Sunday, June 29, 2014

Chigusa, a Cinderella Story

I recently visited a fellow tea adventurer in Virginia and she took me to see the Chigusa exhibit at the Freer-Sackler Museums of Asian Art at the Smithsonian. COOL!  Chigusa, a tea storage jar of Chinese origin from the thirteenth or fourteenth century, tells an important story related to chanoyu history.  But let me begin with my story of visiting the museum and a docent named Lois.  She guided us through the museum, our small party discussing ancient Chinese artifacts.  Then she escorted us to the Chigusa exhibit where we enjoyed a private tour.  She knew of our interest in tea and she took a portion of her busy day to spend extra time with us. Thank you Lois! Now allow me to tell you the Cinderella story.

Chigusa started as a humble storage jar, mass-produced in China for export. But in Japan, tea people had yet to make this glaze, and it was appreciated for its color and texture. In addition, the size of the jar allowed for storage of an ample amount of tea.  (One of the things that struck me about seeing the jar in person was its size.  It's larger than I anticipated.)  The third desired feature was the lightness of the jar, due to a special manufacturing technique in which the top curve is flattened to reduce heft. So then the jar received its name, Chigusa - myriad grasses or thousand flowers - and its dressings of finery (the blue cording). All dressed up, and like Cinderella, Chigusa went to the ball living a celebrated life as a special named object.


Chigusa is important to tea people and historians because of the story it and its accouterments tell.  There is much documentation about its life and ownership progression.  For example, the boxes above were added by a series of owners, each contributing documentation to the story. Chigusa has also been written about in the tea records of the period, allowing scholars to understand how these tea utensils were valued and used in the period from several different perspectives.

If you happen to be in DC before July 27th, the exhibit is well worth your time.  (And it's free!)  I also learned that if you are in DC after the exhibit closes, you can contact the museum to arrange for a private viewing of Chigusa.  (They do that!)  If  you've seen the exhibit, I'd love for you to share your highlights.

Here is an excellent article about Chigusa: 

Images from the Freer Sackler museum.  The exhibit did not allow photography.


Margie Yap said...

Fantastic, Stephanie. I am viewing this vicariously through my students who have made the trip from Oregon to DC to see this famous jar and get the information.
Thanks to you and Chloe for sharing.

amherstrose said...

Truly a Cinderella Story... Indeed Chigusa is an amazing and important acquisition for the Sackler Gallery.
So happy to be able to view it with you and appreciate its historical value in the world of tea.

The tea journey continues. . .

David Galli said...

I'm so glad you got to do that, Steph. And a private tour with a great guide! Very cool.

Would you or Margie be able to post a link in the comments to Chloe's blog post? I'd love to see that one as well...

Thanks for visiting for us. :)

Marilyn said...

That was an extremely special treat for sure. We only felt a small part of the excitement of seeing it in person. The history and photos is so special. Thanks for sharing with us.

Angela McRae said...

"Chigusa" is a term I did not know and obviously need to, so thanks for sharing! I love adding to my (little bit of) knowledge of tea history!