Chigusa and the Art of Tea in Japan


Chigusa and the Art of Tea in Japan brings to Princeton an object that reached a high peak of fame in sixteenth-century Japan: a tea-leaf storage jar named Chigusa. Remarkably, Chigusa’s history can be tracked from even before that time up to the present day, a span of some seven centuries that saw the jar move from China to Japan, where it circulated widely, and recently to the United States.

Tea-leaf storage jar named Chigusa with inner storage box. Jar: China, probably Guangdong Province. Southern Song or Yuan dynasty, mid-13th to mid-14th century. Stoneware with iron glaze, height 41.6 cm. Box: Japan, Edo period, 1615–1868. Lacquered paulownia wood with copper reinforcements and silver lacquer inscription on lid, paper lining in body, and cotton cord, 66.6 x 41.2 x 41.5 cm. Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution, purchaseManufactured in China in the late thirteenth or fourteenth century as a utilitarian container, the jar was exported to Japan. There it was adopted for use in chanoyu, the cultural practice of drinking bowls of powdered green tea whisked with hot water and appreciating the utensils employed in its preparation. In chanoyu, the jar acquired the multiple dimensions of its Japanese significance: it was acclaimed as a jar for storing tea leaves, designated as a paradigm of aesthetic excellence, and given an individual name chosen from imperial court poetry. These intriguing aspects of use, status, and history are manifest in the abundance of items that accrued to Chigusa over time and accompany it now, such as textile “clothing” and many documents, all of which are addressed in the exhibition.
Chigusa was acquired in 2009 by the Freer Gallery of Art, one of two museums of Asian art at the Smithsonian Institution. The jar’s thematic complexity encouraged scholarly collaboration, and soon the two of us agreed to work together and lead a team of specialists to study Chigusa. We invited two Japanese colleagues to join us: the prominent chanoyu scholar Takeuchi Jun’ichi, director of the Eisei-Bunko Museum in Tokyo; and historian and document specialist Oka Yoshiko, professor at Otemae University in Nishinomiya. The four of us—the “Chigusa Team”—met regularly over several years in Washington, D.C., and Japan to discuss our research and to plan for a book and two exhibitions on Chigusa. We asked eleven other specialists from the United States, Japan, and China to write chapters on a range of topics, including ceramic archaeology in China and Japan, textiles, tea science, and chanoyu collecting. The book was published in February of this year, coinciding with the opening of the first Chigusa exhibition, at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, which featured loans of related tea utensils from Japanese collections. The Princeton exhibition emphasizes Chigusa’s rich ensemble of belongings and the jar’s status as an exemplar of the Japanese appropriation of objects from abroad.
Cord for securing the mouth cover. Japan, Meiji era, 1868–1912. Silk with synthetic dye, 132 x 0.6 cm. Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution, purchase Chigusa occupies center stage in the first section of the exhibition at Princeton, encouraging close examination of its aesthetic characteristics. Sixteenth-century tea men documented these characteristics in their diaries, which tell us how they interacted with Chigusa and what they saw when they looked intensively at it. Chigusa’s practical role in improving the flavor of tea is reflected in a tea-packing record and wooden carrying box, also on display. A full-size abstracted tea room models the distinctive compact space within which Chigusa was appreciated. In it is presented an assemblage of tea utensils, drawn from the collection of Peggy and Richard M. Danziger, that would share the room with Chigusa at a tea gathering. A video shows how such a jar is admired in a tea room during the autumn “mouth-opening” (kuchikiri) presentation, when its tea is first consumed. 
Mouth cover. China, Ming dynasty, 15th century, tailored in Japan. Silk with gold supplementary weft, known as Tomita kinran, 34.5 x 34.5 cm. Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution, purchaseAnother section of the exhibition focuses on the many belongings that have accumulated around Chigusa: for example, a mouth cover of rare, antique Chinese brocade textile, a net bag, and silk cords. A video illuminates the process of adorning the jar with these textiles and elaborately knotted cords. A group of documents, dating from the seventeenth century up to the present, accompanies the jar and narrates centuries of interactions between Chigusa and its admirers and owners, including merchant tea men in the bustling port city of Sakai; a provincial warrior; a leading chanoyu family in Kyoto; and, at the turn of the twentieth century, a renowned Osaka industrialist.
The final section of the exhibition displays paintings as well as ceramic and metal vessels that place Chigusa in the broader context of Japanese consumption of culture and ideas from abroad. An imaginary portrait of the influential sixteenth-century tea master Sen no Rikyū, painted about eighty years after his death and now in the collection of Jane and Raphael Bernstein, is displayed here for the first time in any museum exhibition. Wearing garb associated in Japan with ancient Chinese poets and Confucian scholars, Rikyū—the paradigm of Japanese tea—is depicted as a man immersed in Chinese culture. A painting of a sparrow, attributed to the thirteenth-century Chinese artist Qian Xuan, had likely been viewed in China on a table as an album leaf, but it was remounted in Japan using luxurious brocades (like those used for Chigusa’s mouth cover) according to Japanese principles that allowed it to be hung as a scroll on the alcove wall of a tea room. Through Chigusa and these related objects, the exhibition reveals how tea practice in Japan created a performative culture of reinventing, seeing, using, and ascribing meaning to diverse objects.Tea caddy of bunrin shape named Ueda Bunrin, tray, and storage bag. Tea caddy: China, Fujian or Guangdong province. Southern Song dynasty, 13th century. Stoneware with iron glaze and ivory lid, 5.8 x 5.9 cm. Tray: China, Ming dynasty, ca. 1500–50. Lacquer, 3 x 17.2 cm. Storage bag: China, Ming dynasty, 15th to 16th century; tailored in Japan. Silk textiles and cord. Private collection
A symposium on November 7–8, 2014, jointly organized by the P. Y. and Kinmay W. Tang Center for East Asian Art and the Department of Art and Archaeology, will enlarge the scholarly scope of the exhibition. Titled “Contextualizing Chigusa: The Arts in and around Tea in Sixteenth-Century Japan,” the symposium will bring major scholars to Princeton to present original research on areas of Japanese art that intersect with the world of Chigusa, such as painting, calligraphy, ceramics, and textiles. 
Andrew Watsky will teach an undergraduate seminar this fall on chanoyu, “Tea, Large Jars, Warriors, and Merchants in Sixteenth-Century Japan.” The seminar will use the exhibition as a laboratory for the study of Japanese art, each week focusing on a different aspect of tea culture. One session will be a workshop led by members of the Chigusa Team in which students study ceramics from the Museum’s collections. Over the course of the semester, each member of the seminar will work on an independent project for an oral presentation and written paper. We expect that many of the projects will center on objects and themes drawn from the exhibition.
Louise Allison Cort
Curator of Ceramics, Freer and Sackler Galleries,
Smithsonian Institution
Andrew M. Watsky
Professor of Art and Archaeology, Princeton University