WASHINGTON — At the end of the day, it’s a big brown clay pot.
But it has a name, Chigusa, and a history that stretches back 700 years.
The glazed pot, the size of garden urn, is the center of a three-room exhibition at the Arthur M. Sackler Museum in Washington, D.C., through July 27. It is the first time it has traveled to the United States.
Chigusa held dried tea leaves used in Japanese tea ceremonies or chanoyu, an elaborate ceremony that centered on the drinking of powdered green tea, or “matcha.” It is a common piece of Chinese export pottery that caught the attention of Japanese aesthetics of the 1500s.
“No other object was called Chigusa,” says Andrew M. Watsky, professor of Japanese art history at Princeton University. “In the context of chanoyu, tea men bestowed upon the most highly valued objects, mainly jars like this, proper names. And the proper names were often tied to poetry or literature.”
Chigusa means “thousand grasses” or “myriad things” in Japanese.
“By the fact that our jar had a name that we can then trace its story very precisely, very explicitly from the beginning of the 16th century up to the present day,” says Louise Allison Cort, curator of ceramics at the Freer Gallery of Art and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.
“In the 16th century, which was perhaps the peak of its fame, (Chigusa) was written about many times by people involved with chanoyu,” says Watsky. “These men — and they were mostly men at this time — kept tea diaries of objects they’d encountered at tea gatherings. We have actually seven different tea diary entries from the 16th century written by various people and they help us to understand what that aesthetic system was.
The curators used the diaries to tell them what kind of teas were drunk, what kind of bowls were used, “what other kinds of vessels were used,” says Cort. Some examples of these are on display.
Those tea men designed very specific areas to “practice these activities,” says Watsky. The ceremony was often practiced “in a four-and-a-half (tatami mat) room.” The Sackler has presented a reproduction of such a space to give context.
Besides having Chigusa on display, the exhibit has examples of the Chinese fabric and cords that were used to “dress” the pot by its owners, some of whom left their marks on the bottom. Three nesting, storage boxes are included which helped the pot survive where few lasted all those centuries. On display is the 15th century fabric “mouth cover” which, according to the tea diaries, was probably made by the original owner. A new cover was made in 2013 in Kyoto, Japan, for the museum. The museum also videotaped an expert from Kyoto “dressing” the pot in its netting or decorated with blue silk cords.
Chigusa “appears in numerous poems,” says Watsky, “If you look in ‘waka,’ (classical) Japanese poetry handbooks, you can actually find the word, Chigusa, as one of these very beautiful poetic words.”
“And so it was chosen as an appropriate name to give to this jar, and only to this jar.”