Bowls with this exquisite dappled black glaze with striking iridescent ‘hare’s fur’ and ‘oil spot’ markings are among the most celebrated products of the Song dynasty (960-1279) kilns at Jian, in northern Fujian province. The desirability of these bowls coevolved with the tea-drinking tradition of the period.
At that time, Chan Buddhist priests prepared, imbibed, and served tea for its beneficial effects on the body and mind. The elaborate preparatory process—which involved scraping tea from a pressed cake, drying it, grinding it, putting it through a sieve, selecting the finest resulting powder, mixing it into a paste with warm water, and gradually adding additional water while simultaneously whisking it into a frothy beverage—played a central role in religious ceremonies. It also became fashionable in elite social circles. Sacred and secular enthusiasts alike sought to master the art of tea-making, with praise awarded to the person who achieved the richest froth.
The intrinsic qualities of Jian bowls made them particularly suited for tea preparation and enjoyment. In size and form they were comfortable to hold. Their heavy potting had an insulating effect, keeping the tea inside hot while protecting the fingers from the heat. Their speckled black glazes subtly imbued with the spectral coloration of refracted light heightened the aesthetic experience of a well-formed white froth. Additionally, Jian bowls were made in the same province as the empire’s prized teas, providing another link between the vessel and its contents.
Northern Song scholars such as Huang Tingjian (1045-1105), Yang Wanli (1127-1206) and Su Dongpo (1037-1101) discuss Fujian black-glazed tea bowls in their poems and essays. Even Emperor Huizong (1082-1135), one of China’s greatest connoisseurs, was a devotee of Fujianese tea as well as Jian tea bowls, and proclaimed those with ‘hare’s fur’ markings the most desirable (see Robert D. Mowry, Hare’s Fur, Tortoiseshell and Partridge Feathers, Harvard University Art Museum, Cambridge Mass., 1996, p. 30). Intellectual and imperial appreciation for the wares continued into the Southern Song dynasty, when the court’s closer proximity to the kiln spurred output. The Jian kilns supplied tea bowls to the court as a form of tribute, but due to the variable outcome of the glaze, they were not deemed imperial wares. Indeed, bowls inscribed on the base before firing with the characters gong yu [‘for imperial use’] or jin zhan [‘bowl for presentation’] are not generally the most impressive.
Jian artisans experimented within this ceramic type with dazzling results. By manipulating body and glaze compositions, kiln temperatures, the cooling process, and allowing for the interventions of chance factors in the firing process, Jian ceramicists created wares that display the full potential of the iron oxide glaze. One of the best known effects is ‘hare’s fur’ (Jpn. nogime), in which opalescent streaks run down the sides of the bowl. Another, more rare, is the ‘oil spot’ (Jpn. yuteki) surface, in which tiny shimmering circles appear on the glaze. The latter is difficult to achieve because the craftsman must interrupt the firing between the moment when the spots form and moment they dissolve into streaks.
The present ‘Jian’ tea bowl is rare in that it exhibits both types of variegation in the glaze. Its steeply angled sides are bathed in a thick inky black glaze that pools just above the chocolate-brown foot. On each side of the metal-bound rim, copper-toned ‘oil spots’ coalesce in a dense, continuous cluster dispersing into a looser distribution at the shoulder before transforming into an upper register of ‘hare’s fur.’ Throughout, new copper freckles emerge and cascade downward, thinning, lightening, and wavering as they reach the bottom. This internal complexity refracts light in unexpected ways, allowing the surface to appear black and copper at one moment, and a combination of aubergine, teal, midnight blue, and gold the next, constantly beckoning and teasing the eye. On the interior, the glaze culminates to one side of the well with tiny golden specks around a larger spot, like stars orbiting a planet. The smoothness of the glaze allows it to express the full range of luminous effects even to this day.
The notoriety of Jian bowls quickly spread to Japan via Japanese Zen Buddhist monks who travelled to the monasteries of the Tianmu (‘eyes of heaven’) mountain range, west of Hangzhou (Zhejiang), where the bowls were used by local monks for drinking tea. The Zen monks were so impressed by the visual, tactile, and functional qualities of the bowls that they brought them back to Japan in order to use them for the same purpose and dubbed them temmoku (or tenmoku), the Japanese pronunciation of Tianmu, in honor of the place where they first encountered them. Once in Japan, the bowls were adopted by Japanese tea masters and contributed significantly to the development of styles within the Japanese tea ceremony. Consequently, temmoku has become the universally accepted term to describe these nacreous black wares.
Although in China the production of black-glazed tea ware began to decline in the Yuan dynasty (1279-1368), with kilns converting to the production of qingbai-type wares, in Japan whipped tea continued to be ritually prepared and consumed in the tea ceremony. There, temmoku tea bowls were admired and treasured for centuries to come. They were incorporated into family traditions of densei, the passing down of cherished objects to the next generation within a lineage, and accrued prestige with each subsequent transmission. Within the densei system, Song dynasty ceramics were particularly valued. To accord with their exalted status and brilliance, temmoku tea bowls were sometimes paired with ancient mother-of-pearl inlaid lacquer stands, were wrapped in custom-made silk pouches, and were stored in cushioned paulownia boxes. It is in Japan that many of the most striking examples of Jian wares are preserved. The present ‘Jian’ bowl is one such example. Its unblemished surface testifies to its history as a family heirloom in Japan.
A wide range of different temmoku bowls are in the Tokyo National Museum, Tokyo, included in Illustrated Catalogue of Tokyo National Museum. Chinese Ceramics I, Tokyo, 1988 pls. 635-640; another bowl with a highly iridescent glaze, in the Kyoto National Museum, Kyoto, is illustrated in Sekai tōji zenshu / Ceramic Art of the World. Sung Dynasty, vol. 12, Tokyo, 1977, pl. 253; and a further bowl from the collection of Diane H. Shafer, is published in Mowry, op. cit., pl. 82. Three exemplary ‘Jian’ tea bowls have recently sold at auction, including a silver-streaked edition from the Pilkington collection at our Hong Kong rooms, 6th April 2016, lot 12; an ‘oil spot’ bowl from the Linyushanren collection at Christie’s New York, 15th September 2016, lot 707; and a blue-toned version at our London rooms, 9th November 2016, lot 108.
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