form from its badly damaged state. Glaze is applied throughout; a spur mark in white, the size of a sesame seed, appears near the edge of its foot. The broken surface shows the body clay in fine, pale grey. Its base bears the incised er (“二”, i.e. the number “two”) mark. Would it perhaps be connected in some way to the number marks on decorative Jun ware vessels? This warrants further investigation. Sample 13-226 is oval in shape, hollow and flat-bottomed. Its base and its interior are both unglazed. Judging from its form, it looks like a fragment of a somewhat round pillow. Its glaze is in greenish grey, showing air bubbles and crackles, its clay colour greyish yellow. Its unglazed base bears a damaged incised three-character mark of gui(?) ya (“貴[?]押”). Its exterior is decorated with inscriptions of poetry carved under the glaze. This type of decoration appears in the northern celadon ware of Yaozhou but has never been seen before in extant Ru ware vessels. (This sample does not resemble any well-known Ru ware forms. Further investigation is necessary to determine whether it is a vessel from other celadon ware kilns in Henan.)

Third, incised decorations on Ru ware: Ru ware consists mostly of plain, undecorated vessels. Recent excavations at the Qingliang Temple kiln site, however, have uncovered some Ru ware vessels decorated with carved, impressed, or moulded patterns.12 The technique of incised decoration is showcased on the K. Y. Fine Art samples 2-053 and 12-218. Sample 2-053 has a thin body, its clay in greyish yellow colour. Celadon glaze is applied on its exterior surface, showing air bubbles and crackles, while its grey interior is unglazed. This sample might be a fragment of a vase. A part of the incised dragon claw patterns appears on it, which resembles an artefact excavated from the Qingliang Temple kiln site. Sample 12-218 shows a spherical fragment with inner mouth rim, where the rim is unglazed. It should be a box cover, in pale sky blue glaze, with geometric motif carved on its sides and wavy patterns on its top part. Its form is quite rare among Ru ware vessels.

The association between Ru kilns, the Qingliang Temple in Baofeng and Zhanggongxiang in Ruzhou, and the “Guan kiln” may not be definitive, but there is certainly some evidence supporting that. The mystery surrounding Northern Song “Guan Ware” still remains and it is still impossible to this day to conclusively identify the type of ceramics that was known to the Northern Song people as “Guan Ware”. But as more and more studies and newfound materials on Ru ware become available, we will eventually be able to draw more conclusions on this subject. The present collection of Ru ware samples at K. Y. Fine Art, with its substantial quantity, definitely deserves our attention.

Detailed surveys and scrutiny of the finds from Qingliang Temple in Baofeng, Ru Kiln, and Zhanggongxiang in Ruzhou will likely bring the study of Northern Song tribute ware to a new height.

  1. Henan Provincial Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology, Ru Ware and the Ceramics Excavated from Zhanggongxiang, Science Press, 2009, pp. 1 and 2.
  2. As recorded in Zhou Hui’s Qingbo zazhi from the Southern Song: “The firing of Ru ware was prohibited in the imperial court. Agate powder was used in the glaze. The ware was produced for the court; only the rejects from the tribute ware were allowed to be sold, which made them especially rare” (Baihai edition from the Ming Wanli reign). The “tribute ware” above testifies to the fact that Ru ware vessels were specifically made for court use, whereas the “rejects” resulted from the procedures: 1. The completed vessels out of the kiln had to go through a selection process and only the selected would become tribute ware; 2. The defective products, which failed the selection, would be returned to their producers (owners of the kilns) and could be sold at their owners’ discretion.
  3. Chinese Ceramic Society, The History of Chinese Ceramics, Cultural Relics Publishing House, 1982,
    p. 284.
  4. Wang Qingzheng, Fan Dongqing, and Zhou Lili, The Discovery of Ru Kiln, Shanghai People’s Fine Arts Publishing House, 1987, pp. 38–44.
  5. Sun Xinmin, “A Comparative Study of the Ceramics from the Qingliang Temple Kiln Site in Baofeng and the Extant Ru Ware”, in Collected Essays in Memory of Mr. An Jinhuai, edited by Henan Provincial Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology, Elephant Press, 2005, p. 327.
  6. Masami Kobayashi, “Green Ware, the Masterpiece of Ceramics: In Appreciation of the ‘Special Exhibition: Northern Song Ru Ware Narcissus Basins—Treasured Masterpieces from the National Palace Museum, Taipei’”, Art and Collection, November 2016, Taiwan.
  7. K. Y. Ng of K. Y. Fine Art in Hong Kong argues that the line might contain a typographical error when it was first published and that it should perhaps read “Ruyao gongjin zhong shao” (汝窯宮禁中燒) instead, meaning “Ru ware was fired in the imperial court”. This view diverges from the traditional interpretations of the line and deserves our attention. As for the firing of ceramics within the imperial court, the enamel painted ceramics in the Ruyi Hall of the Qing court can offer us a concrete frame of reference.
  8. Special Exhibition: Northern Song Ru Ware Narcissus Basins—Treasured Masterpieces from the National Palace Museum, Taipei,10 December 2016–26 March 2017.
  9. Tang Xiaoxuan, “Ru Ware Narcissus Basin in Bluish Green Glaze in the Collection of Jilin Provincial Museum”, Cultural Relics World, 2012, no. 7.
  10. Henan Provincial Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology, Ru Ware and the Ceramics Excavated from Zhanggongxiang, Science Press, 2009, pp. 76, 100, and 101.
  11. This type of stylized signatures was popular in the Song and Jin eras and can often be found carved, inscribed or incised on vessels such as ceramics, bronzes and lacquer ware.
  12. Henan Provincial Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology, Ru Ware and the Ceramics Excavated from Zhanggongxiang, Science Press, 2009, pp. 42, 51, 52, 70 and 71.

Foreword by K. Y. Ng
Notes on Ru and Guan Wares of the Northern Song Dynasty
Ru Ware and “Guan Ware”, Qingliang Temple and Zhanggongxiang
Ru Ware. Was It Made in the Palace or Forbidden to be Made There? An Explanation by a Native English Speaker, Ronald W. Longsdorf