Around the ninth century, green-glazed bowls were popular for drinking tea. However, by the eleventh century, tastes shifted to black and brown glazed bowls made by the Jian kilns.
The pale color of the foam produced by whisking tea created a striking contrast against the dark glaze, which allowed for greater visual appreciation of the tea. These black and brown glazes had different names describing the unique patterns that formed from the firing process, such as hare’s fur, tortoiseshell, oil spot, persimmon, and partridge feather.
Jian tea bowls were used by Buddhist monks for everyday consumption of tea as well as for offerings, because their subtle colors and humble origins embodied Zen aesthetics.
The shape of the tea bowl is such that it fits comfortably into the drinker’s hands while the thickness of the body and glaze protect one from heat. Its small size holds only enough to drink, and the subtle dip in the rim encourages tiny sips.
A delicate silver-bound rim on this bowl ensures that the rim is smooth for the drinker’s lips. Tea was prepared and served in the tea bowl using a stand (tenmokudai) in order to show utmost respect to the person being served to and elevate the tea bowl’s importance by not letting it touch the ground. For example, here is a much later lacquered wood tenmokudai, from the turn of the eighteenth century.
Along with tea culture, these bowls were later imported to Japan by Buddhist monks who were returning from studying in China as seen in this artwork by Kano Osanobu.
Jian ware became known as tenmoku, which is the Japanese name for Tianmu Mountain where the monks studied at monasteries. Tenmoku is so highly regarded due to their one-of-a-kind patterns that certain bowls are considered national treasures, and it inspired Japanese kilns to develop similar iron glazes such as Seto ware.
These tea bowls were incorporated into the Japanese tea ceremony and are still used today for highly formal tea ceremonies.
Author: Diana Liao, curatorial intern, 2020. Research supervised by Maureen Warren, Curator of European and American Art.
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