The tea ceremony as it is known today emerged in the
sixteenth century. It was an elite artistic pursuit that provided a forum for the rulers of Japan, the warrior elite, and wealthy merchants to forge and reinforce social ties.
A shift occurred in the mid-sixteenth century, pioneered by influential tea masters such as Sen no Rikyū (1522–1591). These tea masters began to incorporate rustic ceramic vessels from Korea and Japan.
It found beauty in unrefined, natural, or imperfect forms. By the authority of their recognized connoisseurial abilities, the leading tea men of the time elevated these objects to the same level as the ancient Chinese treasures. This aesthetic that celebrates austerity, spontaneity, and apparent artlessness is known as wabi.
Although the Japanese word for the tea ceremony, chanoyu, literally means “hot water for tea,” the practice involves much more than its name implies. Chanoyu is a ritualized, secular practice in which tea is consumed in a specialized space with codified procedures. The act of preparing and drinking matcha, the powdered green tea used in the ceremony, is a choreographed art requiring many years of study to master. The intimate setting of the tea room, which is usually only large enough to accommodate four or five people, is modeled on a hermit’s hut. In this space, often surrounded by a garden, the participants temporarily withdraw from the mundane world.
In the tea room, the emphasis is on the interaction between the host, guests, and tea utensils. The host will choose an assemblage of objects specific to that gathering and use those utensils to perform the tea preparations in front of the guests. Each tea gathering is a unique experience, so a particular assemblage of objects and people is never repeated. The guests are expected to abide by tea room etiquette with regard to the gestures used to drink the tea and the appreciation of the utensils. When presented with a bowl of tea, a guest will notice and reflect upon the warmth of the bowl and the color of the bright green matcha against the clay before he begins to drink.
The ceramics used in this context—tea bowls, water jars, flower vases, tea caddies, and so forth—are functional tools valued for their practicality as well as artworks admired for their aesthetic qualities. A key element in this practice is the host’s connoisseurship skills; the host acquires a collection of objects that conform to a shared aesthetic standard and selects which objects to use in a particular gathering.
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