What is this object?
Illustrated here is a tea-related ware generally described as “brown and black” ware. These dark wares were produced at a number of kiln sites from the Han dynasty (206 BCE–CE 220) through the Tang (618–906) and Song (960–1279) dynasties. The most famous Song dynasty brown and black wares were produced at the jizhou and jian kilns in Jiangxi and Fujian provinces in the south of China. Some of the larger pieces may have held wine, but the smaller bowl shown here was likely used to sip tea. They were used widely by a variety of social classes, from emperors to common people and monks. Jizhou wares were used domestically, while jian wares were both used domestically and exported. In Japan, jian wares were known as temmoku wares.
How was it made and what is unique about it?
The bowl shown here has mottled yellowish-brown spots meant to resemble a “hawksbill tortoise shell” and said to be a pleasing color that accentuates the color of tea as it is drunk. The effect was achieved by splashing ash-rich overglaze on a raw brown glaze. The third example in this group displays a technique described as “hare’s fur,” produced by the application of tiny particles of iron that run down as fine, hair-like streaks. These bowls were admired by emperor Huizong (reigned 1101–1125) of the Northern Song as the most desirable of tea wares.
How was tea consumed during the Song Dynasty?
At the time these tea bowls were made, Chinese tea was generally prepared from a powdered form and whisked into a white foam whose color contrasted well with the dark bowls. Contests were even held to see who could create interesting cloud patterns of tea foam. Previously, green wares had been preferred for tea, and after this period, white porcelains came into vogue, and eventually the brown and black wares declined in use.
Tea grows in the southern provinces of China. It was celebrated for its medicinal uses since ancient times, but the practice of drinking tea as a beverage spread during the Tang and Song dynasties with the help of monks, especially with the rise of Chan (Japanese: Zen) Buddhism. Chan emphasized meditation.
Tea naturally helped monks maintain the mental concentration conducive to meditative practice. In addition, tea grows well at higher altitudes, where many temples were located. In the Southern Song capital at Hangzhou, for example, temples were located in the surrounding hills. During the Tang, there was a period of prohibition against the consumption of alcohol (to conserve grain production). This legislation served to encourage the further enjoyment of tea, which was less expensive to produce. Tea was produced as loose leaves, tea dust, and tea cakes. For consumption, it was usually boiled like soup. During the Song, tea cakes were a relative luxury, reserved for tribute or the highest officials. Tea dust would have been used in the bowl illustrated here.
Boiling water would have been poured over the tea dust to produce the desired foam. The practice of brewing tea in pots developed later during the Yuan and Ming dynasties. A number of book were written about tea—for example Lu Yu’s Book of Tea (Tang dynasty) and Emperor Huizong’s Grand View on Tea (Northern Song). Poets began to write about the beauty of drinking tea, and scholars gathered to enjoy tea together while composing poems and practicing brushwork.