Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
September 19, 2012
The Story of Chigusa: A Japanese Tea Jar’s 700-Year History College Art Association
Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery. Online workshop. Wednesday, November 2, 2011, 9:00–10:30 PM Eastern Daylight Time (EDT); Thursday, November 3, 2011, 10:00–11:30 AM Japan Time (JST)
China, Southern Song or Yuan dynasty. Tea-leaf storage jar, named Chigusa (13th–14th century). Stoneware with iron glaze. Height 41.6 cm. Freer Gallery of Art Purchase.

In 2009, the Freer Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, acquired an important tea storage jar at auction. The deep brown stoneware jar has an asymmetric glaze and stands 41.6 centimeters tall. Named “Chigusa,” the jar is believed to have been made in China during the thirteenth or fourteenth century before it was imported to Japan, where it became a prized object for practitioners of the Japanese tea culture (chanoyu). At purchase, the jar was accompanied by extensive documentary material, including inscribed storage boxes and letters. To celebrate the acquisition of this object, the museum organized an online symposium in conjunction with Learning Times, posing the question: “What can a single jar tell us about how objects acquired history and meaning within Japanese tea culture?” Originally scheduled for March 2011, the symposium was rescheduled after the Tohoku earthquake and then postponed a second time in August 2011 during Hurricane Irene on the East Coast of the United States. Finally, the symposium was held in November 2011.

Four presentations addressed differing aspects of the jar and its history. Louise Allison Cort (Curator for Ceramics, Freer and Sackler Galleries) presented “How a Chinese Jar Became Chigusa; Why Chigusa Came to the Freer,” examining the history of Chigusa both as a utilitarian object in China and as an art object in Japan. She pointed out that “the storage jar that would become Chigusa was made in China, but the tea leaf storage jar named Chigusa was created in Japan.” Cort’s detailed information about packing the tea jar at the plantation and the logistics of acquiring tea added an important perspective on the original context of the jar’s use. Takeuchi Jun’ichi (Director, Hosokawa Collection-Eisei Bunko), in his talk titled “How Did Tea Men Look at Chigusa 400 years ago?” focused on the ways Chigusa was valued by tea practitioners who kept careful diaries of their tea gatherings. Jars such as Chigusa were appraised for their shape (nari), size (koro), and overall impression (yôsu). Most of the diary entries addressed the jar’s overall impression; significantly, none commented on the tea stored in Chigusa. Andrew Watsky (Professor of Art History, Princeton University), in “Chigusa’s Name(s),” explored how naming enabled a jar originally produced in China to become a Japanese object. Like Takeuchi, he used diaries such as “The Records of Yamanoue no Sôji” to investigate the naming of Chigusa. In “Who Owned Chigusa,” Oka Yoshiko (Professor, Faculty of Cultural and Historical Studies, Otemae University) identified the earliest reference to Chigusa from a 1573 record of a gathering in Sakai (a well-known center for tea activity). She summarized the ownership of Chigusa as a “grand drama” in which it passed through a variety of different owners during the early modern period.

The symposium was organized with two virtual “rooms”—one in English and one in Japanese. In each room slides accompanying the lectures were shown and instant messages from viewers/participants were posted in real time along the left side of the screen. Participants selected their language when they logged into the system—I participated through the English room—and could not change rooms without logging out and reentering. The speakers recorded their talks at the Smithsonian Institute in August, when they had gathered for the first rescheduled date. This meant that unlike the Freer/Sackler’s earlier symposium with Learning Times about Whistler’s Peacock room (held in May 2011) (click here for review) this symposium did not have live presentations, although the Japanese to English translation of the talks did seem to be live. Unfortunately, technical glitches prevented some of the talks from being presented in their entirety. The recordings in the Japanese and English rooms seem to have been started at slightly different times, and the recordings played in English froze, restarted, and jumped forward, causing portions of the presentations to be missed by participants in the English room. The question and answer period at the end was held live in Japanese and simultaneously translated into English. I applaud the museum for choosing to privilege the Japanese audience, but with only one interpreter, this portion was extremely difficult to follow. The name of the responder was irregularly announced, and some questions seemed to be answered by two of the presenters, although the shift in speaker was not indicated. Having two interpreters could have eased this difficulty.

The true advantage of the online format, over traditional symposia, is the interaction among the participants. While waiting for the symposium to begin, viewers/participants were encouraged to introduce themselves via the instant messages shown on the screen. A wide variety of people participated, including scholars, artists, docents, undergraduates participating as part of a class, and one person who claimed to be “just an art lover.” Throughout the symposium, comments from the participants included questions from students to their teachers, teachers prompting their students, and observations and questions from the rest of the audience. Most of these comments were informal, such as a student recognizing a name they heard in class or other participants highlighting points they thought were especially interesting. This was much more intimate than attending a lecture in a hall, because participants were actually interacting with each other (including suggestions to help overcome some of the technical problems). More scholarly questions and comments were saved for the end.

During the question and answer period, many more questions were asked than could be addressed by speakers. Many of the answered questions were related to tea culture and the history of the jar. A question about the relationship between waka poetry and names of tea objects led to a longer discussion of Chigusa’s history and when it could have been named. Because the original lid of the storage box does not survive, we cannot verify the name before 1573. Participants were also interested in the jar’s history in China, such as if the clay had been verified to come from China or if a scholar of Chinese pottery has examined it. Takeuchi emphasized that Chigusa has become Japanese, explaining that works like this are not an object of study in Chinese art history. Overall, the question period felt too short; it seems more people were willing to type a question than would have been willing to ask in person. More time to clearly answer those questions would have been beneficial to all participants.

The novelty of the format and the ease of participation seemed to draw a much more diverse audience than could have been expected if the symposium had been held in an afternoon at the Smithsonian. Students from the University of Maryland, College Park, and Colby College (Maine) were particularly active. The online format seems like a particularly good way to encourage undergraduates to become aware of and engage with contemporary scholarship; they may be more willing to spend an evening in front of their computers than an afternoon at a museum. It is also convenient for busy academics, who can participate from a distance. Several participants in the English room were participating from Japan, bringing together scholars in a way usually only achievable at the annual meetings of the Association for Asian Studies or the College Art Association.

Audio transcriptions of the sessions in both English and Japanese are available at the Smithsonian Institution’s website. Further information about Chigusa can be found in Cort’s article, “Creating Chigusa,” published in the 2011 issue of Impressions (32: 134–43), which expands on some of the information presented in her talk.

Hilary K. Snow
Associate Lecturer, Department of Art History, University of Wisconsin—Milwaukee

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