When the Chinese exported loads of blue-and-white porcelain to feed the Western market, they kept the really good stuff to themselves. Ru ware, probably known as the finest ceramics in history, was made exclusively for emperors in the Northern Song Dynasty. It was only produced for about 20 years before the Ru kiln was ruined with the fall of the Northern Song. There are 79 known pieces in recorded history and only 7 of them remain in private hands. In 2012, a rare piece of Ru ware came onto the market and was sold for $207m HKD at Sotheby's.
The most significant characteristic of Ru ware would be its glaze. This monochrome ceramic consisted of a pastel celadon color usually with a crackled glossy surface. The subtleness between blue and green was famously known as "the color of the sky after rain". Its glaze recipe was lost but some said ground agate was added to the mixture. There were several variations of its saturation due to different firing temperatures. From 1050°C to 1200°C, the higher the temperature reached, the deeper the celadon color became as the iron content melted more.
Ru ware was one of the few ceramics that had a full-body glaze. If you are familiar with the process of ceramic making, it is common knowledge that the foot is not supposed to be glazed because it will stick to the kiln shelf as the glaze melts during firing. However, there is always a way to make it work. Craftsmen placed full-body glazed vessels on small spurs to ensure minimum contact between glaze and the shelf. These spur marks on the bottom were called "sesame seed" markings. In this way, maximum glaze could be applied to the vessel. However, it was very easy to fail with this method because ceramics tended to be extremely fragile and unstable when fired to high temperature. If the piece was not well balanced in the kiln, it would tilt during firing and ruin not only itself but also surrounded pieces. Therefore, only a small amount of Ru ware survived. Those which didn't meet the desired color and perfection were smashed and tossed.
Song's fascination with nature and the botanical world could be seen everywhere in art. Although actual details are still under debate, the story was that the emperor of the Northern Song, Huizong, had a dream about the beautiful clear sky after the rain. When he woke up, he ordered his people to make his dream color come true. Eventually, craftsmen in Ruzhou, a small town in middle-east China, successfully made Huizong's desired color. Ru ware was named after this place ever since then. Huizong might not have been a successful emperor (he was captured by his rivals and tortured to death) but he was the biggest patron of art during his rule. His dedication promoted painters and craftsmen to their highest social status in Chinese history. His taste greatly influenced the entire dynasty. Unfortunately, because of Huizong's neglect of his imperial duties, the Northern Song was invaded by its enemies and was forced to flee to south China.
An object does not have any value without its context. Ru ware was precious because of its skillful techniques and rarity. More importantly, it told the story of the rise and fall of an empire. Song was probably the dynasty that achieved the highest level of art in Chinese history. After the Ru kiln was lost, many people attempted to replicate Ru ware but none of them were able to make it as good as the original. It is a shame that we have never been able to recreate Ru ware but the story has been told again and again until it became a legend.
Author: Michele Xiaoyun Fan