Plain as blue and white

by Yoko Haruhara

In the 16th and 17th centuries, China produced exquisite porcelain that remained a virtual secret to the outside world — most of it was commissioned for the exclusive use of Japanese patrons. A new exhibition at the Seikado Bunko Art Museum, “Chinese Porcelains of the Late Ming to Early Qing Dynasties,” showcases more than 90 pieces of this blue-and-white ware, as well as enameled ware imported from China for use in Japanese tea ceremonies and kaiseki meals.

The exhibition highlights blue-and-white ware with cobalt underglaze from the private kilns of Jingdezhen in the northeastern part of Jiangxi Province. Jingdezhen had been, since the Jingde Period (1004-07), the supplier of porcelain to the Chinese imperial court. The pieces displayed here are of a later date — from the final two reigns of the Ming Dynasty, Tianqi (1621-27) and Chongzhen (1628-44). Although some of the Chinese porcelain of this period was brought into Japan legally by the shogunate’s trading ships, other pieces were smuggled into the country by pirates.

These blue-and-white dishes and plates were used in kaiseki meals. Today, kaiseki is revered as a gourmet delight, with the beauty of the food arrangement and the delicacy of the vessels used both contributing to the pleasure of eating. But the word “kaiseki” was originally derived from the ascetic practice by Zen Buddhist monks of placing a heated stone (seki) on their stomachs to stave off hunger during meditation.

The term later came to be used to describe the simple meal served to accompany the tea ceremony. The standard kaiseki meal advocated by tea master Sen no Rikyu in the late 16th century consisted of a bowl of soup and two simple dishes. Later adaptations of the tradition saw many courses being served during kaiseki meals, leading to the elaborate dining events known today.

The formal tea ceremony usually includes a kaiseki meal presented on an individual tray. The small mukozuke dishes exhibited at the Seikado, which were highly prized by Japanese tea masters, took their name from the fact that they would be placed on the far side (muko) of the tray, with the lacquered bowls containing soup and rice placed in front of them.

Mukozuke are always artistically shaped to accentuate the food served on them. One mukozuke displayed here is shaped in a twisted rectangular form, its curves intended to bring to mind a woman’s kimono sleeve blown by the breeze. Such motifs were popular in Japan during the Momoyama and Edo periods (1568-1867).

One shaped mukozuke is decorated with a landscape scene; continuing the motif of movement, the design shows fishermen in a boat that is making ripples in the water. Auspicious pine, bamboo and plum trees are also depicted. The rim, painted with iron oxide pigment, is brown, lending a flamelike effect to the blue-and-white porcelain. This brown-rimmed blue-and-white porcelain, which was considered the highest in quality, was referred to as shonzui ware, named after a Chinese potter from the late Ming Dynasty.

Another charming piece of blue-and-white ware in the exhibit is a mizusashi (water jar) in the form of a bucket. Mizusashi were used in the Japanese tea ceremony — water drawn from the jar would be poured into the iron kettle to cool the near-boiling water.

The mizusashi in tea ceremonies were originally made of wood, and the porcelain water jars cleverly copied the shape and design of these wooden prototypes. In this particular example, the shape of the handle is strongly evocative of the wooden crosspiece inserted through the handles of a wooden bucket when carrying it. Similarly, the bands of blue painted on the porcelain recall the bamboo hoops that were used to bind wooden water jars.

Unlike the fine shonzui-type blue-and-white porcelain vessels, the water jars on display reveal the imperfections characteristic of ko-sometsuke (literally “old blue-and-white”) ware — Chinese porcelain made with coarse clay and an inferior glaze. Because of its poor quality, the glaze would fail to bond properly with the clay and would bubble after the firing process. The result was a worn and chipped appearance on the edges of such vessels, which were affectionately described as mushikui (“worm-eaten”) in Japanese. Given the value Japanese aesthetics attached to the beauty to be found in imperfection, Japanese tea masters held ko-sometsuke ware in high regard.

Thus, though both shonzui and ko-sometsuke were made in Chinese kilns, their design strongly reflects the cultural preferences that were in vogue in Japan during the 17th century. Japanese tea masters frequently placed special orders for such items as tea bowls, dishes, flower vases, incense boxes and water jars.

The legacy of those artistic preferences is with us today. The unusual shapes and auspicious motifs of the blue-and-white ware of the 16th and 17th centuries heavily influenced Japan’s potters for centuries after. Indeed, as a look in any ceramics shop near you will confirm, beautiful blue-and-white ware remains popular in Japan to this day.