Open main menu

Tea Ceremonies. Few things have excited more interest among collectors of Japanese curios than the cha-no-yu, or tea ceremonies, of which so many of the highly prized little "japanosities" in their collections are in one way or another the implements. And as quarrelling with other collectors is part of every true collector's nature, so also has the battle raged round the Japanese tea-table,—a veritable and literal storm in a tea-cup. One set disparages the tea ceremonies as essentially paltry and effeminate, and asserts that their influence has cramped the genius of Japanese art, by confusing beauty with archaism and making goals of characteristics worthy only to be starting-points. The opposite school sees in these same ceremonies a profoundly beneficial influence, an influence which has kept Japanese art from leaving the narrow path of purity and simplicity for the broad road of a meretricious gaudiness.

What, then, are these tea ceremonies. And first of all, what is their history? Have their votaries at all epochs been enamoured of simplicity and archaism to the degree which both friends and foes seem to take for granted? If our own slight researches into the subject prove anything, they prove that these traits are comparatively modern.

The tea ceremonies have undergone three transformations during the six or seven hundred years of their existence. They have passed through a medico-religious stage, a luxurious stage, and lastly an esthetic stage. They originated in tea-drinking pure and simple on the part of certain Buddhist priests of the Zen sect, who found the infusion useful in keeping them awake during the performance of their midnight devotions. The first aristocrat whose name is mentioned in connection with tea is Minamotono-Sanetomo, Shōgun of Japan from A.D. 1203 to 1218. He seems to have been a youthful debauchee, whom the Buddhist abbot Eisai endeavoured to save from the wine-cup by making him take tea instead. As is still the custom of propagandists, Eisai accompanied this recommendation by the gift of a tract on the subject. It was composed by himself, and bore the title of "The Salutary Influence of Tea-Drinking." In it was explained the manner in which tea "regulates the five viscera and expels evil spirits," and rules were given both for making the infusion and for drinking it. The ceremonial which Eisai introduced was religious. True, it comprised a simple dinner; but its main feature was a Buddhist service, at which the faithful worshipped their ancestors to the beating of drums and burning of incense. A tinge of the religious element has adhered to the tea ceremonies ever since. It is still considered proper for tea enthusiasts to join the Zen sect of Buddhism, and it is from the abbot of Daitokuji at Kyōto that diplomas of proficiency are obtained.

How long Japanese tea-drinking remained in this first religious stage is not clear. This we know, that by the year 1330, the second or luxurious stage had already been reached. The descriptions of the tea-parties of those days read like a chapter of romance. The Daimyōs who daily took part in them reclined on couches spread with tiger skins and leopard skins. The walls of the spacious apartments in which the guests assembled were hung, not only with Buddhist pictures, but with damask and brocade, with gold and silver vessels, and swords in splendid sheaths. Precious perfumes were burnt, rare fishes and strange birds were served up with sweetmeats and wine, and the point of the entertainment consisted in guessing where the material for each cup of tea had been produced; for as many brands as possible were brought in, to serve as a puzzle or jeu de société—some from the Toga-no-o plantations, some from Uji, some from other places. Every right guess procured for him who made it the gift of one of the treasures that were hung round the room. But he was not allowed to carry it away himself. The rules of the tea ceremonies, as them practised, ordained that all the things rich and rare that were exhibited must be given by their winners to the singing and dancing-girls, troupes of whom were present to help the company in their carousal. Vast fortunes were dissipated in this manner. On the other hand, the arts were benefited, more especially when, towards the close of the fifteenth century, the luxurious Yoshimasa, a sort of Japanese Lorenzo de' Medici, abdicated the Shōgun's throne in order to devote himself altogether to refined pleasures in his gorgeous palace of Ginkakuji at Kyōto, in the company of his favourites, the pleasure-loving Buddhist abbots Shukō and Shinnō. From this trio of royal and religious voluptuaries are derived several of the rules for tea-drinking that still hold good. The tiny tea-room of only four and a half mats (nine feet square) apparently dates from then. Shinno was a great connoisseur of antiquities and of what we now term curios. He was also the first to manufacture a certain kind of teaspoon, whence arose the custom of tea-fanciers manufacturing their own spoons.

