Chawan: A Quick-Start Guide

Posted by on Aug 2, 2016 in pottery, research | 4 Comments
Chawan: A Quick-Start Guide

Chawan: An Introduction

I’ve been making various chawan in the workshop this week. I like these forms because the potter and user develop a close relationship with them. Chawan are an intimate kind of pot: a lot of thought is given to how they feel to the hand, how they balance, and how they’re met by the lips. I thought it would be interesting to write a short guide to this popular form.

A chawan is ‘simply’ a tea bowl. It’s typically used in the preparation and serving of matcha tea (whipped green tea). This way of preparing and serving tea became associated with the rituals of Zen Buddhism in ancient China before its transmission to Japan in the late 12th century. From there chawans continued their association with the tea ceremony which continued to grow in popularity. Some chawan were imported from China before Japanese potters began producing chawans.

Using Chawans

It’s helpful to begin by examining chawan from the perspective of the tea connoisseur as they use the pot in specific ways. Of course, there are many books that provide a historical and practical perspective on the matter of tea. A revered text is ‘The Book of Tea’ by Okakura Kakuzo, 1906. It is an extended essay linking the role of tea to Japanese life (read in full).

In a more contemporary tome, The Story of Tea: A Cultural History and Drinking Guide, the reader is warned to reserve the chawan for use in Chanoyu (the ceremonial preparation and presentation of matcha). Chawans are described with a seemingly mixed affection:

…generously wide to accommodate the rapid back-and-forth mixing action of the bamboo whisk…the overall girth of a chawan made by a ceramic artist is hefty and a bit stocky; its size and weight commands respect and it is intended to be held in two hands, as if tenderly holding the soul of the artist. Chawans are squat and chunky, and can feature an uneven rim along the top and either a glazed or unglazed foot on the bottom of the bowl…

For a more detailed understanding of how the tea drinker uses and considers a chawan, it’s worth reading ‘What to look for in a chawan, Part 1’ (see also Part 2). This post gives an insight into how the surface and edge of the bowl is considered, as well as how easy it is to grip. There are also aesthetic issues relating to its proportions and weight. There is a lovely anecdote about one collector of chawan who carries a bamboo whisk in her purse in order to evaluate suitable bowls by ‘air-whisking’ in them.

Of course, there are also many styles of chawan that have developed in particular countries. A general overview can be found here, while this article provides specific classifications of Japanese chawan styles.

A Serious Business

The humble chawan is a serious business: aesthetically, culturally and financially.

Says Alice Driver in The Art of the Mistake:

My dad was obsessed with Japanese tea bowls, known as chawans, and with a culture that valued both the maker and their pots. “My favorite Japanese potter, his tea bowls start around $12,000,” he said. “In Japan a tea bowl made by a master is worth $20,000 or $30,000 or $40,000.” The person who buys one recognizes the years that it takes a potter to master the art of making the tea bowl and understands the history that such a vessel carries. I had grown up with handmade pots, those of my dad and of his ceramist friends, and each time I handled them my hands carried a memory of each one. That knowledge of the makers was passed along to me, and it informed the way I saw the world.

The article goes on to talk about the beauty of imperfection – in the asymmetry of the chawan and the natural world around us: the chawan is seen as an aesthetic antidote to our unnatural strive for perfection. It’s a great article that perfectly describes how a potter’s imagination can be captured by chawans.

Although chawans are often associated with a certain nonchalance, American Japanese ceramic expert, Robert Yellin, describes the difficulty that many potters face in making them in ‘Chawan: Simply, some of the hardest works of pottery to create

…many potters have told me making a good chawan is the hardest thing in the world for them. Why? It’s the giving birth to the essence of materials and hopefully allowing technique to be forgotten, so that forming becomes like breathing, while spirit shines; only then will a chawan come to life.

Examples of UK Chawan Making

While I was studying for my PhD, I spent much time at the Leach Pottery where I often attended talks and demonstrations by visiting potters. Presented here are two potters who make chawan as part of their practice. The first four images show Welsh potter Phil Rogers making some chawan during a masterclass in November 2013. The final four images show Japanese potter Yoh Tanimoto during a masterclass in June 2014.

  • Phil Rogers making a chawan: photo by Matthew Tyas
  • Phil Rogers making a chawan: photo by Matthew Tyas
  • Phil Rogers making a chawan: photo by Matthew Tyas
  • Phil Rogers making a chawan: photo by Matthew Tyas
  • Tanimoto Yoh making a chawan: photo by Matthew Tyas
  • Tanimoto Yoh making a chawan: photo by Matthew Tyas
  • Tanimoto Yoh making a chawan: photo by Matthew Tyas
  • Tanimoto Yoh making a chawan: photo by Matthew Tyas

It is interesting how Phil throws one pot at a time, much in the Western tradition, while Yoh throws his smaller pieces ‘off the hump’ – one after another. Both potters demonstrate how they throw and then shape their chawan using their fingers and a selection of metal and wooden tools. Yoh paid particular attention to how the holder interacts with the chawan – both in the hands, against the lips, and in passing the chawan to others.

My Recent Chawans

Having recently returned to full-time potting, I’ve been making some chawan. Like yunomi, there’s something I really love about the form in that it’s both sculptural and physically engaging. I enjoyed making these pots using a blended clay with additions of silica sand. All of the forms were turned within a few days of being thrown on the wheel, with some being dipped in an rich yellow ochre slip which will react with glazes in the second firing. I shall add images of the results as they come to fruition.

  • Matthew Tyas: new chawan awaiting firing
  • Matthew Tyas: new chawan awaiting firing

And Finally

I hope that you’ve enjoyed this post as much as I enjoyed researching and writing it. I’ve come away with a refreshed insight into chawan and look forward to applying the new knowledge to my future works. In the meantime, please feel free to contact me or make a comment below – I look forward to hearing from you.

Dr Matthew Tyas, August 2016.

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4 Comments

  1. Ivette Guier
    07/08/2016

    A very good article that shows ceramic lovers the deep spirit in ceramic production.

    Reply
    • Matt
      07/08/2016

      Thanks for your comment, Ivette – your kind words are appreciated.

      Reply
  2. Maxene Graze
    04/02/2018

    I am an intermediate potter getting back to the wheel. I’ve been so drawn to and fascinated by the chawan, so I’m trying to do a lot of research on it. Not only so I can understand the technique, but also the reason behind it. Your article is very well thought out and I appreciate the links (and beautiful pictures). I hope to be able to create chawans half as nice as yours!

    Reply
    • Matt Tyas
      17/02/2018

      Thanks for commenting Maxene, nice to hear from you. I appreciate your kind words and look forward to seeing what you make. After many years, there’s still something about the chawan form that I can’t help but like!
      With best wishes, Matt.

      Reply

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