CHAWAN Historical Developments

by Bryan Mulvihill, 2022

As the habit of `taking tea’ developed over the millennium, so did the necessary utensils for the processing and preparing of this rapidly popular social beverage.  As the old Chinese idiom goes, “it is necessary to have effective tools to do good work.”  This is true for daily labour as well as creative activities.  With the evolutions of `tea culture’, the taking of tea developed as a spiritual and artistic practice. The utensils used for partaking of tea are not just convenient to use but also reflect the aesthetic and symbolic mindsets of those coming together to engage through the arts of tea.  The Tang Dynasty (618 – 907 CE) connoisseur of all things tea, Lu Yu, in his 760 CE, `Cha-ching; Book of Tea’, designated 24 vessels and related objects necessary for the art of tea.  It may be hard to understand that so many complicated implements were required to prepare and drink tea, however, in the early days it was a from a home-grown tea bush to tea bowl procedure. Starting with selecting the choicest young tea leaves just before dawn. The leaves need further grading, cleaning, fermenting, drying, and storing for optimal times to bring out the flavours and medicinal properties, before grinding them into tea powders. They are then prepared with high-quality waters brought to the perfect temperatures for each style of tea to bring out there most subtle qualities. 

During the Tang  Dynasty, brewing methods evolved from boiling shaved off powder from dried tea bricks along with a pinch of salt, at times even with onion, dried fruit peels, or flower petals.  A version of this method still survives along the Western tea trade routes through Tibet and Mongolia where butter is also added to support health in high altitude regions.

In later Tang dynasty, a `dripping’ method became popular and spread wildly during both Northern and Southern Sung dynasties, especially in the Buddhist, Taoist, hermitages and monasteries.  The finest early spring green– two leaves and a bud– are dried, stored in sealed jars for six months then ground in stone mortars to a fine powder and whisked into a frothy foam directly in tea bowls with a bamboo whisk.  Monks and nuns carried small dark brown-black Temmoku bowls in their robe pouches.  During breaks in long meditation sessions, a tea caddy of finely powdered tea, matcha, was passed along the rows of meditators, with a thin bamboo tea scoop; chashaku.  Each adept would take two heaping scoops of tea powder, considered the correct medicinal douse for one bowl of tea.  A ceramic hot water ewer with a bamboo whisk, or chasen, attached follows the tea caddy. Each adept would add a small quantity of water and whisk their own tea before passing the water jug down the line. Whisked tea quickly became popular in court circles and the proliferation of public teahouses during Sung dynasties. Fine celadon and porcelain tea utensils were replacing the small temmoku bowls along with the spreading popularity leaf green and oolong style teas brewed in pots.  

This style of whisked powdered tea was brought by Buddhist adepts to Korea and Japan along with high regard for temmoku tea bowls.  There are records of Emperor Shomu from 729 CE, holding `Gyocha’ readings of Buddhist sutras in the Palace where tea was served. However it was not until the Kamakura Period (11 85 – 1333),  after Zen Priest Eisai, founded Kenninji Temple in Kyoto in 1168 CE and sowed tea seeds brought back from Sung China, that tea drinking gained wide acceptance. Temples with tea gardens became common in numerous areas of Japan.  Zen soon found wide acceptance in the samurai, merchant and working classes as well. As Zen took hold in Japan so did the cultivation and popularity of tea.

To trace chronologically the transitions of tea bowls’ from an art form into a symbol of Zen understanding and appreciation, begin with the span from Kamakura to the mid-Muromachi period, ie the late twelfth to the end of the fifteenth century. During this time refined Sung dynasty tea wares imported from China formed the vast majority. Chief amongst them was the temmoku, Chinese Jian ware, along with some celadon and porcelain bowls.  During the Kamakura period, powdered tea was an expensive luxury, confined to monks and the upper classes, who were connoisseurs of imported Chinese wares. By the 14th C. in the Muromachi Period (1333 – 1568), tea became more popular as an elegant amusement with the middle classes;  ritualized tea gatherings attempting to identifying the origins and qualities of specific tea growers became popular.  Chinese tea utensils were hard to come by and increasingly expensive, thus Japanese kilns like Seto and Mino began to produce local versions of Temmoku bowls. With an expanding tea culture in the Muromachi period came great appreciation and demand for fine tea utensils,  tea bowls and caddies in particular became highly prized possessions and symbols of prestige.  The Ashikaga shoguns Yoshimitsu (1358 – 1408) and Yoshimasa (1436 – 1490) record Chinese tea utensils amongst their most prized treasures, with graded ranks of quality, provenance and importance.

By the mid-1400 tea ware, aesthetics based on perfection and formal grandeur began to wane.  Merchant tea men like Murata Shuko (1421? – 1502) developed accord with an atmosphere described as “chilled and withered” (hiekaruru) – an expression of the “Wabi”; a noun form of the verb `wabu’, to feel forlorn’, which has connotations enjoying the retired life, astringency, sobriety. In chanoyu, the ideals of `wabi-suki’, indicates a realm of seasoned simplicity, rustic tranquillity, preparing tea without grand tea utensils. Shuko states, “I do not care for the moon without clouds”, referring to the use of  Chinese tea ceramics, which were resplendent without blemish,  he preferred utensils which were practical, earthy, with a candid quality, symbolized by the moon among the clouds.  Shuko expounded on the beauty of asymmetry, austerity, a lofty dryness, and naturalness preferred over Sung ware perfection. Shuko began using local country pottery, Bizen water jars, Seto temmoku tea bowls and even when using Chinese pieces, he preferred rough celadon which came to be known as Shuko Celadon.

