AN EXQUISITE AND RARE 'JIAN' 'HARE'S FUR' 'TENMOKU' BOWL SOUTHERN SONG DYNASTY
Collection of Fujita Tokujiro, second son of Denzaburo (1920s).
‘Jian’ tea bowls such as the present piece with a near-black glaze with a coppery hare’s fur pattern that emanates a prismatic effect of spectral colouration when reflecting light, are among the rarest and most desirable of all nogime tenmoku tea bowls. This exquisite, iridescent bowl has good claim to have come to Japan as one of those fabled first bowls brought in the Kamakura period (1185-1333) by Japanese monks, who discovered the art of ritual tea drinking from black tea bowls in Buddhist temples in southern China. The whole range of black tea bowls derive their current designation tenmoku (or temmoku, Chinese tianmu) from these first encounters that took place in the Song dynasty (960-1279), notably in the Tianmu mountain range of Lin’an county, north Zhejiang province. In Japan tenmoku tea bowls have been admired, treasured and reverentially used in the tea ceremony ever since. Nogime [‘ear of grain’] is the Japanese term for the striations of the glaze that in China and the West are likened to ‘hare’s fur’.
The history of this bowl can be traced to the 17th century, but most likely goes back to the Kamakura period, when the country experienced a tremendous increase in the popularity of tea drinking, and when the preparation of whipped tea was introduced from Song dynasty China together with the dark brown or black-glazed bowls from the Jian kilns of Fujian province. These bowls, which at first glance seem humble, but which occasionally display the ravishing glaze effects seen on the present piece, were deemed the most suitable receptacles to drink tea from, as the dark glaze showed off the white froth of whipped tea to best advantage, since their thick walls had an insulating effect, keeping the beverage hot and the fingers, which embraced them, cool, and since the indentation just below the rim allowed for a firm, yet elegant, grip.
The bowl has been used for centuries in the Dōshōan, an important ancient medicine studio in Kyoto founded in the Kamakura period by Kinoshita Dōshō (1171-1247). In search of a more authentic form of Buddhism, Dōshō went to China together with Dōgen Zenji (1200-1253), a Japanese Buddhist priest, who in response to Chinese Chan Buddhism later founded the Sōtō school of Zen Buddhism. Having studied Buddhism and medicine in China for five years, Dōshō withdrew to this studio in Kyoto to provide medicine. During the Edo period (1603-1868) monks of the Sōtō school resided at the Dōshōan when they paid their visit to the Emperor in Kyoto to receive their accreditation.
In Chinese Buddhist temples tea, with its beneficial effects on body and mind, was drunk for medicinal reasons, and its ritualized preparation played a central role in Buddhist ceremonies. In the Song dynasty, the occupation with Buddhism and medicine led invariably to a passion for tea, which would equally have played a major role in the Dōshōan. The studio remained in the Kinoshita family and continued to be active until the beginning of the Meiji period (1868-1912), when the move of the seat of the imperial court from Kyoto to Tokyo took away much of its business. Today the memory of the studio persists in form of a small shrine at the site devoted to a Medicine God.
The present tea bowl is one of the exceptional tea wares included in the Taishō meiki kan [Catalogue of masterpiece tea utensils in the Taishō period] by Takahashi Yoshio (Takahashi Sōan, 1861-1937), an entrepreneur and a tea master. This book is considered to be the most important catalogue of tea utensils in the world of Tea Ceremony. Published in nine volumes between Taishō 10th (1921) and Showa 1st year (1925), it illustrates only those selected masterpieces that Sōan had handled in person, with detailed descriptions of the objects and their accompanying boxes and inscriptions. Because of its accuracy, it is highly valued today not only as an art catalogue, but also as a historical document.
The Taishō meiki kan states that this tea bowl had been used by Mikyōdō (1615?-1690), master of the Dōshōan studio in Kyoto, who passed down the bowl to the Fujita family in Osaka. About his own encounter with this bowl Sōan writes:
8th May, Taishō 9th year , handled a bowl at Tokujiro Fujita’s residence in Hitashino Tamachi, Kita-ku, Osaka city. The metal ring on the rim is flawless, the nogime [hare’s fur] glaze inside and outside of the bowl is beautiful. Small oil spots gently appear among the nogime glaze. Thick glaze drops have formed at the foot ring, which is of iron colour, its rim softly rounded and almost flat at the base. The word to describe the shiny glaze covering the surface of the bowl is Beauty.
The inscription on the paulownia wood box that houses the present piece designates the bowl Higashiyama Den Gyobutsu [‘Imperial property of the Higashiyama Hall’] from the collection of Yoshimitsu Ashikaga (1358-1408), Shogun of the Muromachi period (1336-1573). Although this provenance cannot be confirmed, it is noteworthy that Yoshimitsu Ashikaga, himself a Buddhist monk, strongly patronized Buddhist temples and that under his Shogunate the tea ceremony experienced further propagation. In order to secure the sea trade between China and Japan, he exchanged letters with the Yongle Emperor (1403-24).
