Written By Jian Rong Chong
The rising steam of newly brewed tea sets the scene. With poise and grace one lifts a gongfu tea cup, taking in the aroma before sipping, He then puts down the cup to exchange some pleasantries with his friends and relatives, sharing their observations, opinions, anecdotes, happiness and joy. This could be the ultimate way to attain relaxation and peace of mind. Appreciating antiques and curios, calligraphy and paintings, or works of art is a part of this leisurely pursuit. In a simple living study of lounge, soothing tunes and sweet melodies fill the air. Such is the kind of life embraced by Chinese literati since times of old. A life of enrichment comes with leisure and appreciation. This could be the intriguing yet satisfying state of peaceful nothingness.
Tea is one of China's gifts to the world-it is also a part of our daily lives. Some peaceful and leisurely moments during the day have become a common way to survive the daily grind. As we break for tea, the precious moments would best be celebrated with quality wares. Tienmu teaware, created out of the philosophy of nature and peace, goes with the state of mind we pursue.
The origin of tea drinking as a trend could be traced to the Shu region of the Han Dynasty. During the Northern and Southern Dynasty, tea appreciation spread to the southern part of the Yangtze River.
It was an immediate hit with gentlemen and celebrities. With this came songs, poems and writings on tea. Later, tea drinking became popular with the grass root. By the time Lu Yu completed his masterpiece, "The Classic of Tea", in the Tang Dynasty, virtually everyone was drinking tea, giving rise to the use of dedicated teaware and the development of ceramic pottery. During the Tang Dynasty, people from all walks of life, be they young or old, literally lived by their cuppa; this might sound familiar to people in modern Taiwan. Along with this trend came the advocacy of the "four types of appreciation and enjoyment in life, namely tea appreciation, incense burning, floral arrangement and display of paintings ". As such, it may well be paradise with paintings, works of art and antique items adorning every corner of one's abode; with flowers tastefully arranged; with scented fragrance filling the air, whilst serving tea to visitors.
In the ancient time, people did not use cups for tea, but used tea bowls instead. During the Tang Dynasty, tea bowls were mainly of the green-glazed or white-glazed varieties. Why did people in the Tang Dynasty prefer the green and white porcelain bowls? Lu Yu evaluated tea bowls produced by some popular kilns at that time in his "Classic of Tea", and he had this to say: "Yuezhou is the best place for tea bowls, followed by the Dingzhou, Wuzhou, Yuezhou, Shouzhou, Hongzhou and etc. ....Yuezhou has got the best tea bowls, too. Porcelain from the Yuezhou (越州) and Yuezhou (岳州） are both in green shades, which complements the reddish hue of the tea liquor. In Shouzhou, the porcelain pieces sport a yellow tint, and the tea liquor looks purplish. As for Hongzhou, the porcelain pieces have a brownish shade, making the tea look darker. The latter two are not suitable for tea. According to Lu Yu's "Classic of Tea" we can see that people in the Tang Dynasty loved green and white porcelain teaware for bringing out the best color of the tea liquor. At that time, gentlemen did not like bowls in dark brown color because this would make the tea liquor look too dark.
However, the preference for porcelain glaze changes as times and social perceptions. During the Song Dynasty when science was prospering, people were in favor of the simple and peaceful spirit of Taoism. This was when small tea bowls were used for drinking tea. With wide mouths and small feet, they were normally produced in five glazes, namely dark (black) glaze, dark brown glaze, green glaze, greenish-white glaze, and white glaze, while dark glaze was the prevailing choice.
Why were small dark-glazed tea bowls popular during the Song Dynasty? This was due to the then popular "tea-brewing competition". This refers to a competition of tea-making skills, whereby participants were judged on the criteria of tea leaves, tea liquor, small tea bowls used and tea color. As described in Cai Xiang's "The Record of Tea", Tea color was the first item to be judged during a tea competition in Jian'an, which was famous for a kind of high quality semi-fermented white tea. As such, the lighter the colour, the better. Yellowish-white tea leaves give tea liquor that lacked clarity; hence, it was deemed inferior to greenish-white tea leaves which made crystal clear tea liquor.
The second criterion is the tea liquor itself. The earlier the tea liquor leaves a water mark ringing the inside the small tea bowls, the more inferior its quality, It was because this kind of white tea had been dyed yellow and therefore contained sticky substances. During the Song Dynasty, tea liquor was pale in colour; hence, dark glaze revealed the light color of tea better - the glaze accentuated the white froth of the tea liquor. Because of inect, dark glaze was the popular choice of competitors at that time. Due to this special need, which in turn led to the development of dark glaze, special kilns for dark-glazed bowls became popular, especially in Fujian (according to Feng Xian-ming's "A study on ancient Chinese ceramics"). This explains why dark-glazed porcelain was hugely popular during the Song Dynasty, and why small dark-glazed tea bowls commanded such a following.
As a matter of fact, the history of dark-glazed porcelain is as long as celadon, or green-glazed porcelain. The first celadon products from Yuezhou were likened to the clean, blue sky, as in the saying "where the cloud disperses to reveal a wash of green in the sky after a spell of rain". Dark glaze flourished in the Song Dynasty as a result of tea competitions, but its origin may point to something more intriguing.
