From Turmoil towards Imperial Taste of Southern Song dynasty: A Molded ‘Guan Yao’ Archaic-Shaped Vase

From Turmoil towards Imperial Taste of Southern Song dynasty: A Molded ‘Guan Yao’ Archaic-Shaped Vase


finely potted with pear-shaped body rising elegantly from a short recessed foot to the flaring trumpet-shaped neck and mouth, softly molded and relief design around the body with a wide band of scrolling peonies above a border of upright chrysanthemum petals, the waisted neck flanked by a pair of double loop suspending ring handles, covered overall with a lustrous bluish-celadon glaze suffused with a network of luminous golden-beige crackles thinning at the extremities saving for the unglazed footring showing iron black body.

Research & Essay

In the 12th to 13th centuries, the Song dynasty moved towards to leading China to be the first country in the world to sense industrialization due to its economic affluence through its trade and diplomacy with other countries. Along with prosperity of Southern Song dynasty, Java and Srivijaya kingdoms provided their prosperity by their participation in an increasingly vibrant and lucrative international trade and diplomacy for China, where their resources were in high demand. Based on the ancient Chinese archive, Lin Qingqin concludes that in the Southern Song (Chinese: 南宋; 1127–1279), there were dozens of merchant ships from Champa (Vietnam), Siem Reap (Cambodia), Samboja (around the Jambi, Sumatra), Shepo (Java), and other countries every year, which brought in a constant supply of exotic and precious articles such as rhino horns, ivory, pearls, spices and glassware into Guanzhou port of China.1)

From Turmoil towards Imperial Taste of Southern Song dynasty: A Molded ‘Guan Yao’ Archaic-Shaped Vase
From Turmoil towards Imperial Taste of Southern Song dynasty: A Molded ‘Guan Yao’ Archaic-Shaped Vase

According to a Chinese manuscript “Lingwai Daida” (Answers for Outside the Lingnan Area) written by a geographer of Southern Song Dynasty “Zhou Qufei 周去非” (1135 – 1189 AD) had a detailed description about Srivijaya Kingdom. The book describes “The Kingdom of Srivijaya is a center of waterways in the South China sea. Countries within a vast geographical area from the Indonesian islands in the east to the Middle East in the West have to go past Srivijaya to arrive China.2) Likewise, Chinese ships, navigated by the compass that was first used by Chinese navigators around 1100 AD, with each capacity between 200 and 600 tons, dominated the seas, carrying the Chinese ceramics and other commodities to Japan, Southeast Asia. Taxes on trade generated the revenue required to pay the annual tribute to Jin state and to pay for the army power.3) It is undoubtedly the high-value Chinese ceramics of the Southern Song dynasty has been recovered by archaeologists in Sumatra and Java sites until today. The author found a huge deposits of Southern Song ceramics at a number of sites beneath the Musi River Palembang, one of the biggest rivers in South Sumatra that had been powerful fleet and boisterous trading center between the 7th and the 13th centuries. Unfortunately, the author has not found the sample of original ‘Guan Yao’ (official) ceramics of Southern Song dynasty, like the present researched piece. Although the present vase is claimed by the owner as a hereditary legacy from his ancestors living in Srivijaya (Sumatra) for centuries, but it is impossible to date the piece with any precision just relying its provenance information. Thus, to ascertain its period and origin of its kiln, the author researched it by first-hand inspection that is focused on its physical characteristics and archeological similar artifacts found in other sites, scholarly literatures and comparison with those of in the renowned museums and market.

Southern Song dynasty (1127–1279 AD) is considered to be a fascinating ceramic history producing what many consider the zenith of Chinese archaic bronze-shaped ceramics with a wide range of different shape, glaze and design. Like the current vase, Southern Song potter produced Guan wares intended to emulate the earlier bronze ritualistic vessel (hu) vessel of Easthern Zhou dynasty (770–255 BC) since it was difficult to get bronze or jade prototype to serve as ceremonial vessels. Modelled in modest simplicity style, ye modest, this warm and solemn Guan vase closely resembles the earlier bronze prototype forms as Gaozong Emperor’s interest that was made in at in Laohudong kiln in the location of Jiaotanxia, Hangzhou region (present-day Zhejiang province). The present vessel was possibly for the interest of Gaozong Emperor (1127-1162 AD), the first emperor of the Southern Song period (1127-1279 AD). In 1149 AD, the Southern Song dynasty established the official kilns in two locations at Tiger Cave Kiln (老虎洞窑 Lǎohǔdòng Yáo) in Hangzhou region (in modern Zhejiang province), producing the Guan (Official) wares. The first kiln location was under the control of the Xiuneisi 内 司 kiln (Department of Palace Supply), and the second one was located to near to the Jiaotanxia 郊壇下 (Altar of Heaven). In 1984 and 1986, the excavation was carried and the location of Jiaotanxia in Laohudong site was established, meanwhile, the location of Xiuneisi was a mysterious issue and under the controversy among the archaeologists for many years,4) even though the Xiuneisi kiln had been mentioned in ancient Chinese texts. Xiuneisi location was then known when Hangzhou Cultural Relics and Archaeology Institute excavated the Laohudong site in 1996. On September 1996, Tiger Cave or Laohudong Kiln was discovered by a chance, at a site close to the ruins of the Southern Song Imperial city near Mount Phoenix. Among the large amount of porcelain fragments, inscription in brown pigment that read “Xiuneisi” or “Imperial” kiln were found underneath glazed porcelain fragments that formed the base parts of vessels.5) See a sample of Southern Song Xiuneisi Guanyao fragment excavated from Laohudong kiln site of Hangzhou region (see fig. 1).6)

