History, One Cup at a Time

Another bless­ing shared by tea lovers is the rich his­tory that has been handed down to us by our predecessors.

It is trans­mit­ted in the form of rit­u­als, writ­ings, and trea­sured objects that have been pre­served for our present enrich­ment, and to be passed down yet again.

In some cir­cles, the high­est form of tan­gi­ble tea his­tory is said to be the Ido chawan.

The Ido story begins in Korea, where pot­ters made these rus­tic bowls for every­day use. Many say they were intended as rice bowls. The wheel-thrown shapes were rough; often uneven or show­ing fin­ger marks.

Another sign of their hum­ble begin­nings are the wads of clay in the cen­ter of the bowl. This tech­nique was used to stack sev­eral tea bowls together in order to fire a larger load, with­out allow­ing the glaze on the piled bowls to fuse together.

It is not clear when this style of pot­tery first became known in Japan, but by the time of Sen no Rikyu and his dis­ci­ples, the bowls were touted as among the purest expres­sion of their wabi esthetic, and highly prized by both the tea men and their patrons.

There were other types of Korai (Korean) bowls imported by the Japan­ese cha­jin, but Yamanoue Soji is cred­ited with iden­ti­fy­ing the Ido bowl as the best among them. He even selected an Ido chawan for the col­lec­tion of Toy­otomi Hideyoshi.

Another dis­ci­ple of Rikyu, Oribe Furuta, sought inspi­ra­tion from this pot­tery in order to infuse more of their wabi char­ac­ter into his own chawan designs.

Look­ing to get even closer to this ideal, he sought to under­stand the con­struc­tion of the Korean climb­ing kilns, and recre­ate them in Japan.

Due to the ris­ing pop­u­lar­ity of the style, Japan­ese began mak­ing com­mis­sions to Korean pot­ters or send­ing their own designs for teabowls to be fired in the climb­ing kilns. Unfor­tu­nately, with the cha­jin in ser­vice of the war thirsty Hideyoshi, this vol­un­tary trade soon turned very bloody for the Koreans.

Hideyoshi had deluded him­self into think­ing that he could cap­ture the many riches of China, if only Korea would guar­an­tee him safe pas­sage through their penin­sula. When the Korean envoy rejected these terms, Hideyoshi pressed on to war any­way. He never reached China, but the Japan­ese army razed the set­tle­ments of Korea almost beyond repair. As a spoils of war, they returned with dozens of Korean pot­ters as their cap­tives, and set them to work back in Japan.

From that point on, the nation of Japan con­tin­ued to toil at extract­ing the wabi essence of the Ido chawan, but the orig­i­nal is still con­sid­ered the pin­na­cle of the form.

The cha­jin strug­gled with the idea of cre­at­ing wabi, as mak­ing some­thing that appeared to be with­out inten­tion was nat­u­rally an inten­tion itself. Per­haps the fail­ure to sur­pass the char­ac­ter of the Ido chawan is proof that no amount of force (of will or mil­i­tary con­quest) is capa­ble of coerc­ing real beauty.

Per­haps reach­ing for some­thing and never quite grasp­ing is part of what wabi is about, after all. One may never reach this state of imper­fec­tion per­fectly, but while we pon­der it, we have Ido to enjoy.

Fur­ther read­ing:
Chanoyu Quar­terly #18
Dawan, Chawan, Chas­s­bal
Toki
War­rior Tea Man (Manga)

3 thoughts on “History, One Cup at a Time

  1. Hey Bran­don,

    I wanted to say thanks so much for tak­ing the time to write this really won­der­ful post. I just read it today, and it rekin­dled my own desire to blog about tea. (My own tea blog Lao Ren Cha has been just sit­ting still for many months now.)

    As always your writ­ing is clear, and cap­ti­vat­ing. Please keep it up.

    –N

  2. Nice post. Very poetic too. I’ve been look­ing for a sim­i­lar cup around Kun­ming tea mar­kets but couldn’t find any­thing within desired price range…

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