Jian Zhan? Tenmuko? A little history about Jian Zhan, Jian Yao

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Jian Zhan? Tenmuko? A little history about Jian Zhan, Jian Yao

Jian Zhan originated from Jianyang District, Nanping City, Fujian Province, and is regarded as the representative of black porcelain, one of the eight famous porcelains during the Song Dynasty (960-1279). It enjoys the reputation of "The Pearl of Porcelain Altar." Per relevant historical records, Jian Zhan production started at the end of the late Tang Dynasty and the Five Dynasties, reached its peak in the Song Dynasty, and has gradually declined since the early Yuan Dynasty. Quality products made by Jian Kiln (Jian Yao 建窑) were exclusively used by the Royal Court and then spread abroad, it was named “Tenmuko” in Japan. 

Identifying the Song Dynasty as the heyday of Jianzhan is closely associated with the popularity of the Tea Fight. As for the so-called Tea Fight, it was designed to compare the merits and demerits of tea. First, by observing the color of the tea soup, and then observing the tea foam. Everyone at that time enjoyed this activity, from the emperor to the ordinaries. The Tea Fight was derived from the unique tea culture of the Song Dynasty. What distinguishes making tea in modern times, and brewing tea during the Tang Dynasty is that the tea leaves was ground into powder. When you pour water, you must stir the tea with the tea bowl to create ripples.

The people of the Song Dynasty preferred using white tea in Tea Fights, and white tea was traditionally regarded as top grade. (White tea of Song was not the same white tea we have today, it was a rare type of white leafed green tea.) Creating the best effect in a Tea Fight needs not only good tea but also requires suitable tea bowls. Jian Zhan is a black porcelain bowl, it creates a sharp contrast between black and white, thereby making the best Tea Fight effects. Moreover, the tea bowl has a big opening on the top, with a thick body, and it can accommodate more of the tea foam, regulate temperature, and help to keep the tea warm.


Jian Zhan became the best utensil for a Tea Fight at that time due to its suitable characters. It was deemed a treasure from the imperial family to the ordinaries梅尧臣 Mei YaoChen, the originator of the Song poetry, 苏轼 Su Shi, the generation of literary giants, and the graceful and elegant emperor 宋徽宗 Song HuiZong, were all obsessed with Jian Zhan, and they even praised it with beautiful poetries. Jian Zhan thus emerged as the royal tea bowls for the royal court, the worth of Jian Zhan was doubled, even tripled.

宋徽宗 Song Hui Zong

Jian Zhan prevailed and drove the production of Jian kilns. "One color in the kiln and thousands of colors out of the kiln" is the biggest charm of the Jian kiln production. As precious as the black Jian Zhan is, it is not the same as black, but its features change in the black. It contains different patterns like Rabbit Hair, Oil Drop, Partridge Spot, Yao Bian, and other Multiple-Colors. Each Jian Zhan is characterized by its uniqueness. The temperature, humidity, may vary due to different seasons, weather, kiln, and kiln location, so even if the same raw material is used, the finished Jian Zhan product will be different and uniqueJian Zhan features its style with a strong oriental artistic color. At that time, it enjoyed equal popularity with celadon and white porcelain. It was the most unique and influential ceramic during the Song Dynasty. The entire northern Fujian region, Fujian, the whole country, and even Japan have integrated the same pattern into production.

Raw glazed Jian Zhan waiting to be fired.


However, during the Southern Song Dynasty, the country was in a state of decline. The Tea Fight trend gradually disappeared. Since the Yuan Dynasty, people simplified tea-brewing methods, the "lost power" of Tea Fight and Tea-making made Jian Zhan lost its charm due to its inability to adapt to the needs of society. The formerly favored Jian Zhan quietly retreated in history. 

Going Global from the Sea Route

Starting from Jianyang City, it only takes over half an hour to drive to 水吉 ShuiJi Town, a millennial ancient town. The Jian Kiln site is located next to 后井村 HouJing Village, ShuiJi 水吉镇 Town, with a total area of about 126,000 m2, which is distributed in an annular shape in 芦花坪 LuHuaPing, 牛皮仑 NiuPiLun, 大路后门 DaLuHouMen and 营长乾 YingChangQian (including 圆头坑 YuanTouKeng), etc.

In the ruins, a 135.6-meter-long kiln is hidden among the mountains and forests, making it particularly conspicuous. Around it, the residual broken saggers used for firing porcelain can be found everywhere. This is China's longest ancient Dragon Kiln.

In 2001, the Jian Kiln Site became the fifth group of the key heritage sites under state protection. According to 刘寒 Liu Han, the director of the Publicity Department of the JianYang District Committee, the Jian Kiln Site is a precious cultural heritage that cannot be copied and is also the root of Jian Zhan cultural inheritance and development. 

Thousands of years ago, Jian Zhan became a special cultural carrier of society. It was also designated as a royal tea ware for the royal court of tribute and sold overseas in large quantities by the Maritime Silk Road, and quickly became a favorite in China's foreign trade and cultural exchanges.

