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History lessons pour from a cup

August 19, 2009|Jenn Garbee

The delicate, robin's-egg blue porcelain bowl perched on a display stand in the Fowler Museum at UCLA looks like something you might find at a lovely ladies' luncheon filled with silky vichyssoise soup.

But this Qingbai bowl from China's Song Dynasty is actually a drinking cup, used in the late 11th century by working class citizens who enjoyed pu-erh, an aged tea pressed into a cake-like brick.

The Qingbai vessel is one of dozens of Chinese cups, Japanese tea caddies and English teapots on display in the museum's latest exhibition, "Steeped in History: The Art of Tea."

The objets d'art and artworks included in the exhibition are reminders of our centuries-old fascination with tea. Each tells a story about the distinct cultures that have revered the Camellia, the plant that gives us tea.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday, August 22, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 1 inches; 47 words Type of Material: Correction
Tea exhibition: An article about the Fowler Museum's "Steeped in History" show in Wednesday's Food section included a photograph of a tall tea bowl with a caption that omitted the names of the collectors. The bowl is part of the collection of S. Baba and J. Keck.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday, August 26, 2009 Home Edition Food Part E Page 2 Features Desk 1 inches; 45 words Type of Material: Correction
Tea exhibition: An Aug. 19 article about the Fowler Museum's "Steeped in History" show included a photograph of a tall tea bowl with a caption that omitted the names of the collectors. The bowl is part of the collection of S. Baba and J. Keck.

As the exhibition reveals, behind the luxurious Victorian-era silver tea sets and stoic Colonial American portraiture was a commodity that garnered an exorbitantly high price. Yet that luxury came at an even greater expense to those who have labored to keep the tea leaves in our cups.

How tea was prepared influenced the style of the decorative drinking and brewing vessels created by various cultures over the centuries. The earliest were pressed or powdered teas prepared by partially dissolving the granules in boiling water.

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Perfecting a process

"The evolution of tea is not one of horticulture, it is an evolution of processing methods," says Beatrice Hohenegger, the Los Angeles-based guest exhibition curator and author of "Liquid Jade: The Story of Tea From East to West."

In ancient China, tea leaves were steamed, rather than roasted as most teas are today. The leaves were then pressed into a cake-like brick and dried for easy transport and long-term storage. To serve, a small portion of the tea brick would be finely shaved into a bowl and the tea flakes whisked with boiling water until the liquid became frothy.

Because these early teas were consumed for medicinal purposes, the drinking vessels in which they were served were primarily functional. "Tea was seen as a remedy, not a unique beverage," Hohenegger says.

As Chinese herbalists offered increasingly varied styles, tea became more popular for its flavor. The new era of tea connoisseurship created a demand for brewing and drinking vessels that celebrated the esteemed ingredient.

This new reverence for tea is evident in the bluish-white color of the Qingbai bowl designed to complement the frothy head of boiled and whisked pu-erh teas.

According to Hohenegger, the paper-thin cup's soup-bowl shape was preferred in the summer months to allow the tea to cool slightly before drinking (cups with handles and saucers were a later European adaptation). "The taller, thicker bowl shape that looks more like our mugs is a winter shape to help keep the tea hot" -- a rudimentary Thermos of sorts.

During the 9th century, tea was introduced to Japan by monks who had traveled to China to study Zen Buddhism. Its cultural importance there was markedly different.

"In Japan, tea became more the beverage of the spirit," Hohenegger explains. "As tea became a drink of the privileged, mainly the samurai and aristocrats, tea practitioners developed an art to drinking tea."

That religious reverence and favor among the social elite would shift the focus from the ingredient to the luxurious objects and ceremonies surrounding it.

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Beyond practicality

Unlike Chinese tea bricks, matcha (the green tea favored in Japan) was powdered, so a closed container was required for transport. The exhibition includes numerous examples of these stunning vessels created primarily to accentuate the art of the Japanese tea ceremony rather than simply as practical to-go boxes.

Interspersed among the exhibition's tea caddies (a sort of miniature picnic basket to transport powdered matcha tea) are the items necessary to properly perform a Japanese tea ceremony, including porcelain hanaire vases for flower arrangements.

In Japan, the choreographed dance of proper tea presentation meant the drink was prepared with the ultimate care. It also made tea a luxury accessible only to the wealthiest imbibers.

By the 19th century, the loose-leaf green tea sencha began to replace matcha as the preferred Japanese tea. "The shift to sencha was a reaction by Japanese intellectuals and artists to the rigid rules of the tea ceremony and elite status of matcha," Hohenegger says.

To prepare sencha, a style of tea the Chinese had introduced centuries earlier, the leaves are briefly steamed before roasting to lend a more vegetal flavor to the brew. Because the leaves are whole rather than ground, matcha tea caddies and brewing pots were no longer necessary.

Like sencha, the teapot had been developed in China centuries earlier.

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