Museum Dictionary

A Three-Layered Food Container with Ten, Noble Flowers Designs

Let's talk about something that you all use everyday, ceramics.
There are two kinds of ceramics: pottery and porcelain, or china. In the Kyoto ceramics world, pottery is called "earthenware" because it is made of clay. But porcelain is made from ground stone, so it is called "stoneware." The stone, magnetite, is ground into a special clay called kaolin. Kaolin clay can then be used to make china.

Porcelain is harder than pottery and is different in appearance. Pottery is often terra-cotta-colored and thick. It is not very hard because it is baked at a lower temperature. If you tap your finger on a piece of pottery, it makes a dull thumping sound. Porcelain, on the other hand, is almost pure white in color, thin and hard, because it is fired at a higher temperature. If you tap it, it makes a clear, sometimes even ringing, sound. What kinds of dishes do you use every day, pottery or china? Or something else?

Look at the picture below of a three-layered box with a lid. It is made of porcelain.

  • Three-Layered Food Container with Ten Noble Plant Designs
    Three-Layered Food Container with Ten Noble Plant Designs (Kyoto National Museum)

Porcelain pieces are often formed on a potter's wheel. Have you ever seen someone throw a pot on a wheel? If you place a lump of clay on the wheel and set the wheel spinning, you can easily use the force of rotation to mold the clay into a bowl, a plate, or anything you like!

This box, however, was made not on a wheel, but by hand. The clay was rolled or pressed out like cookie dough and then cut and fit together as one might put together a wooden box. After being dried in the shade, the box was placed in a kiln and lightly fired at a temperature of 700-800 degrees Celsius. This firing was done before the box was glazed. Next the design was painted onto the hardened clay with "gosu," a blue pigment (mineral coloring) made from cobalt oxide. Then the box was coated with a glaze made from melted glass and fired at a high temperature of 1200-1300 degrees Celsius.

With the final firing, the porcelain clay turned a pure white and the glaze melted to a smooth, translucent finish making the blue pattern underneath visible. This final firing shrinks the size of the piece from ten to fifteen percent. With the second firing, the clay often buckles or warps. The lid to this box warped a little on one corner, so it doesn't fit perfectly on top, but technically speaking this was unavoidable.

This piece has a blue pattern of flowers on a white ground. This type of under-glazed blue pattern is called "sometsuke" (dyed) in Japanese because the blue color resembles indigo, formerly the most common dyestuff in Japan. Scattered among the patterns of ten flowers are the following ten words in Chinese characters: (sacred friend), (distinguished friend), (excellent friend), (lustrous friend), (pure friend), (meditative friend), (hermitic friend), (poetic friend), (elegant friend), (exceptional friend). Can you make out any of these characters in the photos? (Hint: the characters are written in the opposite order as above).

These ten "friends" are actually names that were given to ten flowers in Song Dynasty China, and are a common theme in painting. Here are the ten flowers they represent: sacred friend = lotus flower, distinguished friend = crab apple blossom, excellent friend = chrysanthemum, lustrous friend = peony, pure friend = plum blossom, meditative friend = gardenia, hermitic friend = cassia blossoms, poetic friend = kerria (yellow rose), elegant friend = jasmine, exceptional friend = daphne. These connections may be a little difficult to figure out, but maybe you can understand the following examples. The lotus flower grows in mud but comes up white and pure. It is thus a sacred flower of Buddhism, and is called "sacred friend." The peony has a rich, lustrous appeal, so it is called "lustrous friend."

This covered box was made in the late Edo Period (1600-1868) by a Kyoto artist named Mokubei Aoki (1767-1833). When he was young, Mokubei was very interested in Chinese culture and read many Chinese books about ceramics. As he got older, he grew to become a famous ceramic artist. The name Mokubei has an interesting origin. As a child, Mokubei's name was Yasohachi Aoki, which means "eighty-eight green trees" The characters for "eighty-eight" can be rearranged to form the character for rice. Thus when he became an artist, his artist name Mokubei (which means "tree rice") was formed from the "rice" of his first name and the "tree" of his last name.

Mokubei was an accomplished painter, but he was also known for his creative ingenuity in various fields. For example, he used a mold to mass-produce ceramics for sencha, the Chinese-style tea ceremony. This covered box also has unusual elements. The bottom and middle layers have been divided into five sections on the inside to separate various foods. Dividers in each box are shaped differently, as in the diagram below.


Mokubei's useful and creative ceramic works made him a leader in the world of Kyoto ceramics in the late Edo period. This covered box reveals his skill in harmonizing Chinese designs and Japanese form.

Text by Masahiko Kawahara, Department of Applied Arts
English translation by Melissa M. Rinne, Department of Archives

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