Fujian is the origin and an important hub of the Maritime Silk Road. Jian Zhan was sold in large quantities to overseas markets like East Asia and Southeast Asia based on the rapidly advanced Quanzhou Port and Fuzhou Port. During the Song and Yuan Dynasties, the development of the Maritime Silk Road entered its peak stage. As one of China's assets, Jian Zhan became an important export commodity of China at that time. Especially during the Southern Song Dynasty, the Chinese government encouraged merchants to conduct export. To prevent money outflow, it stipulated that all foreign goods should not be exchanged for gold, silver, or copper, except porcelain and silk. Therefore, export sales of Jian Zhan during this period were even higher.

Japan was the first to appreciate the charm of the Jian Zhan. Early in the 13th century, Japanese monks came to the JingShan Temple of TianMu Mountain 天目山 in 临安 Lin'an, Zhejiang Province to study Buddhism. He returned to Japan with a batch of black-glazed tea bowls (namely, Jian Zhan), and showed the way to drink tea to the Japanese. When people asked the name of these tea bowl, he named it after the mountain “Tenmoku” (TianMu 天目) Hereafter, "Tenmoku” gradually evolved into the Japanese collective name for Jian Zhan. As the Chinese tea ceremony spread and advanced in Japan with the Jian Zhan market constantly expanding in Japan, Jian Zhan was favored by people in Japan and has been regarded as a treasure among all tea wares ever since.

According to Japanese documents published in the 16th century: "YaoBian Jian Zhan (Yohen Tenmoku), a supreme product, is worthy of ten thousand rolls of silk; Oil Drop Jian Zhan, the second most precious treasure, is worthy of five thousand rolls of silk; and Rabbit Hair Jian Zhan is worthy of three thousand rolls of silk." The three types of Jian Zhan were equivalent to over 700 kg, 360 kg, and 210 kg of gold, which shows how precious Jian Zhan was in Japan at that time.

Rabbit Hair of Song Dynasty 

Up to now, among the national treasure-class cultural relics recognized by the Japanese officials, eight of them are Chinese porcelain, four of which are Jian Zhan from the Song Dynasty (including 3 pieces of  YaoBian from the Song Dynasty, which are the only ones of this kind are existing in the world). Each Yao Bian Tenmoku is in Kyoto, Osaka and Tokyo. A YaoBian Tenmoku is priced for 168,000 JPY (approx. $1,530) in 1918, which is equivalent to current monetary value of 1,700,000,000 JPY (approx. $15.5 millions)!

 One of the only 3 Yao Bian in the world


The only Yao Bian piece found in China, Hang Zhou 

Professor James Marshall Plumer of the University of Michigan in the United States is the first person to discover and investigate Jian Zhan in the west. Westerners realized the precious and artistic nature of Jian Zhan, which roughly started from his investigation of the Jian Kiln Site. In 1935, James Marshall Plumer went to Shuiji Town to investigate the Jian Kiln Site, hired local villagers to excavate numerous Jian Zhan, and shipped them back to the United States for research. Two years later, he published his investigation and research results, which attracted many academics and collectors from Europe, North America, Australia, and other regions. These people also began to study Jian Zhan and collected Jian Zhan for exhibition and transaction

At present, the world's largest museums, such as the Tokyo National Museum in Japan, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the United States, and the British Museum in the United Kingdom all have collections of Jian Zhan.


Reborn of Jian Zhan

From the 1960s to the 1970s, Xiamen University, Fujian Museum, and the Jianyang County Cultural Center jointly conducted archaeological excavations on the Jian Kiln Site. As the archaeological excavations advanced, the Jian Zhan firing technic lost in the historical trend was recovered, and the road to Jian Zhan's revival was in motion.

In 1979, the Central Institute of Arts and Crafts, Fujian Provincial Science and Technology Commission, Fujian Institute of Light Industry, and Jianyang Porcelain Factory jointly established a research team, to conduct antique Jian Zhan experiments. The main personnel participating in the restoration technology of the Jian Zhan were: 刘唐慎 Liu TangShen, 陈大鹏 Chen DaPeng, 孙建兴 Sun JianXing, 许家有 Xu JiaYou, 李达Li Da, 曾藤浦Zeng TengPu, et al, who developed an imitated “Rabbit Hair” of the Song Dynasty in 1981, which brought back the brilliance of Jian Zhan's firing technic that had been lost for over 700 years.


In 2011, the firing technic of Jian Kiln was included in the third group of the National Intangible Cultural Heritage List.

In 2015, "Jianyang Jian Zhan" emerged as a National Geographical Indication Trademark.

In 2016, Jian Zhan was approved as a national geographical indication protection ware.

In 2016, A piece of Jian Zhan from the Song Dynasty was sold for USD 11.7 million, at Christie's New York, setting the highest price for Jian Zhan.

In 2017, Jianyang was awarded the honorary title of "China's Capital of Jian Zhan." 

In 2017, at the Fujian Nanping Jian Zhan Auction, the Jian Zhan of “A Thousand Mountains 万山可染” made by 李细妹 Li Ximei, set a new high for modern Jian Zhan ofMillion USD.

“万山可染” "A Thousand Mountains" The Only piece in the world - 李细妹

李细妹 Li Xi Mei

Jian Zhan, as one of the eight famous porcelains in the Song Dynasty, is the representative of black porcelain. It requires an extremely highly-skilled firing technic and it embodies the profound Chinese culture.

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