Chigusa and the Long Life of a Tea-Leaf Storage Jar

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Chigusa and the Long Life of a Tea-Leaf Storage Jar

March 14, 2016

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Chigusa and the Long Life of a Tea-Storage Jar
Louise Allison Cort, Curator for Ceramics, Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC

When an object crosses the border between one culture and another, it is not uncommon for its meaning to change, even sometimes profoundly, in the new context. Such is the story of the jar named Chigusa. The standard Chinese storage jar that would become known as Chigusa was made at a workshop in southern China for use as an all-purpose container. By chance it was put onto a ship heading to Japan. Once emptied of its (unknown) commercial contents, it was repurposed for use as a storage jar for tea leaves, just at the time when tea-drinking was becoming important as an elite social activity. The jar’s appearance came to be admired by tea connoisseurs, and as a result it acquired not only a reputation as an outstanding jar but also, as was common for famous objects, a personal name, Chigusa.

We know a great deal about the history of Chigusa in Japan because of the written records from the sixteenth century that describe its display at tea gatherings and its status among famous tea utensils of the day. Chigusa also retains many of the accoutrements that its succession of owners provided, including rare silk accessories essential for adorning the jar when it was displayed, documents recording its change of hands, and sturdy wooden boxes for storage and transport. Nonetheless, while esteemed for its aesthetic qualities within the context of the tea room and in the eyes of connoisseurship of tea utensils, Chigusa never lost its importance as a practical container for tea leaves. This talk will use the associated texts and textiles to tell Chigusa’s story over the past six hundred years.   


Louise Cort is Curator for Ceramics at the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.  Her interests include historical and contemporary ceramics in Japan, Southeast Asia, and South Asia, Japanese baskets and textiles, and the Japanese arts of tea (chanoyu).   She is the author of Shigaraki, Potters’ Valley, published in 1979 and reprinted in 2000.  In 2008 she prepared (with George Ashley Williams IV and David P. Rehfuss) the online catalogue Ceramics in Mainland Southeast Asia: Collections in the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery. Her study on Indian ritual earthenware, Temple Potters of Puri (with Purna Chandra Mishra), was published in 2012. With Andrew M. Watsky, she organized and co-edited Chigusa and the Art of Tea (2014).  In 2012 she received the thirty-third Koyama Fujio Memorial Prize for her research on historical and contemporary Japanese ceramics, and the Smithsonian Distinguished Scholar Award.


Chigusa.  Tea leaf storage jar.  13-14th century.  Freer Gallery, Smithsonian Institution. Courtesy of Louise Allison Cort.