Long before direct trade with Europe, large kiln sites in northern and southern China were producing glazed porcelain and stoneware in various shades of blue, green and white. Some of the most famous of these include qingbai (‘green-white’), a translucent porcelain with a bluish-green glaze, and celadon, a type of porcelain or stoneware with an olive-green glaze that takes its name from a character with a distinctive green dress in French literature. Some scholars prefer the term ‘greenware’ for these ceramics to avoid using arbitrary Western nomenclature.

Similar in colour to valuable jade, they were among the most highly regarded ceramics in China. They also were exported to East Asia, Southeast Asia and the Islamic world—in the latter, celadon was thought to break or change colour if touched by poison. They were especially valued in regions within China’s sphere of cultural and political influence, such as Korea, where refined Chinese celadon brought to the imperial court was seen as the pinnacle of ceramic artistry. In Japan, celadon became the favoured material for utensils and decorative objects used in the Japanese tea ceremony during the Kamakura period (1185–1333), forming part of the fashion for karamono (‘Chinese things’).

Greenwares were never sent to Europe in significant numbers, and the rare examples that did arrive were typically diplomatic gifts from rulers in the Islamic world. This absence was the result of changing fashions in China, and Europe’s relatively late entry into the trade, with blue-and-white porcelain overtaking monochrome ceramics in popularity by the fourteenth century.  

Exhibition Highlights

Bowl | China, Southern Song dynasty (1127–1279)
Funerary jar | Longquan, China, Southern Song dynasty (1127–1279)
Ewer | Korea, Goryeo dynasty (918–1392)
Covered jar | Northern Vietnam, 14th century | © [Asian Civilisations Museum](