The Beauty of RU
Exhibition of Northern Song Dynasty Ru Ware
Ru Ware. Was It Made in the Palace or Forbidden to be Made There? An Explanation by a Native English Speaker, Ronald W. Longsdorf
In his foreword of this catalogue, K. Y. Ng makes a strong case to reinterpret the phrase which has been translated until now as “It was forbidden to fire Ru ware within the Palace, his position being that it should be read as “Ru ware was fired in the forbidden Palace.” Not knowing Chinese, I cannot understand that part of his bilingual treatise at all, but frankly his text in English was not very clear to me either. When he explained it to me verbally in English I understood perfectly what he was trying to say. I felt that his argument may be easier for Westerners to understand if written by a native English speaker. The content of his argument, however, is completely Mr. Ng’s. I am not qualified to vet his research nor his conclusions, but they seemed persuasive enough to warrant a hearing, which follows:
In his preface, Mr. Ng has challenged a long held belief that it was “forbidden to fire Ru ware in the Palace.” This claim originally came from a line in the Southern Song dynasty work, Qingbo zazhi (清波雜志) by Zhou Hui (周煇), which was subsequently quoted by later scholars, who were themselves quoted, such that, in time it was taken as fact. In pinyin, the six character line reads (with English underneath):
If the 4th and 5th character were transposed, the sentence becomes
or “Ru ware was fired in the forbidden palace.” The words “forbidden palace” (gongjin) should refer to a place within the Northern Song capital of Kaifeng, known as Bianliang in the Northern Song dynasty.
One must look at usage to determine the meaning of these key words. Volumes of research have been written in the west on important documents to establish the precise and intended meaning of a key word or phrase. The research always follows the same trail: How were those terms or phrases used in other contemporary contexts? In this case, we have the book in which the phrase in question appears with the words “gong” followed by “zhong jin shao.” But in three places, when a reference to the palace was made, the term used was “gongjin” or “forbidden palace” not the single word “gong” as it appears in the phrase in question. While there may be other instances in which the single word “gong” was used in that work to refer to the forbidden palace, which does not rule out the original interpretation, the use of “gongjin” three other times argues in favour of the second interpretation. This does not absolutely confirm that its use as originally quoted is a typographical error, but it shifts the argument to allow for it.
Until a kiln site is discovered, this too is impossible to prove. But the prohibition of making Ru ware in the palace doesn’t make much sense. Ru ware was, and is still today, the rarest and most highly regarded of all the Song ceramics. To put out an edict to prevent the production of it within the confines of the palace is strange. It is difficult to imagine the intent of such a prohibition.
How could this happen? Easily. Type was often set character by character in moveable wooden blocks. This would be an understandable, if not occasionally expected, error.
Why does it matter? There are other benefits than simply setting the record straight. If indeed there was a facility within the palace grounds in the Song dynasty to produce Ru ware for use by the court, it may open new directions of research not only including locating that facility, but exploring other questions of Imperial manufacture and control over the production of Ru ware and other ceramics at the time.
I am always assured by Mr. Ng that he would be delighted to hear any other hypothesis or argument that may shed light on the subject.
Ronald W. Longsdorf