While they may seem like the simplest of tea making utensils, chawan (茶碗 - lit. tea bowl) hold a central place in Japanese tea culture and ceramic arts, with eight tea bowls considered to be National Treasures of Japan1. So what elevates a bowl from an everyday object to the lofty heights of a chawan? The answer is simple: the act of preparing and drinking tea from it. In this sense any bowl can become a chawan, as long as one can whisk tea in it and drink from it. The more important question then, is what makes a bowl a good chawan? Why do tea enthusiasts and tea ceremony practitioners spend dozens, hundreds, even thousands on chawan when a simple soup bowl could suffice? Let’s take a brief look at the design and history of these bowls to find out why they are so treasured.
A Brief History of Chawan
Japan’s love of chawan dates back over 800 years to when tea was first introduced to the country from the Chinese mainland. Along with the drink came stunning Jian ware chawan, praised by Chinese tea enthusiasts at the time as being the best wares for making tea. Now known as Tenmoku (天目 - ‘heavenly eyes’2), these bowls were prized for their beautiful dark glazes which contrasted elegantly against the light foam of whisked tea (what would eventually become matcha); for their thick glaze and construction which allowed the heat of the tea to be maintained; and for the indentation around the lip, which on the inside helped prevent tea from spilling out when being vigorously whisked, and on the outside provided a place for the lower lip to nestle while drinking. These imported Chinese bowls were so coveted among Japanese upper class that domestic potters began producing bowls in imitation of the Chinese tenmoku style.
Centuries later, as the preferred style of tea ceremony in Japan moved away from the grand, formal, ostentatious Chinese aesthetic, to the more humble, rustic, and austere atmosphere of wabicha, a new style of chawan became popular: the Korean Ido chawan. The rough simplicity, earthen colour, and uneven shape of these chawan were a far cry from the perfection and glamour of tenmoku chawan. If Tenmoku bowls are heavenly, then Ido chawan come straight from the Earth. In Korea, these roughly-hewn bowls were called maksabal, meaning ‘a bowl for everything’, and were most commonly used by peasants for rice or soup. In Japan, however, they became revered as precious works of art that embodied the spirit of wabi, and through the mere act of making tea in them, were transformed from worthless peasant food bowls into exquisite chawan.
Sen no Rikyu (千利休), perhaps the most famous and influential figure in the history Japanese tea, took the concept of wabi a step further in his development of the Raku chawan. Unlike Tenmoku and Ido chawan, which were thrown on pottery wheels, Raku bowls are handbuilt, either through coiling or carving, which results in subtle imperfections from the idealised circular form. Glazed in simple black or red, and made roughly cylindrical in shape, these bowls captured the essence of Rikyu’s pared-down style of tea and marked the dawn of a new age in aesthetics, dictated for the first time by domestic Japanese wares rather than imported goods.
Rikyu’s most brilliant student, Furuta Oribe (古田 織部), lent his name3 to a new style of ceramics that put a snazzy spin on Rikyu’s somber bowls. Taking the subtle imperfections of Rikyu’s Raku ware to the next level, Oribe chawan are often eccentric in shape, with intentional undulations and distortions. In stark contrast to Raku’s austere and simple monochrome glazes, Oribe bowls are decorated with abstract designs and splashes of free-flowing vibrant green or deep black glaze. With these distorted shapes and novel decorations, Oribe chawan exude a charm that matches Furuta Oribe’s philosophy of hyouge (へうげ4) or playfulness.
What Makes a Good Chawan?
Aesthetics aside, there are some practical considerations that make some bowls amazing chawan, and others entirely unusable for tea. Part of a potter’s skill is balancing their artistic expression with this practicality. After all, what use is a chawan if you can’t use it to make tea? While some of these considerations are specific to a bowl’s use within a traditional ceremonial setting, many of these constraints arise simply from the physical requirements of making tea.
Size and Shape
In short, a tea bowl should neither be too large nor too small, both for the sake of whisking and drinking. If it is too small, then there is no space to whisk tea with a normal size chasen (matcha whisk). Similarly, if it is too large, you would have to use a lot of tea or the liquid would be too shallow to whisk in effectively. A tea bowl should nestle quite comfortably in the hands, with a diameter somewhere between 11 and 16 centimeters (roughly 4.5 - 6 inches), depending on the shape of the bowl. The sweet spot for most people is around 13cm (just over 5in)
Regarding shape, a chawan should not be so shallow that you are constantly splashing tea everywhere while whisking, not so tall that you can’t reach the bottom with your chasen (though some summer and winter chawan push these limits respectively). The easiest bowls for whisking tea in are perhaps the half-cylindrical Raku-shaped bowls, as their high walls keep the tea from splashing out and their lower centre of gravity keeps them stable.
Another important aspect of shape is the design of the koudai (高台) or foot at the base of the bowl. This needs to be large enough to comfortably hold the bowl in one hand with the thumb on the rim and the fingers on the inside of the foot ring. Furthermore, the foot is one of the most highly regarded aspects of a bowl, as it displays the full extent of a potter’s skill.
Weight and Balance
A well-balanced chawan is something that is hard to understand without experiencing it first hand, as pictures cannot convey the weight of Tenmoku bowl or the lightness of a Raku chawan. A tea bowl should not be so heavy that drinking out of it becomes tiring. Naturally, it is also important for the bowl to be stable and balanced when whisking. The conical shape and narrow foot of a Tenmoku-shaped bowl, while striking a very elegant silhouette, make it top heavy and more prone to toppling over than a squatter Raku-shaped bowl. As such they are often paired with special stands called Tenmoku-dai (天目台).
Glaze and Texture
Lastly, the lip of the bowl should not be so rough that drinking from it is difficult or uncomfortable, or that a cloth gets snagged on it while wiping it. Similarly the inside of the bowl should not be too rough, lest it damage the delicate tines of the chasen.
Anatomy of a Chawan
This cross-section of a typical Raku-style chawan shows some of the major parts and features found in many chawan:
口造り - Kuchizukuri: The lip of the bowl, where the mouth touches
胴 - Dou: the ‘torso’ or walls
腰 - Koshi: the ‘lower back’ or transition from the walls to the base, not all bowls have one this pronounced. A well-sized koshi can make a bowl easier to pick up and handle
高台 - Koudai: The foot or foot ring
茶巾摺れ - Chakinzure: the part of the bowl wiped by the chakin (linen or hemp tea cloth used during a tea ceremony)
茶筅摺れ - Chasenzure: the part of the bowl rubbed by the chasen while whisking
茶溜り - Chadamari: a small depression in the bottom of the bowl where the tea left over from drinking pools. This is not found on all bowls but is particularly common in Raku chawan
We've mostly been speaking of chawan through the lens of tea people, but chawan are also increasingly used as an artistic form in Western ceramic arts. For more about chawan from this perspective, we highly recommend checking out these two talks from NCECA.
1Interestingly enough, only two of these bowls are Japanese: one is Korean, and the other five are Chinese
2Named after Tian Mu Mountain (天目山) in China where Japanese first encounters these bowls. Tenmoku is the Japanese reading of 天目, which is read as Tian Mu in modern Mandarin
3There is some scholarly disagreement on how close Oribe is linked with the wares that bare his name, with some saying that they were made under his guidance and others claiming it to be pure coincidence
4This is historical kana spelling that literally reads ‘heuge’. In modern kana orthography, hyouge would be written as ひょうげ