Retrieved Treasure - Jian Zhan

What is Jian Zhan

Jian Zhan is a type of Chinese porcelains, recognised by the dark iron body and famous for its uniqueness and irresistible glazing patterns. Jian Zhan or Jian ware was originated in the Tang Dynasty of ancient China, and the crafting technique was listed on the National Intangible Cultural Heritage of China in 2011.  

An antique Jian Zhan collected in the Palace Museum in Beijing. Image source:

An antique Jian Zhan collected in the Palace Museum in Beijing. Image source:

Jian Zhan was named after its place of origin and use. 

jiàn” stands for a region named Jianzhou in the Tang and Song Dynasty. Now, it is called Jianyang, a district of Nanping, northern Fujian province. Jianyang is the only place that produces Jian Zhan or Jian ware because of the unique clay and glaze material that sourced locally. 

zhǎn” means teacup or tea bowl (chawan). The majority of Jian kilns’ products are teacups, so Jian ware is commonly known as Jian Zhan. Nowadays, some craftsmen produce other porcelain ware in Jian kilns, like vases. 

An antique Jian Zhan collected and displayed in the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne. Image source:

An antique Jian Zhan collected and displayed in the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne. Image source:

The Origin

Jian Zhan was created in the Tang Dynasty and flourished during the Song Dynasty (960-1279), both on technique and popularity. During the Song Dynasty, tea competition (dou cha) was a prevalent tea culture and a leisure activity that the whole country enjoyed. Tea leaves were ground into powder and put in a tea bowl and whisked with a small amount of hot water (pointing tea technique), the colour of the froth was to decide the winner.

Dou cha or tea competition. Image source: “Cha Lu” (1049)

Dou cha or tea competition. Image source: “Cha Lu” (1049)

Because the best quality tea and good pointing tea techniques resulted in a white-colour froth, so a dark colour tea ware was deemed ideal for this particular activity. The massive production of Jian ware emerged as this need. The dark body and glaze are the best for froth observation; the convergent shape effectively preserves the warmth of tea liquor; the high iron content helps soften the texture of water. These are why Jian Zhan is still deemed the best tea ware to enjoy tea even in modern days. 

Pointing tea. Image source:

Pointing tea. Image source:

Dou cha culture, Jian Zhan and the crafting technique spread to Japan in the Song Dynasty and now are known as Tenmoku tea ware and matcha. Though the crafting methods are similar, Jian Zhan and Tenmoku still differentiate each other by the content of the material and the glazing pattern. 

The Lost and the Retrieve

After 300 years of peak time, Jian Zhan’s spotlight faded with the change of tea-drinking habit in the Yuan Dynasty, and what faded together was the crafting technique. In 1979, after some 700 years of no production of Jian kiln, the Chinese government decided to retrieve this unique and lost craft and delegated a team of researchers and porcelain experts to restore this once sophisticated handcraft technique.


No Two Jian Zhan is the Same

Jian Zhan is a romantic encounter of clay and fire. Both the clay body and glaze liquid of Jian Zhan contain high iron content. By interacting with high temperatures of firing above 1350℃, the excessed iron in the glaze is forced out to the surface, which composes various colours and shapes of patterns. The pattern isn’t pre-painted by the craftsman but formed naturally in the kiln. Once the heat is on, the only element that artisans can control is the fire or the temperature. The glaze is transmuted and crystallised in the kiln with oxidisation and reduction reactions, and the result is unpredictable. The unique production process creates the magic of - no two Jian Zhan is the same. 

We can see a variety of glaze patterns with Jian Zhan. The most known patterns are the hare's fur, oil-spot (or partridge feather), and yaobian. After many years of study and experiments on antique Jian Zhan, Jian Zhan artists are now able to craft many other glaze patterns, including grey, floral night, yuzi, etc. Jian Zhan glaze liquid is a combination of Jianyang local clay and wood ash burned from various plants.

Other than the irresistible glaze, the high iron content clay body is another character that makes Jian Zhan special. Jianyang locally sourced clay usually presents in dark colours with hints of yellow, red, or brown. Jian Zhan clay body is rather rough and harsh, so it is deemed stoneware. Jian Zhan are usually in simple shapes, and artists still legacy shapes that are commonly found among the Song antiques. Classic Jian Zhan shapes are restrained shape, close edge shape, open curve edge shape and open straight edge shape.


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