Museum Dictionary

The "Secret Colored" Celedon Ewer

Take a look at the photograph below. It is of a ceramic pitcher, or "ewer," that was dug up by accident more than fifty years ago from a tea field in Uji City, south of Kyoto, in an area called Kanakusahara, Kowata.

  • Celadon Ewer Yuezhou ware
    Celadon Ewer Yuezhou ware
    Height: 21.8 cm
    Mouth diameter: 9.5 cm
    Base diameter: 8.0 cm
    China, Five Dynasties-Song Dynasty (10th Century)
    Excavation site: Uji, Kyoto
    Important Cultural Property

It is common to find ceramic fragments, or shards, when digging in an excavation site, but it is extremely rare to find a piece of pottery in perfect condition! Why? Because in most cases pots and dishes are thrown out only after they are broken, and over time, these broken pieces are buried naturally. People didn't usually throw out pots that could still be used. This ewer however, was buried without a crack! This suggests that it was not thrown out, but purposely buried whole! But why would anyone want to bury a perfectly good ewer like this?

One hint to this mystery may come from the place it was found, in Kowata, Uji. This just so happens to be the very spot upon which a temple called Jomyo-ji once stood. Jomyo-ji was built in 1005 by a very famous top aristocrat (regent) of Japan, named Fujiwara Michinaga, to serve as his family temple and hold his family's graves. This means that the whole family, including Michinaga himself, was buried in this spot. With this fact in mind, it seems likely that this ewer was buried together with the body or the ashes of one of the family members! Even today, people are sometimes buried together with objects that were important to them during their lives, so this seems a very plausible explanation to our mystery.

Now, Fujiwara Michinaga was a leader during the cultural and political peak of the Fujiwara family, in the mid-Heian Period. If this ewer was important enough to Michinaga or someone in his family that he or she was buried with it, then it must have been a very valuable item!

If the above explanation is true, the next question is what made this ewer so special? Well, to start with, the color, shape and firing of this piece suggest that it was made, not in Japan, but in China, in a ceramic center called Yuezhou, in Zhejiang Province. It seems to have been made in the second half to the 9th Century, in China's Five Dynasties or Northern Sung Dynasty. Actually, there is an ewer very similar to this in the Palace Museum in Bejing.

This ewer was then carried all the way to Japan from China, a difficult feat! These days it takes only a few hours to fly to China from Japan, but in the past, a trip to China and back could take months! That means that this ewer must have been extremely rare in Japan in those days! Even now, though there are thousands of excavation sites across Japan, we almost never dig up pieces of Yuezhou ware pottery. A few pieces have been found in excavations of the ancient Heian-kyo capital, but even then, they are found only in villas owned by the Emperor or high-ranking court aristocrats. Yuezhou ware ceramics must have been owned only by an elite few!

The Heian Period produced many famous works of literature. In some of these famous novels, such as The Tale of Genji (Genji Monogatari) or The Tale of the Hollow Tree (Utsubo Monogatari) there is a mysterious sounding word, hisoku, which means "the secret color!" What kind of beautiful color could get such a name?

Actually the answer to this question is given to us in a source from a bit later in history. In the 14th Century, a book of notes on The Tale of Genji called The Ocean River Commentary (Kakaisho) came out with the following explanation for "the secret color:"

The secret color is that of ceramics, those brought
from Yuezhou. Their emerald blue color is
especially sophisticated.

Thus the "secret color" is the color of ceramics brought to Japan from the Yuezhou kiln in China, just like this ewer! Considering that The Tale of Genji and The Tale of the Hollow Tree were written at almost the same time this ewer was owned by the Fujiwara family, it is very possible that the word "secret color" referred to the color of an ewer just like this!

Text by Yoshihiro Ono, Department of Applied Arts
English Translation by Melissa M. Rinne, Department of Archives

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