Heralded during the Song Dynasty, the Ding kilns were celebrated as one of the “Five Great Kilns” producing porcelain in ancient China. The site of the kilns was found in present day Quyang County, Hebei Province. At the time of the Song Dynasty, Quyang County was within the Dingzhou region, hence the name Ding kilns. The excavated artefacts found at the site reveal the history of the kilns.
White porcelain was produced in Dingzhou as early as the Tang Dynasty; by the Five Dynasties Period, the Ding kiln business was already booming. After the Northern Song Dynasty, Ding wares were famous for their off-white glazes and exquisite decoration. Porcelain kilns in other areas all strived to imitate Ding porcelain, which became the golden standard of white porcelain in China. Aside from white porcelain, the Ding wares also produced black, crimson and green-glazed porcelains. The variety of glaze colours and production technology was truly astounding for its time.
Early Ding porcelain had a single colour and little to no decoration, however by the late Northern Song Dynasty there were exquisite patterns on porcelain wares, which were engraved, etched, or imprinted. The patterns were precisely laid out, with a clear sense of sections and layers; lines were clean and organised into loose and dense areas.
Popular motifs included waves, fish, animals, birds, flowers and playing children. Of the floral motifs – peonies, lotuses and pomegranates were the most common. Engraved floral decoration was the primary ornamentation in early Song porcelain. Once the technique caught on, it was combined with comb-etched images as a secondary form of decoration. For example, at the centre of a flare-lip dish, the image of a flower was first carved, then with a fine-tooth comb the areas within the outlines if leaves were etched, leaving parallel lines that represent the veins of the leaves. The most popular motifs produced with this technique included the lotus and the peony.
Engravings were usually done with bamboo chips and knives, while comb-etchings were made with a comb tool that produced regular patterns on the body. The combined result was commonly referred to as “bamboo outlines with brushed patterns,” with very tidy and natural looking lines.
Imprinted patterns on Ding porcelain first appeared in the mid-Northern Song Dynasty and matured late in the Dynasty. The patterned decoration was often placed on the insides of plates and bowls. Making imprinted patterns required a mould with engraved patterns, which was pressed to the partially dried surface of the clay body. Most often, the imprinted image had added thickness to create a very special effect of depth when light strikes the object. The motifs and designs were typically borrowed from silk tapestry, as well as gold and silverware produced in the Dingzhou area. This had a notable influence on imprinted design of later generations.
The Song Dynasty Ding kilns produced vessels such as bowls, dishes, jars, cups, cases, vases and pots – all for daily use. One of the most important contributions of the Ding potters was the invention of the inverted firing method. The inherent problem of warping when firing the thin Ding bowls and plates in upright position prompted the potters to look for a solution. The potters devised the method of firing the vessels upside down. To do so, it is necessary to scrape away the glaze on the rim so that they do not stick to the saggar. This method enabled the spreading of the weight of the vessels over a wider area and solved the problem of warped vessels. On the downside, due to a lack of glaze at the mouth of these vessels, the edges felt quite dry and dull.
An added advantage is that it increases production volume. The steps in the saggar enabled more pieces to be placed as compared the method of stacking with the wares facing upward. An interesting change to the footring of the bowls and plates also took place subsequently. During the Jin period, many of the footrings of the bowls/plates became shorter or even totally non-existent. This further increased the stacking space and increased production volume.
Among the Five Great Kilns of the Song Dynasty, Ding kilns are the only ones to produce white porcelain, which made them famous in their time. For a period, the wares were offered as tribute to the Imperial families, but this practice was stopped for an unknown reason. The official reason was that the the vessels lacked glaze at their mouths. However, Ding ware often had extensive gold, silver and copper trimming around the unglazed rim.
Some people speculate that the real reason for the discontinued Ding ware use by the Imperial family was a change in fashion preferences at the time. The white of the Ding porcelain was opaque and bland. In order to counter such drawbacks, the wares were decorated with imprinted or engraved patterns. Compared to the porcelain of the Ge, Guan, Ru and Jun wares, Ding ware contained more man-made ornamentation, which fell short of the ideal of subtle natural beauty in the Song Period. For this reason, Ding ware did not quite capture the imagination of the literati class, and may have even been considered somewhat vulgar in taste and style.