Article/Pictures by Wang Hong Xiang
Adark glazed tea bowl sitting quietly in the corner, beaming with naturally formed textures. The tea bowl with lustrous dark glaze was popular and received high appraisal among nobilities of the Tang and Song Dynasties, as a mean of self-expression. During the Song Dynasty when the so-called tea competition prevailed, the stylish tea bowls spread to Japan where they were used in Buddha worship and Zen practice. People from all walks of life took a liking to tea bowls, captivated by the more rustic appeal and thicker clay body, the star-studded pattern of the glaze, the skill required in kiln temperature control, and the versatility. These dark glazed tea bowls were the subject of admiration among Tang Dynasty poets, the microcosm of the competitive tea culture of the Song Dynasty and the objects with which Buddhists and Zen followers meditated - all these contribute to the tea bowls' unfailing appeal to pottery aficionados.
Tienmu glazed tea bowls come with unique appearances and varied styles, such as the drip marks which resemble twinkling stars in the night sky. The effect is dramatic - the "stars" get sparse towards the bottom of the tea bowl, until they disappear. Some Tienmu tea bowls have larger crystals. Radiating like bursting stars, the spots may be dark or light in colour, and spread far apart or close to each other. When viewed from different angles, they create a sense of space. The images brought about by the drip marks are simply fascinating. It's surely worth one's time observing the wonderful patterns of the tea bowls when you clasp it with both hands. Each bowl is unique in its appearance - you may see movement, stillness or even as explosion of sorts in its pattern.
The surface of the crystal film reflects a peculiar blue color under the light. This amazing effect may also result from the accumulation of tea oil on the Tienmu glaze after an extended period of use. The foot of the tea bowl sports a darker shade; with time and frequent rubbing, the clay will adopt a more mellow and glossy appearance. Appreciated up close or from a distance, the shape, silhouette and glaze of these Tienmu tea bowls are sources of visual delight. With the passage of time, one will discover their "personality" - bold and strong, vibrant and lively, simple and withdrawn or glamorous and dazzling. A Tienmu bowl deserves one's attention and admiration.
The bottom of the bowl, called the foot, is furnaced with untreated clay. It is a special feature of Tienmu tea bowls, as the iron-rich Tienmu coarse clay sports different colours according to the firing conditions, The foot may be iron-ash, iron-brown or sienna in colour; it may also appear whiter if porcelain clay or white clay is used. It all depends on the sampling processes of a potter.
The trimming of the foot may also vary - some prefer impeccably-trimmed smooth texture, while others prefer a grainier feel. While drip-marked Tienmu tea bowls are generally considered unique for their spotted-patterns, the "Rabbit Fur" Tienmu tea bowls represent the beauty of lines. On a dark glaze surface, iron-brown fine lines are seen flowing down from the rim of the tea bowls.
Lines under the smooth film of glaze reflect different hues. Due to varying firing conditions, the colours of these lines on a "Rabbit Fur" tea bowl are different; they may be yellowish-brown or silver black, giving them beautiful names such as "golden-fur rabbit", "silver-fill rabbit" and yellow-fur rabbit". Some lines, however, do appear on the surface of the glaze caused by the difference between the surface tension of the crystal film and the glassy black glaze layer after the separation of the liquid in the furnace. As the temperature lowers to normal, contraction takes place.
The complex process is a marvelous physical phenomenon involving super cold liquid encountering oxygen, forming coloured crystal films. Generally, the glaze layer of Tienmu is thicker. Under high temperature, the glaze will melt and gradually flowing down to the bowl's centre. This causes the glaze at the rim of the tea bowls to become thinner as most molten glaze converges at the bottom of the bowl. Sometimes, beautiful "pearl bead" or "glaze pearls" will be formed. However, the "glaze pearls" also means that the firing has reached a critical point, whereby another five minutes of kiln time will result in the "glaze pearls" dripping onto the boron board or even flowing down the outer surface of the tea bowl to the foot, In this case, the tea bowl ends up sticking to the boron board. The piece of art is then damaged and it is beyond repair. Thus, when firing Tienmu, one has to keep pace with the changes inside the kiln and be in control of the liquid separation phase. Whether it is too early, too late, or just about right, timing is crucial, and one will only know when the piece is retrieved from the kiln.
In a cosy afternoon, forget about tea cake grinding and tea liquor whisking. Boil some water put some tea leaves into tea bowl, and observe the tea leaves twirling and unfurling as the boiling water is poured in. Pay attention to the flickering light on the tea surface, feel the steaming air rising from the bowl, look at the colour and take in the aroma of the tea before sipping it with Chinese tea cup. Set off on a pottery journey with a kiln-fired Tienmu tea bowl that enriches a modern lifestyle.