Tea Bowls in the British Museum

Whilst some of you tea drinkers out there might be familiar with a gaiwan (a Chinese lidded bowl used for the preparation and drinking of tea, pictured here), its simpler relative, the chawan, might be less well-known to you.

Chawan literally means ‘tea bowl’ and, unlike the gaiwan, it has no lid or saucer. It is, quite simply, a bowl. You may recognise chawan from the Japanese tea ceremony, where tea is sipped from tea bowls. However, chawan were originally a feature of Chinese tea traditions and were imported from China by the Japanese between the 13th and 16th centuries.

Black glazed chawan from the British Museum (photo by Elise Nuding, all rights reserved)
Black glazed chawan from the British Museum (photo by Elise Nuding, all rights reserved)

The first Chinese chawan pictured here was produced during the Northern Song Dynasty, before interest in chawan spread to Japan, and dates from 1000-1127. It was manufactured in the prefecture of Dingzhou (and hence is part of the group of ceramics known as Ding ware), whose potters were famous for the pure white colour of their ceramics. Ding potters were also known for their glazes, and this tea bowl was coated in a solution of iron-oxide, which, when fired, produces a glossy black finish. The black and brown Ding wares produced during this period were associated with opulent lacquer wares, and that this chawan is more than just an everyday item is further evident from the extra decoration in the form of a copper band around the rim.

Chawan imitating red lacquerware from the British Museum (photo by Elise Nuding, all rights reserved)
Chawan imitating red lacquerware from the British Museum (photo by Elise Nuding, all rights reserved)

The second Chinese chawan featured here dates from significantly later. Manufactured between 1736-95 during the Qing dynasty, this vibrant red tea bowl has a very different appearance to the earlier chawan. However, the high status accorded to lacquerware had not changed over the centuries, and this chawan was not just associated with lacquerware, but was explicitly designed to imitate red laquerware as part of the 18th century fashion for trompe-l’oeil ceramics. It was manufactured in Jingdezhen, known as the porcelain capital of China, and is inscribed with a poem that reads:

‘It is made in the shape of a fragrant chrysanthemum , but compared with the chrysanthemum is more delicate. As I sip tea, I am pleased to compare it with taking dew from this freshly picked flower.’*

*Translation as provided on the British Museum’s object label.

See more of Elise Nuding’s articles here.

© Online Stores, Inc., and The English Tea Store Blog, 2009-2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this article’s author and/or the blog’s owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Online Stores, Inc., and The English Tea Store Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

One thought on “Tea Bowls in the British Museum

  1. Pingback: The Best of the English Tea Store Tea Blog in 2013 | Tea Blog

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