Some scholars and Chinese texts mention that Guan vase of Southern Song period was sent to the imperial court as a tribute. Compared to green celadon ware produced and reached its zenith during the Southern Song dynasty (1127-1279), the present vase features its distinctive characteristics. The current vase excels in lustrous bluish-celadon glaze color using the technique of as softly molded and relief floral decoration. The vase is made of thinly dark stoneware body coated with thin glaze that is visible at the unglazed foot with purple mouthrim, and the glaze thinning at the edge exposes a network of luminous jade-like golden-beige crackles. These characteristics summarize that the present vase is definitely as a Guan yao candidate of Southern Song dynasty produced around 1127-1279 AD in Jiaotanxia official kiln (Altar of Heaven) in Hangzhou region, Zhejiang province. John Ayer discusses that ‘Guan’ ware is the title since given to the special celadon-glazed wares made for the Southern Song court following its establishment at Hangzhou. Guan wares found at the Jiaotanxia (Altar of Heaven) kiln site shows the evidence that these wares at first followed the northern tradition, and of somewhat later wares that have a characteristically thin dark stoneware body bearing many layers of a lustrous bluish-grey-green glaze of striking quality, in which a pattern of crackle lines was often induced, in an effect thought to recall the qualities of antiques jade.7)

The jade-like crackled lustrous bluish-grey-green glaze on southern Song celadon vessels were not difficult for Longquan potters of later dynasties at Jingdezhen to imitate it but there was no the dark iron body being successful copied. From Ming to Qing dynasties, the Song Guan vase fired in one of five famous Song dynasty kiln sites was appreciated as a golden treasure for emperors. The presence of Guan vase of Jiaotanxia kiln from the Southern Song dynasty (1127-1279) made Qianlong Emperor enamored. The emperor avidly collected Guan vase of southern Song as a memorial to congratulate its quality and rarity. In 1742 Qianlong commanded a Superintendent of Jingdezhen kiln, Tang Ying, to make a type of hanging vase suitable for a sedan chair, with emperor’s poem inscribed on it, “Guan ware and those of Ruzhou are famous classes of ceramics. Yet the shapes of the new vases are even more admirable.”8)

The current Guan vase is one of Trompe l’oeil ceramic samples that likely was created in the later stage of Southern Song period for Emperor as his dedication to the important overseas patrons or the Chinese highly educated scholar-officials, the ruling elite of the Southern Song (1127-1279 AD). The current vase exhibits an exceptional quality of Guan ware that might be expected as a vessel intended for later imperial appreciation. Compared to other ‘Guan’ vases of Southern Song dynasty, the current piece executed with design on molded-motif flanked with handle rings, is perhaps the most desirable and certainly one of the rarest types of Chinese ‘Guan’ ceramics. This vase ascertains potters of Southern Song dynasty at the height of their acumen, technical know-how and aesthetic vision at that time.

Guan ware of Southern Song dynasty is a critical issue in study of Chinese ceramics the remains a great mystery debated for centuries because of different interpretations of historical and limitations of archaeological excavations. Finally, Jiaotanxia Guanyao kiln in the suburbs of Hangzhou firstly was discovered in 1930, and completely was excavated between 1984 and 1986. Guan fluted vases coated with bluish celadon glaze, dated to Southern Song period in 12th-13th century A.D, were found in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province. For examples, a Guan fluted vase excavated from a hoard in Suining, Sichuan province.9) (see fig. 2) Another was excavated in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province (see fig. 3).10)

The existence of Guanyao of Southern Song period is not separated with its historical dynasty in full of turmoil in the 12th century. The Song imperial kilns were divided into separate dynasties after Han Chinese Song dynasty (960 – 1279) lost its northern China territories to Jurchen of Jin Dynasty (1115 – 1234) during the Jin-Song Wars between from 1115 to 1127 AD. The Emperor Huizong of Han Chinese Song dynasty (1100–1126) accompanied by one of his sons “Gaozong” and his loyal supporters escaped to the south and then established the Southern Song dynasty at a new capital at Hangzhou, Zhejiang province. The loss of half of northern territory and shifting of the capital marked the division of the dynasty into two distinct periods: the Northern Song (960-1127) and the Southern Song (1127-1279). As the first ruler of Southern Song dynasty, Emperor Gaozong, a son of Emperor Huizong, established Jiaotanxia official kiln (Suburban Altar) in Hangzhou region.