Although there is a history of many great Zen laymen in China; P’ang Yun in 8th C. P’ei Hsiu, Po Chu-i, Su Tung-p’o, the principal tendency there was toward monastic Zen. The Zen established in Japan in monasteries became formalized koan Zen practice using old recorded cases of Awakening as models of practice, or Taza Zen; `sitting’ practice, carrying on the lineages from Chinese formal monastic training.  However in Japan, Zen practice and infueunce flourished amongst the laymen and masses, many of whom having taken formal training in monasteries, returned to their family trades as Samurai, merchant traders, craft people and farmers. Zen began to manifest in Japan through material culture produced by laymen. Zen inspired No performance,  music, haiku poetry, swordsmanship and `Chanoyu’ the Way of Tea’ in particular. Chanoyu became above all the cultural expression of Zen, the like of which was not to be found in China. Chanoyu was inspired by and preserved much of previous Zen culture, especially in calligraphy and ink painting,  while giving rise to a new type of `integrated, Zen expression of wabi.

Murata Shuko’s `wabi-cha’ was taken up by the increasingly prosperous merchant tea men of Sakai and Kyoto, Takeno Joo (1502 – 55)  Tsuda Sotatsu, Kitamuki Dochinmany, Rikyu’s first tea teacher,  brought to full manifestation by Sen no Rikyu (1522 – 91). Wabi, proposed poverty surpassing riches, in accordance with Zen, is a creative self-expressive structure which gave cultural form to a Zen way of life.  The Japanese verb, `konomu’; to evaluate, to choose, in accordance with a focused Zen way of an integrated awareness in everyday life, philosophy, ethics, art, manners, clothing, food, architecture, nature, and the changing seasons. The Way of Tea was neither merely an art form nor a culture, but an integrated way of life with Zen as its basis.  Zen– Chan in Chinese– is the transliteration of the Sanskrit, Pali,  word for Dhyana, to pay attention, meditation. In Rikyu’s words, “Tea in a humble room consists first and foremost in practising and attaining the truth of Buddha”, to awaken the true nature of the mind.  These Chanoyu men of tea made use of and held in high appreciation of the subtle qualities of objects used in the Way of Tea from China, Korea, and South Asia along with their local craft productions. Many everyday objects, not valued or even noticed in the hands and lands of their makers, were elevated to treasured tea utensils.

The Korai (Korean) rice bowls produced between the end of the Koryo dynasty (918 – 1392) and the beginning of the Yi (1392 – 1910) were highly appreciated for their fully manifest wabi, quiet taste. These are the qualities tea men of Sakai from Murata Shuko, Tsuda Sotatsu, Taken Joo, and  Rikyu’s first tea teacher, Kitamuki Dochin, expounded. They all record utilizing Korai bowls in their Wabi-cha. By the late 1550s, the merchant’s Wabi tea had become the most popular Way of Tea.  The feudal lords, Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi and others were engaging these tea men of Sakai to build their own collections.  These tea merchants created a prosperous trade with old kilns around Pusan in southern Korea, even commissioning them to make  new chawan to their design and tastes. Korean potters established new chawan kilns around Pusan ports to supply the Japanese teamen.  Numerous Korean potters were brought to Japan, not always under their own choosing, to set up kilns and train Japanese apprentices.  Rikyu is known to have possessed a number of Kori chawan, one named `Mishima Oke’, is believed to have been the model for the bowls he  commissioned from Chojiro, the first in the Raku lineage. Chokiro had been working as a roof tile maker in the Namban Imogashira kiln in Kyoto.

It was a natural, inartificial,  quiet feeling with rustic charm that Chojiro applied to Kori style chawan.  Rikyu prescribed these bowl as perfect for use in the small tea room for his Wabi tea. 

Many of Rikyu’s students went on to commission numerous Korean and local Japanese potters to make bowls to their own particular designs and prefrences. Yamonoue Soji collected, commissioned and placed in prominent collections Kori chawan along  with bowls inspried by Korean styles commissionsed from local Japanese potteries of  Arita, Seto, Mino, Imayaki, Bizen, Shigaraki, and Kochi. Furuta Oribe (1544 – 1615) Rikyu’s successor along with Rikyu’s sons Sotan, designed and commissioned a wide range of `preferred’ styles.  Kobori Enshu developed kirei-sabi; an `elegant rusticity chanoyu aesthetic.  It was these Zen laymen of tea who, working closely with Korean and local Japanese potters, along with metalsmiths, lacquer makers, bamboo and wood carvers, garden deisgners, architects and builders manifested a dynamic expression of Zen-inspired Wabi culture that was to become the mainstay of Japanese cultural expression throughout the coming centuries that carries on until the present day.

Sung dynasty celadon and temmoku from China have been greatly admired in chanoyu since the Kamakura period, but did not strike the responsive chords in Wabi-cha to be called `naturalized’ chawan. The Sung dynasty ceramics, with in there perfected beauty, in whatever surroundings they are placed, continue to be judged on there own as the culmination of Chinese ceramics. In the setting of Wabi-cha, their polished and lofty style holds a beauty so universal and so immediately apparent that it seems to demand that the beholder maintain a respectful distance. This is in sharp contrast to the way in which the Korean bowls have been brought into the life of wabi-cha, to dwell within its rustic sense of beauty.  It was the Sakai and Kyoto men of tea who discovered and elevated these daily wares into a refined art form that was capable of transmitting manifestations and awareness of Zen into the Way of Tea.  Chawan, chaire; tea containers and chasen; tea scoops are perhaps the most highly successful symbols of this aesthetic of Zen of wabi, which is perhaps why they are the most appreciated, examined and discussed objects during chanoyu gatherings.  Chawan while being perfected vessals for whisking and savouring powdered green tea, manage to convey a state of mind that is in harmony with one’s natural surroundings. 

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