Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
October 26, 2018
Dora C. Y. Ching, Louise Allison Cort, and Andrew M. Watsky, eds. Around Chigusa: Tea and the Arts of Sixteenth-Century Japan Princeton: Department of Art and Archaeology, Princeton University in association with Princeton University Press, 2017. 336 pp.; 99 color ills. Cloth $75.00 (9780691177557)

Since its acquisition by the Freer Gallery of Art in 2009, the tea leaf storage jar known as “Chigusa” (Thousand Grasses) has generated much discussion and scholarship, including two exhibitions (Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, 2014, and Princeton University Art Museum, 2014­­–15), a symposium, two workshops, and two books. The present volume results from the symposium and workshops. While the earlier book, Chigusa and the Art of Tea (2014), also edited by Louise Allison Cort and Andrew M. Watsky, is made up of short essays that focus primarily on the object itself, Around Chigusa takes a different approach. The essays create a dialogue “around” the history of this thirteenth- or fourteenth-century ceramic jar that was made in China but then had a life in Japan as a “famous object” (meibutsu) in the world of chanoyu tea culture. Chanoyu, often described as “tea ceremony” in English, is an art of social interaction based around the preparation and consumption of matcha (powdered green tea). Since the sixteenth century, the practice has provided an important context for the creation, consumption, and display of art forms such as calligraphy, painting, ceramics, lacquerware, and metalwork.

There are differing degrees of engagement with Chigusa and chanoyu in the essays; some provide direct, sustained analysis of the jar and/or tea culture while others use these topics as the starting point for a discussion about other subjects. Essays by Andrew Hare and Melissa M. Rinne, for example, engage in detailed analysis of items that accompany Chigusa, such as a letter and a fabric mouth cover, with fascinating results that have significant implications for our understanding of tea history. Matthew McKelway and Melissa McCormick’s contributions, by contrast, deal with fan paintings by Kano Eitoku and a 1560 painting of Murasaki Shikibu at Ishiyamadera by Tosa Mitsumoto. While they do not directly serve to illuminate Chigusa itself, these essays reconstruct the cultural contexts in which Chigusa became a famous object in chanoyu and elucidate the interplay between things Chinese and Japanese in sixteenth-century Japan. Combined, the essays in Around Chigusa provide a productive example of what can happen when a group of scholars engage with tea history from a critical perspective and bring expert knowledge from a range of fields to bear. The essays expand our understanding of the development of this important cultural practice in sixteenth-century Japan. Around Chigusa shows that the story is more complicated and multilayered than the standard narrative, which focuses on the role of a few individual tea masters of commoner status. Instead, the book points to the ways in which tea culture developed within a wider cultural milieu.

Around Chigusa is divided into five sections of differing lengths; the most substantial section is “Around Tea” which contains four essays, whereas “Japan|China” and “Concurrences: Tea in China” only contain one essay each, while “Tea Objects” and “Tea Materiality” are each made up of two essays. The overarching themes treated throughout the book include “the centrality of tea to the social life of and interaction among warriors, merchants, and courtly elite; the multifaceted relationship in Japan between things wa (Japanese) and kan (Chinese) and between tea and poetry; the rise of new formats for display of the visual arts; and collecting and display as an expression of political power” (17). Many of the essays speak to multiple themes, tying the book together despite the wide range of topics covered.

The overlap in primary sources used by different authors is noteworthy. For example, Letter of the Heart (Kokoro no fumi), which espouses the tea philosophy of Murata Shukō, regarded as a founder of chanoyu, is discussed in essays by Steven D. Owyoung, Oka Yoshiko, Morgan Pitelka, and Melissa McCormick in relation to dissolving the divide between wa and kan (31, 182). The letter is also referenced in the discussions on the shift in terminology used to refer to tea utensils (43) and the late fifteenth-century fashion for domestically produced Shigaraki and Bizen wares among tea practitioners (54). Tennōjiya kaiki, the Tennōjiya family tea diary, is discussed by Pitelka in relation to warrior patronage and participation in sixteenth-century tea culture, particularly the collecting of Chinese-made wares and famous objects. Tom Hare uses this same diary as the starting point for an exploration of “relations between Noh and tea in the late sixteenth century” (92). Further, in Rinne’s essay on Chigusa’s fabric mouth cover, the Tennōjiya family tea diary is referenced for what it can tell us about textiles used for mounting scrolls and dressing tea utensils (162).