Since its loss of access to Northern kilns to create aesthetic elements of ceramics, the Emperor Gaozong (1127-1162 AD) was a first initiative taker to produce official Guan wares following the features of Northern wares. In the early period, the kiln produced Guayao commonly characterized with their thick body and thick glaze. Thus, modelled in elegant form coated with thin glaze and body by enhancing a subtly-colored monochrome lustrous bluish-celadon glaze, the present Guan vase was produced at Jiaotanxia kiln of Hangzhou region in later period that reflected the impact of Southern Song period (1127–1279) interest in antiquarianism among literati. Compared to other Guan vases of Jiaotanxia kiln published, the shape and moulded with a wide band of scrolling peonies design around the body like the current Southern Song ‘Guan’ vase is rarely seen in the renowned museums and publications.

After five decades of sporadic warfare, Southern Song dynasty was conquered by Kublai Khan’s troops in 1279. Kublai Khan quickly led to a reunification of Southern and Northern kilns under the Yuan dynasty (1271–1368). The attainments of Southern Song Guan ceramics attracted the attention of the Yuan potters in creating the monochrome celadon wares at Longquan kiln in Zhejiang province. The Longquan potters of Yuan dynasty resumed and inherited the highly valued shape and design of Guan ware deriving from Southern Song dynasty (1127-1279), like the present vase. For example, two closely related shape and design on Longquan celadon vase dated to Yuan dynasty appear to have been published, one in the Zhejiang Provincial Museum,11) another is in the National Museum of Korea.12) Compare a closely shape to a Yuan ring-handled vase coated with bluish-tinged Longquan celadon glaze, sold at Sotheby’s Hong Kong, 8th October 2013, lot. 3010 for HK$ 1,120,000, initially estimated between HK$ 800,000 – HK$ 1,200,000 (see fig. 4). See a similar shape and design to a Longquan celadon vase sold at Christie’s New York, 19th March 2009, lot. 707 (see fig. 5). In addition, compare with two undecorated Longquan vases of the present form but with flattened ribbed handles dated to the 13th/14th century, one is from the Topkapi Saray Museum, Istanbul,13) another is from the Metropolitan Museum, New York.14) See the similar shape and design of Longquan’ bottle vase, dated to Yuan period, sold at Sotheby’s London, 10th November 2010 (26 cm in height) sold for GBP 121,500, initially estimated between GBP 20,000 – GBP 30,000 (see fig. 6).

Most Guan yao wares of Southern Song dynasty are undecorated and they rely on aesthetic form resembling the archaic bronze shape coated with a wide range of different bluish-celadon glaze hue. Though Guan vase softly molded with a scrolling peony like on the present ‘Guan yao’ vase is rarely published, but the lustrous bluish-celadon glaze on the present piece is seen on different Guan vase. See an octagonal ‘Guan yao’ vase in archaic form with similar lustrous bluish-celadon glaze (21.9 cm in height), sold at Sotheby’s Hong Kong, 7th April 2015, lot. 1, for HK$ 113,880,000 or equivalent to US$ 13,500,000 (see fig. 7).


    1. 李庆新 (Li Qingqin), 海上丝绸之路英 (Maritime Silk Road), Translated by William W. Wang, China International Press, 2006, 87.

    2. Zou Lei, The Political Economy of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, Shanghai Administration Institute, Translated by Zhang Zhiping, World Scientific, Singapore, 2018, p. 33.

    3. Marsha Ackerman-Schroeder-Terry-Hwa Lo-Mark, Encyclopedia of World History, The Ancient World: Prehistoric to 600 C.E, Facts on File Publishing Ltd, New York, 2008, p. 375.

    4. Chen Nianyi, Lu Wencong and Yang Jie, Support Vector Machine In Chemistry, World Scientific Publishing Singapore, 2004, 245.

    5. Lili Fang, Chinese Ceramics, Cambridge University Press, New York, 2011, p. 66.

    6. Exhibition: Southern Song Xiuneisi Guan Ware. Archaeological Findings from the Kiln site at Laohudong, Hangzhou, Museum of Oriental Ceramics, Osaka, 2010, cat. no. 05.

    7. John Ayer, Chinese Ceramic in The Baur Collection, Vol.1, Geneva, 1999, p. 76.

    8. Robert Finlay, Pilgrim Art: Cultures of Porcelain in World History, University of California, 2010, pp. 120-121.

    9. Newly Discovered Southern Song Ceramics: A Thirteenth-Century “Time Capsule,” Tokyo, 1998, pl. 16, p. 2

    10. Ma Yizhao, Nan Song Hangzhou Xiuneisi guanyao yanjiu, Hangzhou, 2006, pl. 112, p.

    11. Zhu Boqian, Longquanyao Qingci (Celadons from Longquan Kilns), Taipei, 1998, pl. 156.

    12. Ye Peilan, Yuandai ciqi [Yuan dynasty porcelain], National Museum of Korea, Beijing, 1998, pl. 454

    13. Chinese Ceramics in the Topkapi Saray Museum, London, 1986, pp. 220-221, nos. 200 and 201.

    14. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, The World’s Great Collections Oriental Ceramics vol. 12, fig. 63.

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