When you want a cup of nice comforting tea, you go to the British. If you see it as a ritual of the day, the Japanese know how to bring it to the next level. My friend Echo has been practicing Japanese tea ceremony for years. When she invited me as a guest to one of the ceremonies, I got the chance to experience this formal event first hand.
There were certain rules to be followed. The hosts were required to wear traditional costumes but Echo was Chinese so she wore a Han robe. Every move throughout the entire ceremony, from wiping the utensils to pouring the tea, had its pre-designed pattern. This was not like having a grande sized Tazo tea at Starbucks where you drank it out of a paper cup with a plastic cap. In the tea ceremony, they use delicate ceramic tea bowls, also known as Chawan, to serve their guests. As a guest, when I received the tea, I was supposed to turn the bowl three times and admire it before slurping the whipped green tea at once. To be completely honest, this bitter green liquid made from ground tea powder didn't even taste very pleasant. I was not an expert of Japanese tea ceremony but to my understanding, it was more like practicing a ritual than fulfilling personal pleasure. Chawan, as the bridge between the host and guests, played an essential role in the event.
Chawan literally means "tea bowl". It originated from China and developed in Japan. The earliest record shows that a priest named Eichu made tea for Emperor Saga in the Heian Period (794-1185). The most well received type of Chawan in Japan were called Jian chawan from China during the Song Dynasty (960-1279). Jian chawan was brought to Japan by priests and admired at a temple on Mount Tianmu (Heaven's Eye in English, Tenmoku in Japanese). These Chawan were normally coated with dark glaze which provided a pleasant color contrast with green tea. The iron content in the glaze gives it a rich glossy color with crystals called "oil spot" on the surface. For a lot of Japanese potters, making a good tea Chawan was something worth pursuing for a lifetime. A well crafted Chawan should be well balanced with reasonable weight. It should be pleasantly curved when you hold it with both hands and put the rim on your lips.
As techniques improved, the Japanese no longer relied on imported Chawan from China. Raku ware was first made by the Raku family in the 16th century and became the most distinguishable style of Japanese ceramics. It was traditionally hand built rather than thrown. After firing in low temperature, Raku ware could be cooled in open air while it was still glowing hot. The uneven surface of Raku indicates a sense of human touch which delivers a personal message to the user. The irregular shape resembles the organic forms that can be found in nature. The aesthetic of Raku ware was deeply connected to Wabi-Sabi, a comprehensive Japanese philosophy that appreciates imperfection and impermanence.
It appeals to me that in a tea ceremony, every step has to be perfectly followed by rules while most of the tea bowls used are "imperfect". This contrast can be found in every level of Japanese culture. For example, Japanese are widely known as extreme polite and disciplined but they arguably have the most violent and erotic publications. It would be interesting to find out what causes such a tension. As for the Chawan, it doesn't matter whether they are perfectly thrown or wobbly built, it is always a pleasure to look at them because they are simply beautiful.
Author: Michele Xiaoyun Fan