The Salt
4:22 am
Tue March 18, 2014

Japanese Tea Ritual Turned 15th Century 'Tupperware' Into Art

Originally published on Tue March 18, 2014 4:24 am

Eight hundred years ago, tea was rare in Japan. It arrived from China in simple, ceramic storage jars. Chinese ceramists churned these jars out with little care or attention; they stuffed tea leaves into them and shipped them off.

The jars were "the Chinese version of Tupperware," says Andrew Watsky, a professor of Japanese art history at Princeton.

But once the workaday storage jugs reached Japan, they became objects of aesthetic contemplation and, often, reverence. One of those jars — a big brown jug called Chigusa — is currently on display at Smithsonian's Sackler Gallery in Washington, D.C., which specializes in Asian art and culture.

Today, the jugs provide fascinating windows into an ancient culture. In the 16th century, a tea ritual arose around them. In homes, separate areas were created for tea drinking.

"They had specially designed tea rooms," Watsky explains. "Usually very, very small, self-enclosed spaces."

No windows, a few tatami mats, and just enough space to hold the host and two or three guests. You sat there, sipped tea and focused on the few objects in the little room: the jug — wrapped by then in intricately tied pale blue silk cords, the mouth of the jar covered in Chinese brocade — plus a few bowls, whisks, other implements. The hot, whisked green tea tasted like spring and grassy lawns.

The process of drinking tea is also fundamentally a process in learning "how to look," Watsky says.

And who was involved in this careful 16th century inspection and contemplation? Not the hoi polloi; they were drinking roasted barley brews. Tea was a drink for the Japanese elite, like rich merchants and warriors who ruled the country. It was for powerful men who went beyond money and weapons, to become enlightened individuals. (Women wouldn't get involved with tea ceremonies until the late 19th century.)

"To be politically powerful at this time also meant that you had to show that you had some sort of cultural sophistication as well," Watsky says.

And so you sipped and examined, and appreciated the glaze of the jug those Chinese had just slapped onto their clay — how it moved across the surface, and created the occasional blob or blip. And you schmoozed about the beauty of it all. Tea, then, was far more than a drink.

"Tea becomes a place where these people of different social strata could get together and talk," Watsky says. They could "be together not to talk about war, not to talk about business, but to engage in their shared interest in this aesthetic pursuit."

And then some of them went home and wrote about it in their diaries — the date, the place, time of day, who was there, objects used, all described in great detail.

Toward the end of the 17th century Japan got tea pots, and little leaf-stuffed balls that were dunked in hot water. Tea-drinking became more widespread, and then along came teabags.

Today, the ancient rituals are still taught and observed by some. But today's Japanese are crazy for coffee, and a cult of coffee preparation has developed that's at least as complicated as the 16th century tea ceremonies.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Well, there are some sounds there.

OK. A big, 700-year old ceramic jug is front and center at a museum on the National Mall here in Washington, D.C. The Smithsonian's Sackler Gallery, where the specialty is Asian art and culture, is displaying the ancient jug that helped launch Japan's tea culture.

NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg went over to see and to sip.

(SOUNDBITE OF A CROWD)

SUSAN STAMBERG, BYLINE: At a table at the Sackler, Callie O'Brien, in charge of marketing for DoMatcha Tea Company, is mixing up a sippable(ph).

CALLIE O'BRIEN: Yeah, half tsp of Matcha and a little bit of hot water - about an ounce - and make a paste...

STAMBERG: In a small, beautiful ceramic bowl, with a delicate bamboo whisk, she's whipping the paste into a nice froth.

So, no bags, huh?

O'BRIEN: No bags. No...

STAMBERG: No Lipton. Nothing you dunk?

O'BRIEN: No. No. This goes back about 800 years.

STAMBERG: To a time when tea was rare in Japan and arrived from China in ceramic storage jars. Andrew Watsky, professor of Japanese Art History at Princeton, contemplates the main jar on view. It has a name: Chigusa.

Professor, to me - forgive - this looks like a big brown jug.

ANDREW WATSKY: Mm-hmm, it is a big brown jar.

STAMBERG: Made in China with little care or attention. Chinese ceramists just churned them out, stuffed tea leaves into them and shipped them off.

WATSKY: This is Tupperware. This is the Chinese version of Tupperware.

STAMBERG: But once the workaday storage jugs reached Japan they became objects of aesthetic contemplation, and often, reverence. Today, the jugs provide fascinating windows into an ancient culture. In the 16th century, a tea ritual arose around them. In homes, separate areas were created for tea drinking.

WATSKY: They had specially designed tea rooms, usually very, very small self-enclosed spaces.

STAMBERG: No windows, a few tatami mats, and just enough space to hold the host and two or three of his guests.

WATSKY: What you're doing is sitting there and you are focused on those very few objects that are there.

STAMBERG: The jug, wrapped by then in intricately tied pale blue silk cords; the mouth of the jar covered in Chinese brocade, plus a few bowls, whisks, other implements. And the hot, whisked green tea that tasted like spring and grassy lawns.

WATSKY: Tea is fundamentally - or one of its fundamental aspects - is to study objects and learn how to look.

STAMBERG: And who was involved in this careful 16th century inspection and contemplation? Not the hoi polloi. They were drinking roasted barley brews. No, tea was a drink for the Japanese elite. Rich merchants and the warriors who ruled the country, men - women wouldn't get involved with tea ceremonies until the late 19th century - powerful men who went beyond money and weapons to become enlightened individuals.

WATSKY: To be politically powerful at this time, also meant that you had to show that you had some sort of cultural sophistication, as well.

STAMBERG: And so you sipped and examined - and appreciated the glaze of the jug those Chinese had just slapped onto their clay - how it moved across the surface and created the occasional blob or blip. And you schmoozed about the beauty of it all. Clearly, tea, then, was far more than a drink.

WATSKY: Tea becomes a place where these people of different social strata could get together and talk and be together. Not to talk about war, not to talk about business, but to engage in their shared interest in this aesthetic pursuit.

STAMBERG: And then some of them went home and wrote about it in their diaries. The date, the place, time of day, who was there, objects used, all described in great detail.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

STAMBERG: Toward the end of the next century, the 17th, Japan got tea pots and little leaf-stuffed balls that were dunked in hot water. Tea drinking became more widespread. And then along came bags. Today, the ancient rituals are still taught and observed by some. But today's Japanese are crazy for coffee, and a cult of coffee preparation has developed that's at least as complicated as the 16th century tea ceremonies.

I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREENE: I'm sure you're thinking you want to see a picture of jug that Susan was telling us about. You can at our website, NPR.org.

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.