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If Tea Bowls Could Talk

Denise Patry Leidy, Curator, Department of Asian Art

Posted: Wednesday, August 15, 2012

«Hundreds of stories are embedded in the Chinese ceramics that have recently been reinstalled on the Great Hall Balcony (Gallery 200 through Gallery 205), at the heart of the Museum. Some of these stories tell of technological advances in ceramic production, others illustrate aspects of Chinese culture, and many—including comparative pieces from around the world—illustrate China's continuous and complicated impact in global ceramic history. All of these stories intertwine in fascinating and, sometimes, unexpected ways.»

For example, the rise in the production of tea bowls during the eleventh to the twelfth century illustrates the growing use of tea, which, in turn, can be traced to the role of this beverage as a stimulant for Buddhist meditation. This demand became so intense that some of the hundreds of kilns producing ceramics in China at this time, such as the Jian kilns in Fujian Province in the southeast, began to specialize and produce only tea bowls. Bowls produced at the Jian kilns are characterized by lush black/brown glazes that show dramatic patterns such as the aptly named "hare's-fur" design in their surfaces. These designs were created by manipulating the amount of iron-oxide in the glaze. During firing, the excess iron segregates itself from the glaze compound thereby creating patterns such as the "hare's fur."

Tea bowl with hare's-fur decoration      Tea bowl with hare's fur

Tea bowl with "hare's-fur" decoration. China, 11th–12th century. Northern Song (960–1127) to Southern Song (1127–1279) dynasty. Stoneware with iron-oxide glaze (Jian ware). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, H. O. Havemeyer Collection, Bequest of Mrs. H. O. Havemeyer, 1929 (29 100.227)

Although they were produced for domestic use and not intended for export, Jian tea bowls were sometimes brought to Japan by Buddhist monks who had traveled to China to practice and study with famous masters. Rare in Japan, these treasured bowls, which were sometimes used in the tea ceremony, were often repaired using gold lacquer.

Tea bowl with hare's-fur decoration      Tea bowl with hare's-fur decoration

Tea bowl with "hare's-fur" decoration. China, 11th–12th century. Northern Song (960–1127) to Southern Song (1127–1279) dynasty. Stoneware with iron-oxide glaze (Jian ware); Japanese lacquer repair. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Rogers Fund, 1925 (25.60.32)

By the fifteenth century, Japanese kilns also produced tea bowls with "hare's-fur" and other Chinese glaze patterns. These designs are collectively known as temmoku after the Japanese reading of Mount Tianmu, an important Buddhist center in Fujian near the Jian kiln complex.

Tea bowl with hare's-fur decoration      Tea bowl with hare's-fur decoration

Tea bowl with "hare's-fur" decoration. Japan, 16th century. Muromachi period (1392–153). Stoneware with iron-oxide glaze; metal rim (Seto ware). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, H.O. Havemeyer Collection, Bequest of Mrs. H. O. Havemeyer, 1929 (29.100.234)

Temmoku glazes, which continue to be used in Japan today, traveled from China and Japan to the West in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This was due to a renewed interest in Asian ceramics spurred in part by widespread concerns regarding urbanization, industrialization, and mass production that underlay the Arts and Crafts Movement (1860–1910) and its emphasis on individual production and artistic expression.

Tea bowl with oil spot and hare's-fur decoration      Tea bowl with oil spot and hare's-fur decoration

Kamada Koji (Japanese, born 1948). Tea bowl with "oil spot" and "hare's-fur" decoration, 2005. Stoneware with iron-oxide glazes. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of the artist, 2006 (2006. 128)

Bowl with hare's fur      Bowl with hare's fur

Charles Fergus Binns (American, born England, 1857–1934). Bowl, 1920s–early 1930s. Stoneware with iron glaze. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of Mrs. Henrietta Crawford, 1934 (35.91)

The "hare's-fur" pattern in the glaze on a tea bowl by Charles Fergus Binns is therefore a descendant of the eleventh- and twelfth-century tea bowls that are also on view on the balcony. Binns, who owned a collection of Japanese ceramics, moved from England to the United States in the late nineteenth century, and is credited with laying the foundation for the rise of the American studio pottery in the early twentieth century.

Department(s): Asian Art
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About the Author

Denise Patry Leidy is a curator in the Department of Asian Art.

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