The Story of Chigusa

I was very intrigued when I first learned of the book Chigusa and the Art of Tea edited by Louise Allison Cort and Andrew M. Watsky as I am myself, off and on, working on a biography of a pot. It turns out this book is quite different from my project (whew!), but it is indeed the biography of a pot. I found it fascinating.

The pot, a stoneware storage jar with four lugs placed just below the neck, has a name: Chigusa. Made by potters in southern China during the Sung or Yuan Dynasties (mid 13th – mid 14th centuries), it measures 41.6 centimeters (16.37 inches) high and holds 25 liters (6.6 gallons). The lower portion was made by coiling and throwing. The upper portion was paddled. A lovely brown glaze of wood ash and iron-bearing clay covers 80 percent of the exterior. It was standard workshop fare.

“The process that produced the jar,” Court writes, “resulted from well-honed efforts to make a usable product quickly and efficiently. In local markets the chief concerns were intact condition and price. By chance, however, the jar that became Chigusa was selected to be shipped to Japan.”

In Japan, the jar became a revered and highly collectible object for the tea ceremony and was used to hold tea leaves.  It had a succession of owners each of whom honored the pot with accessories including a silk mouth cover, three boxes, one inside the other, to hold it, cords and documents.

During the sixteenth century, tea men, often rich merchants, kept “tea diaries” and Chigusa is mentioned or described in a number of these. In one such account, written in 1587, Kamiya Sötan writes, after describing may other objects and implements used in the ceremony he attended that day, “The tsubo Chigusa: the clay is coarse and red, the lower part swells, on the bottom are blisters…The glaze is thick, and there are many downward flows. Below that, the glaze appears to divide.”

The custom of naming revered objects was common in Japan from ancient times but in the 16th century, when Chigusa became known as Chigusa it was rare to name a tea object. Watsky speculates that the name was inspired by poetry, as “chigusa appears as a nature image in five poems.” There were, we are told, 21 other jars with names.

Chigusa stayed within a few families– the Hisada, Omotensnke, and Fujita, for generations. The book traces the jar’s whereabouts and values. In 1929 the Fujitas sold it at auction for what would have been $1000.00, a surprisingly low price. There followed a series of owners including, in the eighties, the owner of an IT company who paid the equivalent of $1.5 million dollars. “Then, on the morning of September 17, 2009, the Freer Gallery of Art placed the winning bid of $662,500 for the jar at Christie’s New York sale of Japanese and Korean Art. That would be the last stop on the jar’s long journey from southern China.”

I am giving only the briefest outline here. There is much about the tea ceremony itself, and, through the jar, the history of tea in Japan. But most of all, Chigusa is a delightful biography of a seven hundred year old stoneware storage jar.

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