Steeped in Admiration: Tracing a Ceramic Tea Jar’s Journey From Factory to Fame

“Chigusa and the Art of Tea” at the Sackler Gallery explores how a humble vessel became a revered object among Japanese tea men.

Chigusa, a tea jar, festooned with a traditional cover and ornamental cords. Courtesy of the Freer Gallery of Art

This is the story of a single jar.

Its ceramic slopes were caressed by generations of Japanese tea men, who treasured it as a celebrated object. But it was neither ornate, nor crafted with care. Fired in a factory kiln in South China, the jar was exported to Japan in the late 14th century amid a shipment of mass-produced storage vessels. The jar’s size offered utility; its tawny sheen lent appeal. The coloration, however, was uneven, and its glaze texture varied. There were blisters on the base, as well as pinched marks in the clay left from a hasty potter's fingers. It was a not particularly beautiful jar.

The jar’s name was "Chigusa," and it would became one of the most revered objects in the practice of chanoyu, or the ceremonial drinking of tea. Owners festooned it with adornments fashioned from the finest silk; likewise, connoisseurs noted the jar’s fine qualities in detailed diary entries. The nondescript jar eventually would gain widespread admiration and fame—a far cry from its humble origins—until changing fashions in the 19th century ushered it once more into obscurity.

“Chigusa and the Art of Tea,” a current exhibition on view at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, displays the Chinese ceramic alongside some 50 other tea objects. Together, they explain the aesthetic and social frameworks in Japanese tea culture that underlay a plain jar's rise to prominence.

"There is very little that’s beautiful until we say it is,” says Andrew Watsky, a professor of Japanese art history at Princeton University and the exhibit's co-curator. “And Chigusa helps us to understand some of the ways in which that manifested in the case of one specific object.”

A tea-leaf storage jar named Chigusa from China, and dating from about 1350 to 1450. Courtesy of the Freer Gallery of Art

Chigusa arrived in Japan during time in which the preparation and drinking of matcha, a powdered green tea, was evolving into a widespread custom. Every spring, it was taken to a tea plantation to be filled with new leaves for the coming year. Months later, the leaves’ flavor had ripened and mellowed, signifying the approach of kuchikiri, an important tea gathering held in late autumn.

By the 16th century, the practice of chanoyu had peaked. Guests would file into their host’s small tearoom, where a tea jar would sit resplendent in an alcove nestled into the wall. The host would present the jar to his company before cutting its seal, after which a portion of its leaves would be removed and ground into a fine powder using a hand-turned stone mill. A light meal was served as the host prepared the matcha, whisking the chartreuse-colored grains into a bowl filled with hot water.

Tea men reveled in the ceremony’s myriad facets: the frothy green mixture they sipped; the serene architectural spaces that served as a backdrop to their enjoyment; and the utensils whose very utility allowed the tea to be made and the gatherings to take place. Chanoyu was not just about tea, says Watsky, but about a setting “in which people would get together and talk about objects and try to understand and appreciate the aesthetic.”

A codified system of evaluation helped tea men judge the appearances of tea objects and whether they were worthy to be used in the practice of chanoyu. But these provincial tea jars, while useful, had flaws. This caused tea men to adapt a new form of connoisseurship—one that viewed irregularities as interesting and lovely. Imperfection became the new ideal of beauty, and signature blemishes were what made each jar unique and worthy of admiration.  

Keeping with the Japanese tradition of naming beloved possessions, fine tea jars were assigned poetic names, each specific to and befitting its individual character. (Chigusa means "thousand grasses," or "myriad things.") They were evaluated by their size, shape, appearance and pedigree. Chinese origins were important, as was a lineage of esteemed owners. Discerning tea men would also note characteristics like glaze texture, coloration and blisters from the kiln’s heat. Participants in chanoyu would record minute observations in tea diaries, which chronicled the objects they used, along with their merits. Particularly fine items were designated as meibutsu, or revered objects—and Chigusa was a meibutsu tea jar. As the years went on, its reputation among tea circles would grow. It soon became known as one of the most famous tea jars in Japan.

"The glaze is thick, and there are many downward flows," wrote tea master Kamiya Sotan in 1587, after seeing Chigusa at a gathering. "Below that, the glaze appears to divide..." According to Watsky, such descriptions in tea diaries weren't idle observations; rather, they took training, understanding and scrutiny: "These are the sorts of effects that people who were accomplished in tea were pointing at, saying, 'This was what makes it interesting.' They weren't meant to be knock-you-over-the-head eye candy kinds of aesthetics."

Flaws were appreciated, and so were contrasts. Other utensils were used alongside Chigusa during tea ceremonies, and they differed in provenance, age, material and color. An antique tea jar from China, for example, would stand near a rough-hewn water bucket bought at a local Japanese market. Nearby would rest a celadon Korean bowl, blending new aesthetics with new forms.

"If you have a set of things that all look the same, they all blend into one another. If you intentionally contrast these highly different materials and natures of objects, then you start to have a very powerful aesthetic experience that you’re creating for the guests who come to visit you," says Watsky, explaining the mixture of carefully-chosen objects used in chanoyu.

Like most great things, Chigusa's popularity would wane; its large size fell out of favor, and mechanized tea grinders allowed powdered tea to be purchased at speciality shops. The jar eventually fell into the hands of wealthy industrialists, who'd later sell it at auction. But in the Sackler's exhibit, a life-size Japanese tearoom replica shows what the practice of chanoyu looked like at its height. Bowls, ladles, buckets and kettles are scattered across the tatami mat. A mock-Chigusa, festooned in knotted blue silk cords and a silk brocade mouth cover, stands in a tokonoma, or specially designed alcove meant to display calligraphy or tea jars. Chigusa's decorations signify that the jar has been opened. The tea has been served, and the vessel has done its duty. As for the tea objects on the floor? Some are modern-day products, imported from places like Cambodia and loaned to the exhibit by real-life owners. Unlike the old tea jar, their lives have just begun—and they will keep Chigusa, along with the art of chanoyu, alive for years to come.

"We’re trying to update [chanoyu]," says Watsky. "We didn’t want this thing to die here in Washington. We wanted to inspire people to continue to do things like this."

The Sackler purchased Chigusa, along with its accessories, documentation and storage boxes, at a Christie's auction in 2009. According to Watsky, the jar's exhibition—the first time it's ever been shown to the public—will also play a part in keeping it "alive." "I think in a strange way, the Sackler in particular is an ideal place for it because people can come and see it," he says. "This thing will not only not die here, it will probably be seen by more people by being here than it ever would have been in Japan."

But will Chigusa ever again be used for its main purpose—tea?

"At some point, you have to let things stop doing their job," says Watsky. "I don’t think it’s going be filled with tea again. But I think that's fine."

"Chigusa and the Art of Tea" will be on display at the Sackler Gallery until July 27.

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