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Bun-cheong: The Lost Art

Origins

    Hidden between the demise of celadon and the rise in popularity of white porcelain ware, Bun-cheong enjoyed about a one hundred year reign as the most common type of pottery, and was used by both the aristocracy and commoners throughout Korea.
    The invention of Bun-cheong came about slowly more or less as an evolution of the Koryo Dynasty (918-1392AD) celadon that preceded, it rather than appearing spontaneously and, as with most of the developments in the Korean arts, forces outside of Korea played an important role in its creation.
    Celadon production flourished during the height of the Koryo Dynasty where high quality vessels were needed for Buddhist rituals and by the royal court. But the Mongol invasions into Korea which began in 1231, and the subsequent decline of the Buddhist culture which had led to Korea's advancements in celadon production, began to take their toll as the populace focused on survival rather than art. The quality of the celadon began to suffer and more emphasis was placed on practical vessels that could be used by all, rather than objects of beauty to be used by the aristocracy and in Buddhist rituals.

    From the beginning of the invasions and for the next 150 years or so, the production of vessels shifted from high grade celadon, to rather lower grade wares while still maintaining some of the design features of celadon. The new pottery which began to emerge at this time was called Bun-cheong and was made with a the same clay as was used for celadon, but of a noticeably coarser grade.
    During this transition period, attempts were made to dress up the new wares and make them as attractive as celadon had been by painting them with a celadon glaze which rendered a greenish tone to the wares. While the result was unique and attractive, it could not compare with the beauty of celadon.
     By the beginning of the Yi Dynasty (1392-1910) the production of celadon had all but died out and the art of producing it was lost. Therefore, Bun-cheong was the predominant pottery of this period and it continued to be the widely produced and used for the next 100 years.

Transitional period, Bun-cheong ware with celadon glaze; rice bowl with lid. Late 14th to early 15th century. Chun Hyung-pil Collection

Transitional period, Bun-cheong ware with celadon
glaze; rice bowl with lid. Late 14th to early 15th century.
Chun Hyung-pil Collection

Production Method

    As mentioned above, Bun-cheong was made with a coarser clay than celadon and its techniques for production were a bit coarse as well. Earlier Bun-cheong from the transitional period used a celadon glaze, and was often inlaid like celadon, but later a decoration technique unique to Bun-cheong was developed in which the the patterns were formed with wood block stamps, or etched on, and then the pieces were covered with a white slip. The slip was either painted by hand, or the entire piece was dipped in a tray of slip after which the excess slip was scraped off leaving it behind in the stamped or etched patterns. Unfortunately, not all the slip could be removed this way and it often left a whitish residue over the whole piece, or at the very least unwanted slip outside of the patterns. Alternately, the white slip was brushed on using a rough brush in a carefree fashion and, though not particularly precise, this method was quite popular both in Korea, and out. In short, Bun-cheong was of a rougher finish than celadon both due to the coarser clay and the level of craftsmanship.
    Many different patterns were used to decorate Bun-cheong but among the most common were the "rope curtain pattern", and pattern of stamped chrysanthemum heads, or plain dots.

Bun-cheong bowl with lid and a rope curtain pattern. Mid 15th century. Ho-Am Art Museum

Bun-cheong wine bottle with a stamped ring of chrysanthemums above the band on the neck and on the base, and a rope curtain pattern over the rest of the body. 15th century. National Museum of Korea

Bun-cheong bowl with lid and a rope
curtain pattern. Mid 15th century.
Ho-Am Art Museum
Bun-cheong wine bottle with a stamped ring of chrysanthemums above
the band on the neck and on the base, and a rope curtain pattern
over the rest of the body. 15th century. National Museum of Korea

Decline

    As with the introduction of Bun-cheong, its decline was also brought about by foreign influence. The Japanese invasions into Korea by Toyotomi Hideyoshi, which began in 1592, razed the country of its cultural treasures; a great many of the temples, palaces and other culturally significant structures were destroyed by the Japanese and the populace was either displaced or killed. Many of the pottery kilns that had been operating throughout the country, were also destroyed or shut down by the invasions and the potters themselves were taken back to Japan to bolster the Japanese pottery industry that was to become so famous in later years.
    In the years prior to the invasions, the Korean potters had been improving the craftsmanship of Bun-cheong wares and developing white porcelain as well. But the loss of many of the Korean potters dealt such a severe blow to the development of Korean pottery that after the end of the Japanese invasions in 1598, the Korean ceramics industry never recovered completely, and though the production of white porcelain did re-appear, the production of Bun-cheong did not. While its manufacturing techniques were considered to be "lost", it is more likely that the emphasis simply shifted to the production of superior white porcelain wares and that the inferior Bun-cheong wares were no longer needed.

Modern Bun-cheong

    The years immediately following the Korean war (1950-1953) left little time for cultural reminiscing, but starting in about 1955, the same time that Korean artisans began to rebuild the celadon industry, they also re-kindled the production of Bun-cheong.
    The transitional period of Bun-cheong in which celadon glazes or celadon style designs were used, is not well represented in modern Bun-cheong. Most modern Bun-cheong still uses the coarser clay it was originally created with and incorporates many of the design features used during the height of Bun-cheong production; most notably the rope curtain pattern, and stamped chrysanthemums and dots. Its finish is generally a brownish glaze which often has a dark green tint, and its stamped patterns are filled with a white slip. Not as culturally significant as celadon, it is produced by fewer artists and in limited quantities today.

Modern celadon jar with lid and rope curtain pattern. Korean-Arts' item BCJ008

Modern celadon cups with stamped chrysanthemum pattern around the top of the cup body, and a rope curtain pattern over the remainder of the body. Korean-Arts' item BCCS011

Modern celadon jar with lid and rope curtain pattern.
Korean-Arts' item BCJ008
Modern celadon cups with stamped chrysanthemum pattern
around the top of the cup body, and a rope curtain pattern over
the remainder of the body. Korean-Arts' item BCCS011

See some of our Bun-cheong pieces - click here!

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