The Study of Liao Ceramics

Mok, Kar Leung Harold 莫家良
Supervisor: Prof. H.Y. Shih

Established by the Qidan, the Liao Dynasty was a period strongly marked by its nomadic customs. However, Chinese cultural elements were constantly infiltrating into the Liao society. As a result, Liao culture was in fact dualistic: Qidan and Chinese. This very unique feature is very often reflected in Liao ceramics.

Recent excavations showed that pre-Liao Qidan ceramics are relatively rough and primitive. Vessel forms are limited in variety and without any application of glaze. The rise and development of Liao ceramics were largely effected by more advanced techniques brought north by Chinese potters originated in Hebei and Henan. Many Liao ceramics, therefore, have characteristics that can be traced back to a Tang tradition as well as echoing a Song style. In addition, ceramic techniques of the Bohai kingdom, which was destroyed by the Qidan in the very early tenth century, had also exerted influence on Liao ceramics, particularly low-fired lead-glazed ware.

A number of Liao kiln sites have been discovered. They are situated at or near the five Liao capitals. Investigations made on these kiln sites made it clear that the Liao had inherited and assimilated many techniques employed in Tang and Song kilns. The most important Liao kilns are the Gangwayaocun kiln at Chifeng and the Longquanwu kiln at Beijing. Most of the ceramic pieces excavated in Liaoning, Inner Mongolia and Hebei can be attributed to them.

The pecularity of Liao ceramics of having two traditions — Qidan and Chinese — is most markedly revealed in vessel types. Simple forms, such as bowls, dishes, jars, etc., are clearly Chinese. Others, such as pilgrim flasks, dish-mouthed vases and ewers, lugged vases, phoenix-head vases, dishes of eccentric shape, etc., however, show a more unique Liao taste. Many of them were derived from non-ceramic medium — leather and metal.

Decorative motifs of Liao ceramics are not great in number. The peony occupies the most important position, while others include lotus, scrolling vines, butterflies, fish, phoenixes, etc. Liao designs were very often symmetrically arranged of evenly spaced, giving rise to a relatively stiff effect. The general impression is simple and plain, which is very different from the delicacy of most of its Song counterparts. An innovative Liao decorative technique seems to be the type with a quick incision through a white slip and an additional black glaze painted on the ground.

With the help of unearthed materials from dated or roughly datable Liao remains, it is possible to classified Liao ceramics under three different stages of development: the Early Liao, the Middle Liao and the Late Liao. Moreover, some problems related to Liao ceramics can also be solved. Liao kilns did produce guan and xinguan-marked white wares while some low-fired lead-glazed wares that had often been placed in the repertory of Liao ceramics need to be reattrinuted.

The Liao-Jin life-sized Lohen figures in three-coloured glaze are not discussed herewith in this thesis.