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History of Tianmu (Tenmoku)

Tianmu tea bowls from Jianzhou (currently, Lianan County) in southern Fujian Province and the tea wares for tea whisking during the Song Dynasty are known as Jianzhan. While studies by enthusiasts of the Japanese tea ceremony indicate that the Japanese term Tenmoku can be traced back to as early as 1333, or the second year of Jianwu (in 1335) on the Chinese imperial calendar, more widely accepted is that the term originated during the Kamakura period (between 1192 and 1333). During the Nansong Dynasty, Japanese monks travelled to China to study Buddhism. Some had the chance to learn about tea drinking while they followed reverend masters in the Tianmu Mountain region in Zhejiang Province. The monks brought back Jianzhan to Japan and surprisingly created a fad for Chinese-made tea wares in Japanese society.

As tea wares from China were considered to be of the finest quality, people felt proud to own Chinese-made products. Among the Jianzhan brought back from China by Japanese monks, some were valuable “changed by flame” tea bowls, “oil spot” glazed tea bowls and “hare’s fur” glazed tea bowls, which captured the hearts of the Japanese noble class. Some big fans were even willing to exchange a city wall and moat for a tea bowl. That is one example of the Japanese craze for the Jianzhan.

The fad for the Chinese dark brown glazed tea bowls gradually developed into study and preservation. In Japan, this kind of tea bowl is called tenmoku, a term widely accepted by the pottery circle the world over and a proper name for pottery research.

As the dark glaze was common during the Song Dynasty, kilns in northern and southern China specialized in various dark glazes with colorful embellishments.

As a big fan of tea drinking who liked to compete with courtiers on tea, emperor Huizong in the Song Dynasty led a fashion of tea battle. Bowls from Jianyang Kiln featured a thick body, dark coal color and a favorable luster, which added an extra charm to tea drinking and won the heart of the emperor.

Today, with the tea-drinking Japanese still fond of the Chinese dark glazed tea bowls (Tianmu), the dark glazed tea bowls made by Jian Kiln and Chayang Kiln in the Song Dynasty have been designated as national masterpieces of art and treasures that are to be valued.

Emperor Huizong once wrote in his essays on tea Da Guan Cha Lun (a broad perspective on tea): “As tea bowls with a dark glaze are considered the finest, “hare’s fur” tea bowl has the top quality for it helps to bring out the best of the tea.” In Cha Lu (a record of tea), Cai Xiang said, “The tea soup looks best with a dark bowl. Jianan Kiln produces supreme tea bowls with a dark purple glaze, a texture with fine streaks that look like hare’s fur. The thick body also helps to keep the tea warm. Bowls from other producers are inferior due to their lighter colors and thinner bodies. Hardened tea drinkers would never use light colored bowls.” Poet Huang Ting-jian described the dark glaze as “golden spots of partridge” and “hare’s fur and golden streaks”. Great litterateur Su Dong-po wrote in his poem Song Nan Ping Qian Shi (for Taoist master Nang Ping Qian Shi) “The master came to visit me from Nan Ping Mountain and demonstrated tea whisking for me. I was surprised to see him using “hare’s fur” bowls. The tea had an aroma and taste comparable to the finest wine brewed in spring.” In the poets’ works there are detailed descriptions of the beauty of the tea bowls. From their words, we are also sure that there is no term called Tianmu in Chinese history.

While Tenmoku is a special term for tea bowls from the Song Dynasty in the Japanese tea ceremony, in China, it is called Jianzhan or the dark brown tea bowl. During the Song Dynasty when Neo-Confucianism was prevalent, vessels with a single color were considered to have the highest esthetic value. The Tianmu is a highly prized color glaze developed during the Song Dynasty and was mainly produced in Jizhou Kiln in Jiangxi Province and Jianan Kiln in Fujian Province. Tianmu generally refers to the dark glaze pottery ware that has rich glossy colors produced by iron oxide crystals. The term Tianmu and its Japanese synonym Tenmoku are used interchangeably in the global pottery circle. Known for its variability, Tianmu glaze can be categorized into: “changed by flame” Tianmu, partridge Tianmu, crab’s eye Tianmu, oil spot glazed Tianmu, hare’s fur Tianmu, hawksbill skin Tianmu, hawksbill Tianmu, leaf Tianmu, etc.

Hare’s fur glaze: fine vertical streaks like fur on the inner surface of the tea bowl.
Oil spot glaze: small spots that look like oil drops floating on water and have a metallic glow. Oil-spot glaze marks a new chapter in the history of the Chinese pottery.