The Five Famous Kilns of Chinese Porcelain

 Coveted by collectors for hundreds of years, Chinese porcelain is admired for its exceptional beauty and quality. While individual styles such as Famille Rose or Celadon ware are highly distinctive due to pattern, shape or colour, the hue and lustre of Chinese porcelain glazes are also the product of individual kiln sites. Several of these sites gained fame for their outstanding innovation, particularly during the Song Dynasty. The most notable of these have come to be known as The Five Famous Kilns of Chinese Porcelain.


Beautiful blue and white Chinese vases in dim lighting in a museum case | Photo Unsplash Loes Klinker

Chinese Porcelain & The Five Famous Kilns

China first produced pottery in the prehistoric era, with advances in moulding, firing and glazing gradually leading to the development of fine Chinese porcelain as we know it today. While a rougher form of porcelain first appeared in the Shang Dynasty, the first definitive porcelain was produced in the Eastern Han Dynasty (100-200 CE).

Techniques were refined during the Tang Dynasty (618-906), with extraordinary quality reached by the Song Dynasty (960-1279). During the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) Jingdezhen became the most important production site in the country, producing stunning blue and white Imperial Porcelain for both local and export markets.

While Chinese porcelain has an astounding breadth of variety, UNESCO describes “four great porcelains” – blue and white porcelain, blue and white rice pattern porcelain, powder doped colour decorated porcelain and coloured glaze porcelain. Other notable types include statuary porcelain, eggshell porcelain and five-colour porcelain.

The exceptional quality of porcelain attained during the Song Dynasty was the result of innovations at a number of kiln sites. The most notable of these have been christened the Five Famous Kilns. Also called The Five Great Kilns, the sites included Ru kiln, Guan kiln, Ge kiln, Ding kiln and Jun kiln – and each that their own stylistic trademarks.

Pictured: Blue and white Chinese porcelain vases | Photo Unsplash/Loes Klinker


A product of the most revered of the Five Famous Kilns, Ru Ware is a rare and valuable glazed celadon produced from around 1085–1125. Only 60 intact pieces were known before Ru kiln was excavated in Henan province in 1987 (it had been discovered in 1950), when around 20 more intact items were unearthed alongside shards and fragments.

Ru ware is delicate and elegantly shaped with a cloudy and thick glaze, generally pale blue or green and sometimes with a mauve tinge. The surface is undecorated and typically features a fine, irregular network of cracks.

Ru ware was created exclusively for the imperial court and the texture was intended to resemble jade, a symbol of the emperor’s power. When the region was invaded by the neighbouring Jin dynasty armies in 1127, the kiln site was completely destroyed.

In 2017, a rare Ru guanyao brush washer broke the world record for the most expensive piece of Chinese porcelain every sold. Auctioned by Sotheby’s Hong Kong, the beautiful dish in near perfect condition (pictured) sold for HK$294.3 million (AUD$56.7 million).

A Tall Chinese Guan Ware Celadon Cong Vase, Early Qing DynastyGuan Kiln

Around 1127, the Song royal court relocated from northern China to (now) Hangzhou and Guan kilns were established nearby to service the imperial court. Scholars have located one of the official kilns, Jiaotan, near Wugui Shan (Tortoise Hill). Guan celadon was so highly regarded that production continued into the Ming Dynasty, and it is one of the most imitated styles of Chinese porcelain.

Guan ware is typically very fine with a thick glaze applied over multiple coats and sometimes a brown wash. Glazes were more colourful than Ru ware, varying from pale green to lavender blue, browns and greys. The porcelain is distinguished by brown or black crack lines over the body, and vessels often featured lobed rims.

The most coveted Guan ware features a pale blue glaze with wide spaced cracks, but collectors also look to the green guan ware with denser crackle, and a pale brown version with very small crackle.

Pictured: A Tall Chinese Guan Ware Celadon Cong Vase, Early Qing Dynasty

A Fine Chinese "Ge" Ware Flower Shaped Bowl With Black & Brown CraquelureGe Kiln

While the precise location of Ge kiln is unknown, scholars suggest it was likely located in Zhejiang province and it is thought to have been named after the elder brother of the director of the Longquan kiln.

