Tea Wars

I saw a pomegranate shaped black glaze vase, I could not walk away. The shining black glaze looked purple gold, and when I placed it under a magnifying glass, I could see golden stars shining in the dark. Then I found out the black glazed ceramic is one of the most famous ceramics of the Song dynasty (AD960-1279). More than a third of the kilns through out the country were producing black glazed ceramics, the leading black glazed ceramic kiln was called Jianyao, therefore the black glazed ceramics are called the Jianyao series. The Japanese acquired a few Jianyao black tea bowls with a blue drop pattern. They have since been declared national treasures. During the Han dynasty, the Chinese were already producing black glazed ceramics, but it was in the Song dynasty that black glaze ceramics were most popular, due to the "Tea Wars".

The Chinese have been drinking tea since the West Han dynasty. By the Tang dynasty tea became the favorite drink of both Young and Old. When the Song dynasty came around, drinking tea was not just for thirst, but also for elegant entertainment. It was during the Song dynasty that the first "Dou Cha", tea fight, occurred. The competition, using fermented tea, occurred in three stages. The first part of the competition concerned who had the whitest tea leaves. Then they placed the ground tea leaves in a tea bowl, and poured in boiling hot water. If the tea left a water mark along the inside wall of the tea bowl, the tea was automatically disqualified. The last competition was to see whose white tea foam lasted the longest. This game was a favorite of the emperor, Song Hwei Chung, therefore the game was very popular through out the nation. There are five colors of tea bowls: celadon, bluish white, black, brown, and white; but the black tea bowl is the best for observing the white tea foam. In most tea fights players wanted black tea bowls, therefore through out the nation, hundreds of Yao (kilns) were producing black glazed tea bowls and black ceramics; some of them were producing nothing but black glazed ceramics.

The plain black glazed tea bowls were not attractive, so the clever kiln workers used the iron content in the glaze and the high temperatures in the kiln to produce iron crystallization formations producing design decorations such as hare's fur, partridge-feather, oil drop (looks as though shinning stars are in a dark sky), and turtle shell. Some of the tea bowls were decorated with paper cut patterns or tree leaves. Bowls were molded with flower patterns or carved. The emperor's favorite tea bowls were Jianyao "hare's fur" black tea bowls. Jianyao was a small private kiln in Fujian province that was appointed to make tea bowls for the royal family.

I wanted to know more about Jianyao series and be able to tell authentic from reproduction. I read all the books related to the subject and gathered all my black glaze ceramics to compare them against the books. I got very frustrated, and was ready to give up. But then Mr. Chen, one of my customers, walked in and asked what I was doing. When I told him, he said, "Bring out your paper and pen and write down what I tell you."

Shape - In the Song dynasty, black glazed ceramics were produced in Northern China with grayish white clay, making the tea bowl lighter in weight. The black glazed ceramic produced in Southern China (where the Jianyao was located) was made with dark clay, making the tea bowl heavier in weight. The tea bowls were made with clay that had a high iron content which after fired in the kiln turned black. The shape of the tea bowls is rustic, but very durable and hard. The reproduction Jianyao tea bowls are not made of the same kind of clay, so iron powder is normally added to the clay. However, the results also include small needle point sized bubbles in the clay. It also feels lighter in weight.

Glaze - To keep the tea water hot, and keep the tea foam lasting longer, the glaze is very thick. When the temperature in the kiln reaches about 1300 degrees Celsius, the glaze starts to drip to the lower bottom. At the lower bottom the glaze can get as thick as 10mm. The dripped glazed pattern is very natural and uneven. A reproduction Jianyao tea bowl, has a more uniform pattern of dripping glaze.

Iridescent reflection on the tea bowl - As ceramics age (especially buried ceramics), the glaze starts to show an iridescent reflection. The older the piece, the stronger the iridescence. Some of the reproductions will have an iridescent reflection, but since the reflection is produced by chemicals, it does not look natural.

Bottom of the tea bowl - After the tea bowls are hand made and removed from the wheel, a knife was used to dig out an indentation in the base. Workers normally didn't try to smooth the surface, therefore many of them have an uneven bottom. That is why some are not steady when you set them down. Reproductions generally come from molds and consequently have a smooth bottom.

Rim of the tea bowl - the glaze dripped down from the top to the bottom of the tea bowl at high temperature, therefore the rim of the tea bowl has thin glaze, oxidized to a dry brown color.

After I finished taking notes, I realized that Mr. Chen had given me more information than the books. It wasn't until after he left that I realized that in exchange for all this information about Tea Wars I did not even offer him a cup of tea.

A few years ago, Mr. Lee had come into the store wanting to see if I carried Chinese calligraphy. I had said that I did not really understand them, so I had only a few of them. He told me that the owner of the most famous antique calligraphy store in Taipei had actually learned some of his best knowledge from his customers. So, as you see, Mr. Lee is right, your customer could be your best teacher.