Friday, 8 April 2011

Tea ware

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History has recorded England and China used ceramic ware to drink their tea and those records go into great detail, showing contrasts and similarities between each cultures ceramics. The vast ideological differences between England and China show how social, political and ritualistic issues were reflected in the developments and changes made to the ware visually, as well as its functionality. Were the issues in each culture a result of external or internal influences, exchange, inspiration or necessity? A brief history of the origin of tea as a drink and how the very nature of these issues affected ceramics will be included. Perspectives formulated by developments and changes resulting from various oddities inherent in each culture will also be discussed.

In China, from the Song to the Qing dynasties the major tea vessel was the tea bowl, which make up the majority of teacups exported were the lovely handle-less tea bowls the Chinese used. With the increase in exportation, they were quick to copy European vessels to please their customers and many styles were duplicated from prints and actual samples of silverware. Early export ware became a booming business and surprisingly, the English, although the last of the European countries to embrace tea as a drink became the largest export customers of tea and tea wares from China

Early English tea ware could not compare to the beautiful porcelains and stoneware that were being produced in China, but it didnt take them long before they were making a high quality imitation in soft paste or slip painted earthenware with various types of salt and tin glazes. However, once porcelain was discovered in Meissen, Germany, in the 1700s this changed and the Chinese monopoly on tea ware was broken.

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Many cultures were using herbal drinks for medicinal purposes and tea was just one more added to the multitude of infusions and concoctions the Chinese used for a variety of illness, and realigning bodily humors. Originally formed into cakes which were then pounded to produce a fine powder, this tea was put into a tea bowl where boiling water was poured over it and such additives as onion, ginger, orange and salt were used to flavor it for drinking. .

The people of the Ming dynasty began favoring tea brewed from leaves in pots instead of power brewed in bowls, and the most highly regarded teapots became the Yixing teapots. Since these wares were in high demand, the Yixing district and their potters became dedicated to the manufacture of their special teapots to meet those needs. There is no actual documentation covering the development of a teapot but is can safely be assumed a natural evolutionary step, and became important during the Ming dynasty where the brewing of tea leaves in a pot were the habit of the time.

Very likely the forerunners of the teapot were hot water pots, saucepots and wine ewers. This probable evolutionary step seems as obvious as their design. Since they were already in use, it would have been a simple matter making the transition and using their design to create a vessel in which to brew tea. In comparing the body designs we can see a similarity between a Northern Song Yingqing ware wine pot with warmer, which had a white body with impressed designs and blue glaze, and the forms of the many teapots produced.

All the wonderful Chinese teapots were made either of porcelain or a variety of stoneware clay bodies. There was considerable information pointing to the disagreements between different factions within China as to which clay body was best for use as tea ware. Some purported to say the Yixing clay was best because of its ability to maintain the fragrance and taste of the tea, while others extolled the virtues of porcelain. One can get caught up in the debates between the form of the tea ware from thick body to thin; however, you must keep in mind that the visual was as important to the Chinese in their tea drinking as was the fragrance and taste of their tea. It was a warm exhilarating and restful break to take tea and to share the moment with friends and honored guests...so all aspects of the moment were appreciated. This developed into more than just a tea break -- it became a ceremony and a sign of civilized manners. Tea was always offered to guests and was more than just courtesy. The Chinese used this as a means to show respect. Also, in very ancient times when a girl was getting married, it was offered as a gift. At that time tea was a very expensive commodity and it was understood that if she accepted this gift the match making ended meaning she was engaged.

In China, tea was initially considered an excellent prescriptive for about any ill, but quickly became a highly sought after beverage and then considered a treasure. Society embraced it with enthusiasm making it not only a subject for poetry, but esteemed worthy of fine vessels in which to prepare and partake of its benefits. Its exclusivity died out as it became more affordable to all classes of people and soon it became an established social custom all over China.

In contrast to the Chinese, the English were more inclined to view it as a beverage for only the very elite. The English embraced the drinking of tea with enthusiasm. But they differed from the Chinese in that they used the tea ceremony more to show wealth and elitism than the enjoyment of the moment, or the fragrance and taste of tea. Witness the addition of milk, sugar and lemon. These additives destroy the delicate flavor and fragrance of the tea brew.

Because of teas extremely high importation cost, it was introduced in small quantities and, as is usually the case with highly demanded products, was initially available only to the very wealthy. Just as important were the unique wares in which this beverage was prepared and consumed. Tea soon became a status symbol among the upper class and nobility; even portraits were commissioned portraying a family sitting down to take tea showing their wealth and good taste. The portraits also note porcelain cups with silver tea service showed how the tiny tea bowl was held depending upon individual preference. Some of them held by the thumb and fingers, with the thumb on the foot ring, others held it only by the foot ring, and another position showing an individual holding it as a bowl cupped within the hand. .

Chinese porcelain or Yixing stoneware was beyond the ability of the English craftsmen. Due to the status afforded this ceramic ware, the English craftsmen were determine to imitate them, however, the only material worthy of this status was silver, and handle-less silver tea bowls were unacceptable. Patrons, therefore, preferring not to burn their fingers, used porcelain or stoneware tea bowls in conjunction with silver pots. Export ware from China altered somewhat once the Chinese realized the potential of this market. There were many variations of the tea bowls but the most interesting fact was that the Chinese craftsmen began to imitate the silver ware of Europe. Another influence to the teapot design, which came later as exportation with Europe evolved, were the silver vessels used as patterns by the Chinese. They conscientiously duplicated the many European silver body styles as the exported teapots became popular.