Ge ware is similar to Guan ware, with a fine network or cracks covering the surface, however glazes are paler whilst the crackle lines tend to be darker. Glazes include a pale bluish-white, grey and soft greenish yellow, and vessels include tripod bowls and fish-handled vases.

Ge ware has an interesting distinction in that it contains two sets of crackle. The surface glaze often features dark crackle lines, with finer golden brown crackle deeper within the glaze. This feature is known in Chinese as jinsi tiexian, which translates as ‘gold thread and iron wire’.

Pictured: A Fine Chinese “Ge” Ware Flower Shaped Bowl with Black & Brown Craquelure

A Chinese Ding Ware Bowl Depicting Central Incised Floral Sprays With Transparent Glaze, 12th CenturyDing Kiln

Ding ware was produced during the Song dynasty at Dingzhou (in present Quyang Xian, Hebei province) and near Jingdezhen, after the imperial court’s move south in 1127.

While some Ding ware was originally produced in black, red, brown, gold, and green, few of these examples exist today. The Ding ware usually found in collections is a beautiful white, the colour made possible with the advent of coal firing (glazes previously produced with a wood fire tended to have a soft blue tinge).

Ding ware is easily identifiable thanks to its decoration, with could be incised, impressed, or carved, and which included images such as the phoenix, lilies or peonies.

The most important types of Ding ware are bai Ding (“white” Ding), fen Ding (“flour” Ding), and tu Ding (“earthen” Ding), with vessels including bowls, cups, and dishes. As Ding ware was fired upside down, many examples feature an unglazed rim with a rough clay texture that was originally covered with a metal band. While these wares were seen as too unfinished for the royal household, they found admirers among wealthy Chinese merchants, and are equally prized today.

Pictured: A Chinese Ding Ware Bowl Depicting Central Incised Floral Sprays with Transparent Glaze, 12th Century

Chinese Jun Ware Gu Shaped Vase with Purple Splash to BodyJun Kiln

The Jun kiln was another imperial kiln, producing wares for the royal court during the Huizong reign of the Song dynasty. Production continued through the Yuan and Ming dynasties, with Jun techniques adopted by kilns in the Henan, Hebei and Shanxi provinces.

Early examples of Jun Ware were made with lime, which separated from the silica during firing to create multiple layers of colour and tiny bubbles in the surface. This helped give the wares – usually in pale greyish blues – an opalescent texture that paired beautifully with the fine crackle.

Later techniques introduced copper oxide on top of the light blue glaze resulting in stunning deep plums, sometimes mottled with purple or crimson. Another variety featured a vibrant flambe glaze, generally seen in shallow dishes, small boxes and larger pots for flowers or plants.

Pictured: A Chinese Jun Ware Gu Shaped Vase with Purple Splash to Body

A Large Longquan Celadon Glazed 'Double- Fish' Dish, Southern Song-Yuan DynastyA History of Important Kiln Sites

While the Famous Five Kilns are the most notable, Chinese creators produced porcelain the length and breadth of the country, and kilns ranged from modest examples in rural areas, to large-scale urban sites.

According to UNESCO, there are 188 historic kiln sites in China, with important sites across the Yongun-ni, Kyeyul-li, Sadang-ni and Sudong-ni of Kangjin-gun regions. One of the most notable for scholars is the Imperial Kiln Site of Jingdezhen which operated during the Ming and Qing dynasties, while Longquan kiln in the coastal province of Zhejian is often listed alongside the Famous Five, it’s deep blue-green celadon ware recognisable the world over.

It’s interesting to note that different kiln sites specialising in the same types of wares had distinct variations in shape and glaze, while the output of the same kiln could also transform over the years. Dehua kilns in in the Fujian province for example – known for its Blanc de Chine (“White from China”) ceramics – produced creamy glazes in the 17th century, that by the 19th century were closer to ivory.

With the rise of blue and white porcelain in the Ming Dynasty, the ceramics produced by the Five Famous Kilns were for a while, overshadowed. Today however, collectors regularly seek out the beautiful, rare and interesting ceramics of the Five Famous Kilns.

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Pictured: A Large Chinese Longquan Celadon Charger Depicting Central Incised Lotus Motifs & Ribbed Detail to Inner Cavetto, Early Ming