Appropriation and Reinvention: Chigusa and the Art of Tea in Japan

Chigusa and the Art of Tea in Japan centers on a large ceramic vessel, known as Chigusa, that achieved great fame in sixteenth-century Japan as a tea-leaf storage jar. It was used in chanoyu, the practice of tea. In chanoyu small groups of gentlemen met to drink bowls of green tea while appreciating and discussing the objects used in the beverage’s preparation. The acclaim the jar commanded was so great that it was given a proper name, Chigusa. Depending on the characters chosen to write it, Chigusa means “myriad plants” or “myriad things,” an autumnal motif found in classical Japanese poems.

Attributed to Qian Xuan (ca. 1235–1300), Chinese, Yuan dynasty, 1260–1368, Sparrow on Apple Branch, ca. 1330–68. Hanging scroll; ink and color on paper, painting: 22.3 x 27.7 cm. Museum purchase, Carl Otto von Kienbusch Jr. Memorial Collection

Despite its fame in Japan, Chigusa has humble origins. It was made in China, probably in the southern province of Guangdong during the mid-thirteenth to the mid-fourteenth century, in a large-scale ceramic workshop that would have fired hundreds of jars just like it. How this jar became an object of deep appreciation in Japan centuries after its production and exportation is one of the major themes explored in the exhibition. The story of Chigusa is not unique in the tradition of chanoyu. Adopting objects from China and elsewhere and repurposing them for use in the tearoom had a long history. By the second half of the sixteenth century the vast majority of chanoyu utensils were imported from China. The trend is clearly demonstrated in The Records of Yamanoue no Sōji from 1588, an important early text on the practice of tea. Sōji includes a list of 212 “celebrated objects” used in chanoyu. Of these, only 38 were produced in Japan. The tea men using Chinese wares in chanoyu were not only appropriating the objects, they were also recontextualizing them. 

The painting Sparrow on Apple Branch, on display in the exhibition, is an example of this process. Attributed to the painter Qian Xuan (ca. 1235–1300), Sparrow on Apple Branch is typical of the contemplative scenes favored for tearoom display. Qian was one of the most admired Chinese painters in early tea circles, and Yamanoue no Sōji’s text mentions another painting by him (one that depicted a red hibiscus flower). In its original context, Sparrow on Apple Branch was probably painted as a leaf for an album. It would have been grouped together with other similar or complementary scenes. The paintings would have been laid flat on a table for a viewer to admire them together. In Japan, however, Qian Xuan’s painting was mounted as a hanging scroll and hung in a tearoom’s alcove for display, bringing it into dialogue with other objects used in chanoyu gatherings. The painting’s mount is composed of three different types of luxurious brocade silks that were also likely imported from China. Although both painting and fabric came from China, the resulting hanging scroll is distinctively Japanese in its format.

A petite, spherical ceramic jar is also on display, accompanied by its own group of accoutrements. Small jars like this were produced in China to hold spices or expensive medicinal ingredients. They were imported into Japan and repurposed as containers for powered tea and known as tea caddies. During a chanoyu gathering, tea leaves would be removed from a jar like Chigusa and hand-milled into a fine powder that was then transferred into the small ceramic jar and used in the final stages of tea preparation.China, Southern Song or Yuan dynasty, probably Guangdong Province, Tea-leaf storage jar named Chigusa, mid-13th to mid-14th century. Stoneware with iron glaze, h. 41.6 cm. Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., purchase

Chinese-made tea caddies were respected implements in the practice of tea. As a result, like Chigusa, this particular caddy achieved some fame, though on a much smaller scale. It was provided with a Chinese lacquer tray and a special storage bag that was tailored in Japan from two Ming dynasty (1368–1644) fabrics, one a sumptuous multicolored striped damask and the other a delicate gold-patterned brocade. And like Chigusa, the tea caddy acquired a name, Ueda Bunrin, after its Meiji era (1868–1912) owner.

Nonomura Ninsei (active about 1646–77), Japanese, Edo period, 1615–1868, Jar with design of mynah birds, 1670s. Stoneware with colored and silver enamels over white glaze, h. 30.5 cm. Asia Society and Museum, New YorkIn Japanese ceramic tradition, the shape and format of the Chinese tea-leaf storage jar, with four lugs encircling the shoulder, acquired a special resonance. This influenced the production of objects even when they were not intended for use in chanoyu. To illustrate this, the exhibit includes a jar from a famed series by renowned Kyoto potter Nonomura Ninsei (active around 1646–77) that was commissioned by a local warrior ruler (daimyo). The set once decorated the daimyo’s grand reception hall. The exhibited jar’s shape is reminiscent of Chigusa, with a tall body, narrow opening, and four lugs on the shoulder. However, the potter used the then-new medium of overglaze enamel to create “paintings” on the vessel, replacing the controlled accidents of Chigusa’s drips of glaze with a carefully drawn scene of several mynah birds in flight above a distant landscape. These three objects—the painting and two ceramic vessels—are on display along with others that tell similar stories of appropriation. Their inclusion in the exhibition enriches and reinforces the cultural context that allowed Chigusa to become a prized tea object.

Zoe S. Kwok
Assistant Curator of Asian Art