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Tea bowl with Dragon Roundels

Teabowl with dragon roundels

Teabowl with dragon roundels, 16151700. By Nonomura Ninsei (16251675). Stoneware with polychrome enamel decoration.  Gift of the Connoisseurs' Council and Bruce and Betty Alberts, 1991.230.

This bowl was used for the tea ceremony. When and how did the Japanese people began to drink tea?
The drinking of matcha (powdered green tea) was introduced to Japan from China in around 1200 as part of Zen (Chan in Chinese) Buddhist practice. Tea helped monks stay awake during meditation as they sought to achieve enlightenment. Drinking tea became a common feature of monastic life in Japan, eventually spreading beyond the monastery, becoming a favorite social pastime of Japanese aristocrats beginning in the Heian period (794–1185) and continuing to the present day.

What does the dragon symbolize?
Although the dragon is a fearful creature in Western mythology, in China and Japan the dragon represents the most powerful of all supernatural animals. It is the ruler of rain and wind and the producer of water sources, thus very appropriate decoration on a tea bowl, for pure, fresh water was essential to the tea ceremony. The dragon is believed to bring blessings of wealth, harmony, virtue, and long life. Ninsei’s ingenious design of a dragon coiled within a circle may remind students of an enso painting. It is possible that Ninsei intentionally alludes to this Zen form in his bowl.

Who was the artist?
Nonomura Ninsei was one of the great Kyoto potters active during the Edo period. He helped develop a distinctive overglazed enamel stoneware, with nostalgic motifs drawn from traditional Japanese painting. Ninsei was the first Japanese potter to apply his own seal to his work, making a statement that pottery should be valued as an individualized art form on par with painting. Ninsei mostly created vessels for the tea ceremony, such as tea containers, bowls, and water jars. His refined works were highly prized among tea connoisseurs of the period as they are today.

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