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). Tea men in the late sixteenth century wrote about seeing four formal signatures written by admirers in ink on the jar’s base. That bit of ancient graffiti is still visible today.

According to sixteenth-century tea diaries, when Chigusa was displayed for guests in the tearoom, it was dressed in ornamental silks of specified types—a mouth cover made of antique Chinese fabric and a net bag that enclosed the jar’s body. In later periods, sets of thick silk cords were added to the repertory of accessories, to be fastened to the jar’s neck and lugs and knotted in elaborate forms and the jar was placed on a mat made of Chinese silk. These high-quality accessories were chosen to honor Chigusa’s prominent status and their colors complemented its tawny glaze.



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.

Upon acquiring Chigusa, the museum commissioned a new mouth cover and cord from Tsuchida Yūkō XII, whose ancestor had prepared the storage bags for the jar’s textiles a century earlier. The Kyoto-based chanoyu textile specialist used new gold-brocaded fabric woven in the same design as Chigusa’s fragile antique mouth cover.

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.

Read more about the Japanese art of chanoyu in The Book of Tea, edited by Bruce Richardson (2011) Benjamin Press. 

Sara Loy, research intern at Benjamin Press, toured the exhibition and contributed to this post. 

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