In viewing all the lovely tea ware one can see that the decoration preferences ranged from the beautiful white with blue under-glazes to the Ming dynasty Swatow ware porcelain bowls with flower and bird designs with glazed enamels and gold. The reproduction of European figures on porcelain saucers was a favored scene along with the beautiful flowers and other designs done with the Famille rose overgrazed enamels and gilt of the Qing dynasty. In conjunction with porcelain cream jugs, cups, saucers, and dishes in violet and yellow glaze enamels, there were demands for more of the white porcelain and red porcelain. These red porcelain wares were actually Yixing red stoneware .All these were produced for export for the European market.

The British were enamored with the Oriental exotic and promptly adopted the Chinese styles in tea ware. These were very expensive and like nothing they had available locally. It mattered little that the tea bowls had no handles, in fact, very probably the uniqueness of the lack of a handle added to the allure. The pots and tea bowls initially imported along with the tea found an avid consumer at the other end. The English had never seen such beautiful ceramics before and although porcelain was highly prized, it was the red porcelain or Yixing stoneware that were the first teapots imported for use with tea shipments. Ironically, these Yixing pots were not considered valuable by the shippers because they came with the tea trade goods and it was discovered that these dark stoneware ceramics were better than the European earthenware.

As usual, supply and demand economics was a strong incentive for the Chinese to provide more tea ware for import. Due to the increase in demand, they took to duplicating the silverware pots of Europe in making the teapot bodies, even though they maintained their own design in the tea bowl. It is necessary to mention that as they imitated European wares for importation, the cup underwent a change and received a handle reminiscent of those silver coffee and posset cups used throughout Europe. This typical merchandising cycle is what led to the duplication of the silverware and drinking cups of Europe by the Chinese. The variations in designs are from the fanciful to the very plain, but in the tea ware that was imported there was also included many beautiful Chinese porcelain tea pots and bowls.

In contrast, the English never really developed their style for the tea ware until after porcelain was discovered in Meissen, Germany. There are several observations that need to be made here and one was that once tea ware was popular in England, many English potters or guilds began duplicating them. One such duplication is the Elers StokeonTrent teapot of 165. This particular teapot was probably reproduced in earthenware and a dark brown slip applied to make the surface appear similar to the unglazed glowing surface of the Yixing teapots.

There are many examples of fine tea ware but some of the most notable were the Delftware such as the Frazackerly type out of Liverpool in 1750 which boasted cups without handles and saucers, toy tea services in tin glazed earthenware, brown salt glazed teapots; Lowstoft soft-paste tea ware out of Chelsea; Jasper tea ware sets which were from Wedgewood out of Staffordshire; Worcester enameled porcelain teapots and, not to be left out, the unusual such as the famous Cauliflower ware teapots from Wedgewood in Whieldon.

Regardless of the developments, we can deduce that the adoption of tea by the Chinese was an outside influence changed to fit their society. Likewise we see the exportation of tea to England adopted from an outside influence. Both societies developed tea ceremonies to ritualize the drinking of this beverage and because of its beneficial nature, tea became more than just a medicinal concoction. Although each society viewed the taking of tea differently, and the initial motivations were at opposite ends of the scales, both had high regard for the beverage and the vessels used. Similarly, in the very early stages the high cost of the tea plant gave access to only the very elite and wealthy.

China mass-produced tea for all of her society, as the prices fell the lower classes benefited. However, in England, the nobility and wealthy were highly agitated over the fact that the lower classes could have access to something they regarded as theirs alone. The decrease in price brought about a major change in how the English viewed what became their national beverage. Not surprising their societal infrastructure also changed and followed in the footsteps of the Chinese opening to all their people.

The English went a step farther by developing their own tea plantations in British India, Java, Sumatra and Ceylon and with the enterprising opportunities being seized by their ceramists, the exportation prices of tea and tea ware dropped, as mass production and new ceramic materials were developed.

As the English took this tea issue to a different level, strictures regarding women taking tea in public changed when industrious individuals opened new types of establishments such as Tea Gardens and the strict codes changed, as did the character of the tea ceremony. Britain developed afternoon tea and a different social activity sprang up around this.

In reviewing the styles, shapes and decorations on the variety of tea ware it is obvious that when mass-produced the ware underwent a dramatic change and was no longer the high quality of the earlier, individually made pieces. This is not surprising as it occurs in all areas that go into mass production. We can even see it in the blends of the teas that came about when the various British exporters attempted to create a tea that would be lower in cost to the black and green teas of China but maintain the quality of the leaf. This took time and eventually, although a very good blend of teas emerged, they could not compare to the original teas exported from China.

The English, however, were able to improve on their ceramic industry, especially after porcelain was discovered in Germany. We can see an improvement in their ware over time. There will always be those pieces unique and wonderfully crafted, as well as the mass-produced ware, and these will always be in high demand among those who cherish fine ceramics no matter the form. We still see evidences of fine craftsmanship coming from China but not of the quality of those very early beautiful ceramics that held the world in awe. Much of this change is probably due to the change in the economic, political and social atmosphere within the country over the years. Reference







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