A centuries-old tea jar has taken center stage this summer at the Smithsonian’s Sackler Gallery in Washington, DC. The revered Chinese jar has a personal name—Chigusa, an evocative phrase from Japanese poetry meaning “thousand grasses” or “myriad things.”
The story of Chigusa is the remarkable tale of how an ordinary Chinese storage jar, over the course of several centuries and generations of connoisseurs, rose to become one of the most revered objects of Japan’s chanoyu, or “art of tea.”
Chigusa began as a utilitarian storage jar made in the kilns of thirteenth- or fourteenth-century China and eventually rose in status to become one of the most celebrated tea utensils of sixteenth-century Japan. Tea men reverently presented Chigusa its own textiles to both emphasize its beauty and to allow the jar to have its own possessions. The jar was now clearly valuable and an entity by itself. Tea masters would show Chigusa to their guests before displaying it, with honor, in an alcove. Their guests would greatly admire such a beautiful and practical object: tea-leaf storage jars like Chigusa were valued as much for their practical qualities as they were for their beauty. Each spring, Chigusa was packed safely into protective nesting boxes and carried to a garden in Uji to be filled with new tea.
Over the course of the next year, this ideal storage jar would enhance the flavor of its tea until its seal was broken in an autumn ceremony to present the tea to guests.
These guests would have known of Chigusa by its reputation and been eager to see it. Once having viewed the jar, they would have recorded their impressions, physical details, a brief history of Chigusa’s past owners—all the notes a great connoisseur would take (or the notes of a modern-day museum curator).
By the mid-1600s, tea-leaf storage jars were not much more than practical vessels, if they were used in the tea gatherings at all. In the early seventeenth century, Chigusa passed to a Kyoto family, where it remained a personal treasure until it went to an industrialist in 1888. Chigusa disappeared in the twentieth century.
It wasn’t until 2009, when Chigusa went to auction at Christie’s, that the jar—and its impressive pedigree—again came to light. The Sackler Gallery arranged its purchase and today, Chigusa is restored to its former glory and on view in the West for the first time.
The Sackler Gallery places Chigusa, larger than life, in the center of a gallery. The surrounding cases hold its textiles, storage boxes, and accompanying notes. Chigusa rises to a regal height of just over 16 inches. Its broad, round shoulder has a diameter of over a foot, and it holds an impressive six-and-a-half gallon (that’s a lot of tea leaves!).
Here, Chigusa on full display at last, it is easy to understand the reverence it once received, to understand how a simple jar could become so celebrated. Chigusa holds its history as well as it once held tea leaves, and that, today, is worth celebrating.