Traditional Culture of Japan - Traditional crafts and culture

The history of tea ceremony utensils: importation from China


The history of tea ceremony utensils: importation from China

Utensils are an essential part of the Way of Tea, and they have changed over the long history of the tea ceremony.


In former times, the tea ceremony was not something that people paid a great deal of attention to, the way it is nowadays. Let us look back in history and see how the tea ceremony was performed at different times.


  A tea ceremony that emphasized utensils
In the beginning, tea ceremony was introduced to Japan from China. Tea ceremony was the biggest fashion trend introduced from outside Japan. In those times, tea ceremony was associated with gambling. There was a game in which participants tried to guess the source of a sample of tea, and much money and valuable goods were staked on the outcome.


In addition, in the early history of tea ceremony, there was no great attention given to how utensils were handled, as there is nowadays. Rather, the main thing was having expensive utensils, and using them for tea was almost an afterthought.


At that time, porcelain from China (referred to as “Karamono”) was used for tea ceremony. These porcelain items were uniform and symmetrical in shape, and were glazed. They were decorated exquisitely and were very expensive.


Rather than emphasizing manners, or devoting oneself to one’s guest, the main consideration was how best to show off one’s valuable porcelain ware. The tea ceremony of those times was in fact a bragging contest for the nobility.


After tea ceremony became popular among the samurai, powerful military commanders wanted to obtain valuable tea utensils, and they were even prepared to kill people to get hold of them. That they would go to such lengths is a reflection of how highly precious these items were at that time.


  Transition to a simple, frugal tea ceremony
It is due to Sen no Rikyū (1522-1591) that we have a tea ceremony in its present form. Rikyū introduced into the Way of Tea the concept of simplicity and frugality he had learned from Buddhism, thereby moving in the opposite direction from the then-prevailing tea ceremony that was focused on utensils.


Rikyū was the one who eliminated the former extravagance and perfected a wabi-cha tea ceremony of simplicity and frugality. At the same time, there were also changes in the tea ceremony utensils.


Porcelain was fired at high temperatures to obtain a high density, so that bowls could be made thin yet strong. Because porcelain conducts heat very efficiently, bowls filled with hot tea were too hot to be held in the hands.


Rikyū came up with a new type of ceramic called “raku chawan.” Instead of using a potter's wheel, this type of bowl was made entirely by hand. This is why it didn't possess the symmetry of Chinese porcelain used up to that time in tea ceremony.


This raku pottery was fired at relatively low temperatures. Compared to porcelain fired at high temperatures, this new type of pottery was quite fragile. On the other hand, it had low thermal conductivity, which meant that it could be held in the hand even when it contained hot tea. It also had a softer feel, which made it pleasant to hold in the hand.


  The history of tea ceremony utensils: importation from China


We can say that Rikyū devised the perfect tools for tea ceremony. Instead of a tea ceremony made for its utensils, he devised utensils for tea ceremony.


In the early history of tea ceremony, pottery made in Japan was hardly ever used. But tea ceremony changed over time. Rikyū did not eliminate Karamono (porcelain made in China). In fact, he used Chinese porcelain in his tea ceremonies.


If it had remained focused on its utensils, tea ceremony could never have become such a significant part of Japanese culture as it is today. With the emergence of the idea giving primary consideration to one’s guests, the special character of today’s tea ceremony began to take shape.

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