The first dark-glazed porcelain piece unearthed in China was a dark-glazed canister from a tomb in Zhejiang built in the thirteenth year, during the reign of Yuanguang of the East Han Dynasty. Most dark-glazed porcelain pieces were unearthed from tombs built during the Eastern Jin Dynasty, in the Jiangsu-Zhejiang region, while most kilns in the northern region of the Tang Dynasty also produced dark-glazed porcelain pieces. This verifies that dark-glaze was favorable during that time, along with the dark (black) paint and dark (black) pottery.
I think that before dark glaze, there had to be dark pottery either made from black clay or decorated with black motifs or painted in black. During the era of colorful pottery, red and black were popular glaze colors used on pottery pieces. "Red" and "black" reflect ancient peopled philosophy and knowledge about nature - red represented fire, while black represented water; red represented the sun, and black represented night; red represented Yang, while black represented Yin; red represented South, while black represented North etc.. This might explain why ancient people loved to use the two colours to decorate their buildings and had a lot to do with their view of the universe. Consequently red and black were the two most popular colours in decorating pottery pieces.
In traditional Chinese philosophy, during the Spring and Autumn Period, Lao Tzu stated in his classic "Dao De Jing" that black is the colour of the mythical with unfathomable meaning behind it. As such, the symbol of Tai Chi is offen shown in red and black. Ancient people were also fond of red and black, which in their opinion, represented alternating day and night, and the endless cycle of regeneration.
Liu Liang-you stated in his "Ancient Porcelain Research" that, "In ancient China when iron was a key composite in glaze colors, the black glaze played a very important part in monochromatic glazing. It was not only the most essential visual element as far as decoration was concerned, it also brought about many famous kilns which specialized in dark-glazed pieces, such as Ge Kiln, Jizhou Kiln and Jianyang Kiln in Henan during Song Dynasty." Judging by this, Jianyang Kiln of the Fujian province, famous for its small Tienmu tea bowls, was not just producing merchandizes; the glaze and decorative motifs of the pieces were representations of traditional ideas of the metaphysics.
Song people loved excitement and tranquility, prosperity and solitude. During the tea competition in the Song Dynasty, competitors used semi-fermented tea cake. Prior to drinking, they would grind the tea cake into powder and place this in a tea bowl (much the same way as Taiwan's Hakka Ground Tea). Boiling water was then poured in, until white froth formed on the surface, against the dark glaze of the Tienmu tea bowl.
Cupping a dark-glazed Tienmu tea bowl with both hands, the gentlemen of the bygone era might have contemplated reflected therein the mythical aspect of the universe reflected; however, they might not understand the impact of the dark glaze on the colour of the tea liquor. The kiln masters relied largely on the content of coloring agents, concentration and thickness of coloring agents, and ways of decoration as well as other factors such as firing conditions. The gentlemen, though, might be pondering metaphysics, the teachings of Lao Tzu and Chuong Tzu, and the impenetrable, star-studded night sky.
Analysis of today's science has revealed the formation of normal dark glaze. Iron content of the coloring agents are generally around 7%-100%. During the Song Dynasty, veteran masters from kilns in the South and the North produced glazes solely based on their experience and wisdom. However, the colors of glaze from different kilns were different some had a light purple shimmering effect due to traces of manganese; some had a light blue simmering effect because of traces of cobalt; while some carried a shade of green in black as a result of a small amount of chromium. This variation in the content of the coloring agents led to the different characteristics of dark glazes produced in different places.
In the Song Dynasty, Tienmu tea bowls from Fujian's Jianyang Kiln showcased different styles owing to the different methods of embellishment. Firing conditions gave rise to special effects such as rabbit hair, radiating stars, drip marks, spotted partridge, iron-red glaze, eel-skin glaze and so on. Another approach to decorating dark-glazed pieces involved human touches, such as pattern pasting, turtle-shell glaze, leaf pattern, rusty pattern, golden outline, dark-glazed painting and dark-glazed engraving, among others.
This enthralled the many gentlemen in the Song Dynasty, who took extra care and appreciated such precious objects without reservation. The Japanese were more than amazed to see such creations.
They compared the silver-gray metallic dots on the dark glaze to a beautiful night sky fall of shining stars, and the numerous eyes of heaven gazing at the vast universe. The Japanese still appreciate Tienmu as though it is a national treasure, and a part of their cultural heritage.
In the past Japanese were greatly influenced by Chinese philosophies and metaphysics. They also liked the deep mysterious-looking dark glaze. Japan has also developed the "Bizen kiln" and generations of kiln masters have emerged since. At the same time, the ritual of the tea ceremony places special emphasis on tea bowls. The deep, distant, natural and intriguing appeal of the dark glaze is deep-rooted among Japanese tea drinkers even today.
During the Tang and Song Dynasties, there were scenes of gentlemen from all walks of life appreciating tea, reciting poems and singing_ these were recorded in literature that has been passed down for our reminiscence.
It is as if we could see it all in front of our eyes. Once again, Su Dong Bo and Master Nan Ping reciting: "Master came round the Nanping Hill to savour the special brew made with fine tea powder; What a pleasant surprise to see tea bowls decorated with "rabbit hair" patterns and the spring wine",or hearing poet Huang Shao-Gu reciting: "In the bowl with a golden" rabbit hair" pattern is bubbling, boiling water for our new tea ".
Holding up a Tienmu bowl filled with steaming tea, let us venture into the wonderful world of dark glaze. Think about people of ancient times, ponder the vastness of our world. Our bowl of tea is a microcosm of the mysterious universe out there - just leave aside all your troubles, and treasure the people around you and the moment.