Academic journal article Material Culture

Chigusa and the Art of Tea

Academic journal article Material Culture

Chigusa and the Art of Tea

Article excerpt

Chigusa and the Art of Tea Edited by Louise Allison Cort and Andrew M. Watsky Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2014. x + 287 pp. Tables, maps, notes, glossary, appendices, bibliography, and index. Paperback price: $40.00, ISBN: 9780934686259.

"Beauty is truth, truth beauty," wrote John Keats in the final lines of "Ode to a Grecian Urn ." But is that really all there is to know? Chigusa, for one, begs to differ. Chigusa is an unassuming 700-year old ceramic jar with a brownish glaze that was recently acquired by the Smithsonian's Freer Gallery of Art . The gallery already has a number of similar jars in its collection: three are from China, twelve from Japan . Why then, one might ask, would the museum spend $662,500 on yet another old pot? Chigusa, as it turns out, is no ordinary jug . Over the centuries, it has acquired a proper name, admirers, and a reputation for surfacing and circulating during periods of social change and economic flux .

Chigusa's provenance and its larger cultural context is the focus of the book, Chigusa and the Art of Tea. This volume, edited by Louise Allison Cort and Andrew M . Watsky, is a path breaking, collaborative effort to examine of the "cultural biography" (Kopytoff 1986) of a thing. Aesthetics play an important role in Chigusa's "rags-to-riches" (p . 35) story and the volume is laden with rich full-color and black and white photographs of the jar, its accoutrements, as well as numerous illustrations and translated historical documents for better understanding Chigusa from various angles and perspectives

Yet as the scholars from Japan, China, Australia and the United States who contributed to the book inform us, there is more to Chigusa than meets the eye Bookended by a prologue and extensive illustrated appendices, the volume's ten chapters chronologically lead us along Chigusa's journey from ancient China to the Freer Gallery Short essays on topics ranging from the science of green tea to jar decoration appear in certain chapters, offering informative excursions into the larger world of taste, craft and connoisseurship

Chigusa's origins, nevertheless, remain murky At some point in the thirteen or fourteenth century, the jar emerged from a kiln in southern China and entered the world as a utilitarian container for preserving tea leaves . Its fate changed, however, when it was imported to Japan during an era when drinking powdered green tea (another Chinese cultural import) was taking hold as a practice among certain elites and interest in the origins and aesthetic qualities of tea-related objects was growing .

Functional and far less revered in China, Chinese tea-leaf storage jars, or chatsubo, played a pivotal role in defining "a distinctive Japanese aesthetic response" (p . 34) to karamono, or tea utensils . Chigusa's foreign origins, proportions, quality and weight likely captured the attention of a tea master, who set the jar aside for appreciation and personal use . Eventually, this admiration - ritualized through practices of display during private gatherings - earned the jar a proper name and reputation among certain groups . It also likely led to the jar's circulation as a gift between influential men in growing tea ceremony lineages By the Edo period (1615-1868), Chigusa was recognized as meibutsu, or a celebrated object, and sightings were noted in the journals and diaries of tea masters Chigusa had also begun to accumulate a wardrobe, armor, and travel documents that still accompany it today These materials include centuries of letters and diaries, wooden boxes, silken cords and woven coverings that helped to both authenticate and augment its value and significance

Mystery adds to Chigusa's scholarly appeal For example, there is no record of who gave the jar its name or even why "Chigusa" was chosen . The practice of naming particular objects was not uncommon in the world of tea and socially coated foreign objects with a "Japanese conceptual veneer" (p . …

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