Tenmoku tea bowls are a case apart among Song dynasty ceramics. No other kiln centre besides that of Jianyang in Fujian, which produced these black bowls, was bold enough to limit its output to one single product. Other kilns, even if they specialized in one type of ceramic, all produced a large variety of wares, in different qualities and shapes, for different clients and functions. To concentrate on the manufacture of black tea bowls reflects the strong demand for and immense popularity of these wares.
Black wares from Fujian are mentioned and recommended as tea bowls in poems and essays since the early Northern Song period (960-1127), by scholars such as Huang Tingjian, Yang Wanli, Tao Gu, Hui Hong, Zhao Ji, Cai Xiang, Cai Tao, Zhu Mu and Su Dongpo, many of their referring to their ‘hare’s fur’ pattern, and some praising their special qualities (Feng Xianming, Zhongguo gu taoci wenxian jishi/Annotated Collection of Historical Documents on Ancient Chinese Ceramics, Taipei, 2000, pp. 124f, and Robert D. Mowry, Hare’s Fur, Tortoiseshell, and Partridge Feathers, Harvard University Art Museums, Cambridge Mass., 1996, p. 30).
The Emperor Huizong (r. 1101-1125), one of China’s greatest imperial connoisseurs, was a devotee of Fujianese tea as well as ‘Jian’ tea bowls, and proclaimed those with hare’s fur markings the most desirable (Mowry, ibid.). Yet the finest glazes, such as the glaze seen on the present bowl, were probably achieved only in the Southern Song period (1127-1279), when the location of the capital closer to the kilns in the south, boosted their production. Although the Jianyang kilns annually supplied tea bowls as tribute to the court, Jian wares are not among the Song ceramics that are regarded as imperial wares. The bowls inscribed on the base gong yu [‘for imperial use’] or jin zhan [‘bowl for presentation’], predestined for presentation to the court and inscribed before the outcome of the glaze in the firing became apparent, in general do not show the best glazes and are not among the most impressive pieces. One of the reasons why the kilns were not suited to the status of official ceramic providers may be the variable outcome of the glaze, which is exactly what made and makes these ceramics so fascinating, for modern collectors just like ancient connoisseurs. Glazes that can range from a plain brown or black to most sophisticated streaked or dotted patterns of opalescent polychromy are reflected in prices that range from three to eight-figure US Dollar sums. The precise glaze effect clearly could not be controlled or deliberately provoked by the potters, but was achieved through an exceedingly rare chance combination of factors in the composition and the firing.
Tenmoku tea bowls are the ultimate ceramics to behold from close up, turning them in one’s hands, since neither photographs nor a display on a shelf, however well lit, will do them full justice. The extreme beauty and rarity of bowls such as the present piece explains their reverential treatment in Japan. To accord with their nacreous sheen the finest bowls were often thoughtfully matched with a carefully selected ancient lacquer bowl stand inlaid in mother-of-pearl. Dressed in silk draw-string pouches, with a tailor-made silk cushion inside, and kept in tight-fitting paulownia wood boxes, they were able to survive nearly a thousand turbulent years intact. ‘Jian’ tea bowls were famous far beyond their immediate region and were copied by many northern kilns, although never very closely. Since not even their basic practical qualities were recreated by other kilns, let alone their style, their identity is never in question.
Hare’s fur tea bowls of the striking quality of the present bowl are rare. A similar bowl, also with a metal rim mount, was included in the exhibition Karamono tenmoku. Fukken shō Kenyō shutsudo tenmoku to Nihon densei no tenmoku. [Chinese tenmoku. Excavated examples from Fujian and heirloom works from Japan], Chadō Shiryōkan, Kyoto, and MOA Art Museum, Atami, 1994, cat. no. 6; another of much lower proportions, from the Tokugawa Art Museum, Nagoya, ibid., cat. no. 16. This exhibition catalogue, where a few important heirloom tenmoku tea bowls preserved in Japan were juxtaposed with a large sample of excavated sherds from the kiln site, impressively documents the wide range of qualities and the excellence and rarity of the examples collected in Japan. Compare also the famous nogime tenmoku bowl sold in these rooms, 11th May 2011, lot 7; and another bowl without metal rim from the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, included in the Harvard University exhibition, 1996, illustrated in Mowry, op.cit., cat. no. 83. Only one sherd with a similar glaze effect is published in J.M. Plumer, Temmoku. A Study of the Ware of Chien, Tokyo, 1972, p. 59, pl. 8, who illustrates mainly specimens collected from the kiln sites.
The mother-of-pearl inlaid lacquer stand is highly unusual for its attractive, but extremely rare, abstract diaper design and the fact that the more common chrysanthemum scroll is almost hidden on the underside. A similar pattern, but with the small squares inlaid to form a chequerboard rather than a diaper pattern, can be seen on a Ryukyu lacquer document box from the Detroit Institute of Arts, incised with the character tian [‘heaven’] and a fan, which according to the author, Denise Patry Leidy, “indicates that they [the pieces thus inscribed] were intended for the use of the royal family and also identifies them as Okinawan. The character appears alone on pieces made for the emperor, in combination with a fan on those for the empress …”, see the exhibition catalogue Mother-of-Pearl. A Tradition in Asian Lacquer, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2006, p. 44, fig. 33.