Savoring and saving China’s art

by Yoko Haruhara

Japan’s history is replete with examples of the assimilation of art and artifacts from China, yet in many cases the cultural traditions that produced them have disappeared in China itself. Often, the best clues to further our understanding of these lost artistic traditions lie in examining artifacts preserved down the centuries by Japanese collectors.

Some of these precious works are currently on display at the Seikado Bunko Art Museum, in an exhibition to celebrate the museum’s 10th anniversary. The exhibition showcases valuable Chinese objects from the Sung Dynasty (960-1279) and the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368) which have been given designated-treasure status by the government of Japan, including more than 120 examples of ceramics, paintings, printed books and lacquerware.

Among the items on display are rare black Sung Dynasty tea bowls which were highly prized by Japanese collectors. Called tenmoku in Japanese, these bowls were used in the tea ceremony in this country from the late 12th century onward, whereas in China the tea ceremony had already become widespread during the Sung Dynasty. Ch’an (Zen) Buddhism flourished in China during this period, and tea was especially enjoyed in Zen Buddhist circles. Monks sipped it as a refreshment to shake off sleepiness during periods of meditation. Japanese monks who underwent apprenticeships in China brought this practice back to Japan.

The display includes Sung dynasty tenmoku bowls fired in the Shuiji kilns of Fujian Province, a region well known for its fine teas. Produced from the softest and youngest leaves, without roasting, these teas had a delicate white color and were said to have an exquisite aroma. Participants in the tea ceremony appreciated the striking contrast between the white tea and the black bowls in which it was served.

The highlight of the Seikado Museum exhibit is a tenmoku bowl with yohen glaze. The term refers to an unusual patterning effect produced by the lacquerlike glaze during firing. These patterns were both random and beautiful, and yohen tenmoku brought to Japan were highly prized during the Muromachi Period (1333-1573).

What is so lovely about yohen-patterned bowls? Their interior resembles a small universe, with a black background and a mass of dazzling stars made up of crystallized bubbles (yuteki). The particular piece exhibited here, one of only three surviving examples of yohen tenmoku in the world, is adorned with clusters of brown-colored dots of various sizes that appear to be part of a larger pattern of blue rays spreading around the interior.

The tea bowls are complemented by excellent examples of other Chinese arts from the same milieu, including six calligraphy works executed by Chinese Zen monks during the Sung and Yuan dynasties. Mounted on hanging scrolls, the calligraphy was given pride of place in the alcoves of Japanese tea houses.

Such calligraphy by Zen monks was called bokuseki (“ink traces”) by the Japanese conoisseurs who prized it. The texts of these scrolls range from religious teachings to poems and letters, and collectors prized them for their ability to capture fleeting emotions and express the creative spirit.

Displayed here is a letter written by the renowned Yuan Dynasty monk Chuho Myohon (Ch. Zhongfeng Mingben, 1263-1323). This beautiful example of the monk’s calligraphic skill was a thank-you letter to a Japanese official who had presented him with a gift of gold. Just as a skilled painter does, the calligrapher conveys his emotional state through his short, bold brushstrokes executed in unbroken wet ink. The shape of each stroke resembles a leaf, earning this technique the appellation “leaf of willow tree.”

These gorgeous tea-ceremony items give a glimpse into a golden age of Chinese art that profoundly influenced contemporaneous Japanese culture. And Japan, in turn, preserved them for posterity.