Abstract – Inside and outside, volume and surface, bulk and beauty: The dual identities of container jars in Asia

Inside and outside, volume and surface, bulk and beauty: The dual identities of container jars in Asia

Louise Allison Cort


Container jars were made to do work—to hold, store, and transport merchandise of all sorts. In that essential role as container, their most important feature was their size as it related to a known quantity of contents. Today we tend to assess container jars by their height, but the key factor when the jars were made was a predictable volume. Container jars were measures. A merchant could quickly tally the total amount and value of a shipment by counting the number of jars of known capacity.

Built to be durable, many container jars were used over and over again to move merchandise around the world. By chance, however, some jars on the move arrived in cultures where they were perceived not as standard measures but as rare and exotic vessels. In this guise, they served as ornaments for personal and public spaces. Attention focused on the aesthetic qualities of their form and surface. They became subject to culture-specific sets of standards created to assess and rank the beauty, rarity, and value of jars arriving from elsewhere.

This talk looks at some case studies of the shifting identities of container jars. They will include a Chinese container jar that became a named tea-leaf storage jar in Japan and container jars from diverse sources that became family heirlooms in communities in the Vietnamese central highlands. At the same time, the talk will also acknowledge the circumstances of Asian container jars that travelled long distances but never rose above the status of hard-working vessel­–that did not meet the local criteria for special treatment and appreciation, but continued to serve as containers.


Louise Cort is Curator for Ceramics at the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.  Her interests include historical and contemporary ceramics in Japan, Southeast Asia, and South Asia, Japanese baskets and textiles, and the Japanese arts of tea (chanoyu).


She is the author of Shigaraki, Potters’ Valley, published in 1979 and reprinted in 2000. In 2008 she prepared (with George Ashley Williams IV and David P. Rehfuss) the online catalogue Ceramics in Mainland Southeast Asia: Collections in the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery. Her study on Indian ritual earthenware, Temple Potters of Puri (with Purna Chandra Mishra), was published in 2012. With Andrew M. Watsky, she organized and co-edited Chigusa and the Art of Tea(2014).


In 2012 she received the thirty-third Koyama Fujio Memorial Prize for her research on historical and contemporary Japanese ceramics, and the Smithsonian Distinguished Scholar Award.