A Korean Potter who is Revered as the Father of Earthenware
Below my eyes, houses huddle together like a fine-toothed comb
Steam is rolling up from the kiln
A breeze between pine trees is blowing in from the past
The Yi ancestor strokes the hills of earthenware tenderly
Saburo Kashita, the governor of Saga Prefecture of Japan in 1918, recited this poem while passing the hills of Arita village, where pottery kilns stood close together. Strange to say, the ‘ancestor’ in the poem isn’t a Japanese person but refers to Yi Sam-pyeong, a potter of Joseon.
From Joseon to Japan
The date of birth or hometown of potter Yi Sam-pyeong is unknown, since making pottery was a job of the lowest class of people during the Joseon era.
But it is assumed that Yi was born in Gongju, South Chungcheong Province, based on the fact that some pieces of Joseon-era earthenware that were discovered near Gongju are identical to those of early-stage pottery in the Arita region in Japan. Yi was one of the Joseon potters who was taken to Japan in 1598 by Naoshige Nabeshima, the leader of the Japanese town of Saga who participated in the military campaign to Joseon during the Japanese invasion of Korea in the late 16th century. Nabeshima took a number of talented Joseon potters to Japan to make them ‘living treasures of Japan.’
At the time, Japan actively sought to steal pottery-making skills, as Joseon Korea and the Ming Dynasty of China were the only countries in the world that possessed the most advanced pottery-making talents. It comes as no surprise that the two rounds of Japanese invasions of Korea from 1592 to 1598 are called a ‘war of pottery’ in Japan. Japan brought countless Joseon artisans to Japan, as seen in its instruction to bring potters first among other prisoners of war.
In Japan, Yi worked for Yasutoshi Taku, the son-in-law and retainer of Nabeshima, for years before moving to Arita, Saga Prefecture in Kyushu. There, he set up a kiln.
Brilliant Pottery Culture Flowers
Yi scoured various parts of Japan in search of good-quality white clay, a key element to make fine pottery. In 1616, he discovered magnetite, a material for top-quality pottery, at Izumi Mountain in eastern Arita. With other potters, he set up a kiln in Tengudani and established a pottery-making system, based on the similar principle of today’s division of labor.
The spotless white porcelain Yi produced in Arita contained his sorrow and homesickness. It was Joseon’s white porcelain that highlighted fidelity and purity with bamboo and pine tree patterns.
Impressed by the graceful and dignified porcelain with plaintive sadness, Nabeshima actively supported Yi’s kiln, which turned out to be the first white porcelain kiln in Japan. A number of pottery kilns emerged in the Arita region later, and Yi came to be revered as the father of pottery among Japanese people. But that was only the beginning.
Export of Arita Pottery to the World
Arita pottery did start a revolution in Japanese aesthetic consciousness. Based on Yi’s advanced skills, it developed into blue and white ware, which refers to high-purity white porcelain featuring designs drawn with the blue cobalt pigment, and five-color ware that adopted diverse and gorgeous colors of Ming China. As Japan’s representative pottery, it began to be exported to Europe in 1660, 50 years after its first production, and gained worldwide fame.
Arita pottery spread to all of Europe, with its delicate designs, splendid colors and slender yet solid shape delighting Europeans. After the first export of Arita pottery, about seven million pieces were sold in the ensuing 70 years.
An Arita pottery piece entitled ‘Water Flowing in Mt. Fuji’ won the gold prize at the Paris World Fair in 1900, setting a new milestone in the history of world pottery.
Arita built a monument in honor of the great potter in 1917, the 300th anniversary of the establishment of Yi’s kiln in the region. Since then, an international pottery festival has been held there in May each year.
Yi’s breath is still felt in Arita, where he created world-renowned pottery, longing for his home beyond the sea. The artisan represents the Korean spirit perceived in Japan.