Many of the essays provide new insight into tea history by highlighting the role of warriors and courtiers who have been largely excluded from the standard narrative of commoner tea masters and by positioning chanoyu as a driver of aesthetic developments and a forum for the display of visual arts. The innovative readings of specific objects and written sources lead to reevaluation of accepted wisdom. For example, Oka bases her argument for how dōgu, a word previously used only to refer to esoteric Buddhist ritual implements, became the commonly used term to refer to tea utensils in analyses of Shukō’s Letter of the Heart and the poetic treatise Shōsetsu monogatari (Shōsetsu stories). Her “renewed examination of two fifteenth-century texts that are considered fundamental to the history of tea culture” (39) allows her to trace a “profound transformation that took place in the valuation of “things” (50). Specifically, Oka shows that a shift in the types of objects selected for ornamental display in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries created the context for Chigusa to become a famous object within chanoyu.  

Pitelka uses collecting records such as The Manual of the Attendant of the Shogunal Collection (Kundaikan shōchōki) and records of tea gatherings (chakaiki), alongside archaeological evidence, to demonstrate that the standard narrative of tea history which “emphasizes non-samurai participants as innovators who somehow worked against the powerful warrior patrons who sustained them . . . is anachronistic and ignores the fundamental role of warriors at every stage of the development of tea” (59–60). Andrew Hare’s close examination of a letter by the renowned tea master Sen no Rikyū looks at “the physical transformations acted upon it by successive owners up to the early twentieth century” (136) not only to reveal the relationship between this letter and Chigusa but also to explore connoisseurship and the display of objects within sixteenth- and seventeenth-century tea culture.

It may be surprising to some readers how much space is devoted to China and things Chinese in a book about sixteenth-century Japan, but Chigusa serves as an excellent starting point for these discussions. Indeed, exploration of the relationship between wa and kan is one of the strengths of this book. Two essays by Steven D. Owyoung, and individual essays by Pitelka, Tomoko Sakomura, McKelway, and McCormick speak to the deep engagement with things Chinese in sixteenth-century Japan and to the congruences between tea culture in China and Japan. Owyoung’s opening essay sets the stage for discussion of wakan by presenting case studies of famous tea objects in Japan and China. Chigusa, a Chinese-made object that found its way to Japan and became a famous object within chanoyu, can be seen as a metaphor for the wider interplay between wa and kan that these essays explore. Sakomura’s essay uses the earliest documented instance of the display of a Japanese poem in a tearoom alcove, a space previously used only for Chinese paintings and calligraphy, to “explore the mechanics of value making in the sixteenth century” (72). McKelway examines how sixteenth-century Japanese tea culture provided “new contexts for viewing antique [Chinese] paintings” (131), adding value to such works and increasing their fame. McCormick’s close reading of Murasaki Shikibu at Ishiyamadera demonstrates the profound role that the court and nobility played “in shaping notions of what constituted wa and kan in the sixteenth century” (183).

While the concurrences with chashi (the art of tea) in China that Owyoung explores in the closing essay are interesting and certainly pertinent to the themes of the book, this reader would have appreciated more contextualization and explicit highlighting of the concurrences in this essay in particular. The book’s introduction, relatively short as it is, may have been the place to do this. A longer introduction could also have teased out the overlaps among essays in terms of sources and themes, rather than just hinting at them.

The inclusion of ninety-nine color illustrations of extremely high quality makes this book visually appealing and helps guide the reader through the discussions of various art forms and artworks, including not only tea objects such as tea leaf storage jars and tea caddies (along with their attendant textiles) but also Chinese and Japanese paintings, Noh libretti, poetry, and calligraphy. The detailed, high-resolution images in the essays by Andrew Hare and Rinne are particularly welcome, as they significantly enhance the reader’s appreciation of the analysis of the letter and textile in question.

Around Chigusa should appeal to historians interested in Japanese tea culture and to practitioners of chanoyu who are looking for cutting-edge research on historical practice. It will also be of interest to art historians and cultural historians of Japan in general, particularly those working on the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and scholars working on cultural interplay between China and Japan. All of the essays can stand alone, and the inclusion of illustrations of Chigusa in multiple essays will be particularly useful when selecting essays for classroom use. 

Rebecca Corbett
Assistant University Librarian, Japanese Studies, University of Southern California