All through the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the tea ceremonies continued to enjoy the unabated favour of the Japanese upper classes. The gift of some portion of a tea-service, such as a bowl or cup, was the most valued mark of condescension which a superior could bestow. We read of high-born warriors neglecting their sword for the sake of the tea-pot, and of their being cashiered therefor, of others dying bowl in hand when their castles were taken by the enemy, or sending their tea-things away privately as their chiefest treasure. Nobunaga and Hideyoshi, two of the greatest military rulers of Japan, were both enthusiastic votaries of the tea ceremonies. Hideyoshi probably gave the largest tea-party on record, the card of invitation being in the form of an official edict which is still preserved. All the lovers of tea in the empire were, by this singular document, summoned to assemble at a certain date under the pine grove of Kitano, near Kyōto, and to bring with them whatever curios connected with tea-drinking they possessed, it being further decreed that all such as failed to respond to the summons should be debarred from ever taking part in the tea ceremonies again. This was in the autumn of 1587, the time when the Invincible Armada was being equipped for the ceremonies of war. The tea-party seems to have been successful. It lasted ten days, and Hideyoshi fulfilled his promise of drinking tea at every booth. The tenants of some of the booths were noblemen, of others traders or peasants;—for all were invited regardless of birth, a proof that the custom had begun to filter down into the lower strata of society.

A few years later (1594) Hideyoshi called together at his palace of Fushimi the heads of all various schools into which, by this time, the art of tea-drinking had split up. Chief among these was Sen-no-Rikyū, a name which every Japanese enthusiast reveres,—for he it was, or at least he principally, who collated, purified, and (so to say) codified the tea ceremonies, stamping them with the character wihch they have borne ever since. Simplicity had long been commanded by the poverty of the country, exhausted as it was by ages of warfare. He took this simplicity up, and raised it into a canon of taste as imperative as the respect for antiquity itself. The worship of simplicity and of the antique in objects of art, together with the observance of an elaborate code of etiquette—such are the doctrine and discipline of the tea ceremonies in their modern form, which has never varied since Sen-no-Rikyū's day. Though not the St. Paul of the tea cult, he was thus its Luther. Unfortunately he was not indifferent to money. He abused his unrivalled skill as a connoisseur of curios to enrich himself, and to curry favour with the great. Hideyoshi at last detected his venality and fraud, and caused him to be put to death.

The ceremonies themselves have often been described. They include a preliminary dinner, but tea-drinking is the chief thing. The tea used is in the form, not of tea-leaves, but of powder, so that the resulting beverage resembles pea-soup in colour and consistency.[1] There is a thicker kind called koi-cha, and a thinner kind called usu-cha. The former is used in the earlier stage of the proceedings, the latter towards the end. The tea is made and drunk in a preternaturally slow and formal manner, each action, each gesture being fixed by an elaborate code of rules. Every article connected with the ceremony, such as the tea-canister, the incense-burner, the hanging scroll, and the bouquet of flowers in the alcove, is either handled, or else admired at a distance, in ways and with phrases which unalterable usage prescribes. Even the hands are washed, the room is swept, a little bell is rung, and the guests walk from the house to the garden and from the garden back into the house, at stated times and in a stated manner which never varies, except in so far as certain schools, as rigidly conservative as monkish confraternities, obey slightly varying rules of their own, handed down from their ancestors who interpreted Sen-no-Rikyū's ordinances according to slightly varying canons of exegesis.

To a European the ceremony is lengthy and meaningless. When witnessed more than once, it becomes intolerably monotonous. Not being born with an Oriental fund of patience, he longs for something new, something lively, something with at least the semblance of logic and utility. But then it is not for him that the tea ceremonies were made. If they amuse those for whom they were made, they amuse them, and there is no thing more to be said. In any case, tea and ceremonies are perfectly harmless, which is more than can be affirmed of tea and tattle. No doubt, even the tea ceremonies have, if history libels them not, been sometimes misused for purposes of political conspiracy. But these cases are rare. If the tea ceremonies do not go the length of embodying a "philosophy," as fabled by some of their admirers, they have, at least in their latest form, assisted the cause of purity in art. Some may deem them pointless. None can stigmatise them as vulgar.

Book recommended. Brinkley's Japan and China, Vol. II. p. 246 et seq.

  1. Foreign gourmets resident in Japan have discovered that a delicious ice-cream can be made out of it.