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Origins

The Way of Tea

Design of paulownia on paper doorsTea from China

The drinking of tea was introduced to Japan from China where, by the eighth century, the tea plant was valued for its medicinal properties. Tea was also used as a stimulant by Zen Buddhist monks. Zen (Chinese: Chan) arose in China in the sixth century, and means literally "meditation." The Zen path to spiritual insight requires that monks meditate for extended periods in their effort to attain the enlightenment experienced by the Buddha. Chinese monks found tea helped them maintain concentration during these long sessions, and drinking the beverage became a common feature of Chinese monastic life. Through contacts with monks from China, the custom began to spread to Buddhist temples in Japan. During the Heian period (794-1185) it became a favorite social pastime of Japanese emperors and aristocrats.

Tea in Japan

It was not until the Kamakura period (1185-1333), however, that tea drinking, along with Zen, became widespread in Japan. From the late twelfth century onward, Zen exerted an enormous impact on Japanese society and was embraced by the warrior elite, which during this period wrested military and political control of the country from the imperial court. Zen temples were established throughout Japan, often under warrior patronage. Japanese monks who traveled to study at Chinese monasteries returned home extolling the advantages of tea, and in 1191 the monk Eisai brought back seeds of the Chinese tea plant to Japan. In Zen monasteries tea was also served ceremoniously to important visitors. Thus tea drinking spread outside the monastery walls, and was adopted by the shoguns (warrior rulers) and daimyo (feudal barons) who from 1185 to 1868 controlled Japan.

The tea gatherings held in the castles and mansions of shoguns and daimyo in the Kamakura and Muromachi (1333-1573) periods had little in common with the austere tea rites practiced within monasteries. The warrior elite invited guests to engage in tea-tasting contests (tōcha), in which participants attempted to distinguish various kinds of regional teas, with the winners awarded elaborate prizes. Equally important was the connoisseurship of fine tea utensils and works of art, with those from China held in the highest regard. Chinese wares were so avidly collected that the services of a cultural advisor were often required. Known as dōbōshū, these advisors acted as curators who also prepared and served the tea to the guests.

Some gatherings lasted for days and included poetry composition, dance performances, boat rides, athletic events, and formal banquets. The lavishness of these social affairs is known from contemporary accounts, which describe guests seated on leopard skins before tables draped with gold brocade. Often as much sake was consumed as tea. Eventually, these events became so sumptuous and raucous that they were banned by the government.

Early Tea Masters

The tea master Murata Shukō (1423-1502) reacted against the flamboyant, ostentatious customs that had grown up around tea and, through his study of Zen, sought to simplify the tea gathering. His ideas were developed further by Takeno Jōō (1502-1555) and, especially, Sen No Rikyū (1522-1591), tea master to the warrior rulers Oda Nobunaga (1534-1582) and Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1537-1598). Rikyū was born into a merchant family, reflecting the rising interest in tea on the part of wealthy townsmen in the sixteenth century. He was deeply influenced by the contemplative atmosphere surrounding monastic tea rites, and he perfected the style of tea called wabi, which is characterized by cultivated restraint, rustic simplicity, and an air of assumed poverty. Preferring to host small gatherings, Rikyū humbly prepared and served the tea himself in a simple, tranquil setting. Alongside the refined Chinese teabowls and utensils then in vogue, Rikyū favored humbler domestic wares. In teabowls known as Raku ware, such as those hand molded by Chōjirō, he saw an unpretentious, austere beauty that mirrored his style of tea.

After Rikyū's death in 1591, his student Furuta Oribe (1544-1615) emerged as the preeminent tea master in Japan. Oribe was tea instructor to the shoguns Tokugawa Hidetada (1579-1632) as well as his father Leyasu (1543-1616) who united the daimyo under his rule. The Tokugawa shogunate ushered in a period of peace and political stability that would last until 1868. Oribe, a daimyo himself, favored a more elegant style of tea than the pure wabi of his teacher. Although he too admired domestic tea wares, the ceramics associated with his name are more colorful and less severe than those preferred by Rikyū. The brightly glazed black and iridescent green tea wares from Mino reflect Oribe's more playful and decorative tastes. Often molded in innovative shapes, these wares were especially fashionable among daimyo tea practitioners.

This text appeared in a brochure entitled Japan: The Art of the Tea Ceremony, which was produced in conjunction with the exhibition "Japan: The Shaping of the Daimyo Culture 1185-1868" at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.