CHINA HERITAGE QUARTERLY China Heritage Project, The Australian National University ISSN 1833-8461
No. 29, March 2012


Tea Drinking and Ceramic Tea Bowls | China Heritage Quarterly

Tea Drinking and Ceramic Tea Bowls
An overview through dynastic history

Li Baoping 李宝平
Department of Archaeology
The University of Sydney

Fig.1 Tenth-century (Five dynasties) green ware bowl and stand carved with lotus petals 青釉刻花托碗, unearthed at the Huqiu Pagoda in Suzhou 蘇州虎丘塔, Jiangsu. (Source: Suzhou Municipal Museum)

Tea vessels are an indispensable part of tea culture. As the people who invented porcelain, it is hardly surprising that over the ages the Chinese have used chinaware as the primary vessel for drinking tea. Ceramic tea bowls are mentioned in the first major text on tea, The Classic of Tea 茶經. Compiled between 758-60CE by Lu Yu 陸羽 (733–804) of the Tang dynasty, this work had a profound effect on the diffusion of the tea-drinking. Lu Yu lists and ranks tea bowls made in kilns in six prefectures, and the celadon bowls made in Yuezhou 越州, Zhejiang. Called Yue ware 越窑 these are considered to be the most suitable for tea drinking.[Fig.1]

In The Classic of Tea Lu Yu also disagreed with those who regarded the famous Xing ware 邢窑—the white porcelain from Xingzhou in Hebei, as being superior to Yue celadon. He gave three reasons: first, while the Xing white porcelain looks like silver, Yue greenware is like jade; secondly, while Xing ware was like snow, Yue ware was like ice; and, thirdly, while Xing ware was white and made tea appear reddish, Yue ware was celadon and made tea appear green. Or, as he wrote:

Fig.2 Jian ware tea bowl with hare's fur markings 建窯兔毫盞, unearthed from a tomb of 1205 in Zhangshu, Jiangxi. (Source: Zhangshu Municipal Museum)

It can be most probably surmised that greenware 青瓷 was the favoured ceramic type for drinking tea in the Tang. The popularity of green coloured ceramics used for tea bowls is also supported by evidence from the greenware kilns of Changsha, Hunan 湖南長沙. The Changsha kilns are not among the seven producers listed by Lu Yu, nonetheless it must have been a significant supplier of tea bowls, something evident from the fact that a bowl was unearthed at the Changsha kiln site which, prior to firing, had written on it: tu wan 荼埦, 'bitter-tea bowl'. More interesting yet are finds from the Belitung shipwreck 黑石號沉船. This Arab merchant vessel set sail from a Chinese port and was probably destined for the Middle East, but sank in Indonesia waters in the early ninth century, something indicated by a ceramic bowl incised with a Chinese reign date corresponding with the year 826CE. The wreck contained a significant cargo of Chinese ceramics. These include numerous Changsha ware bowls of identical shape but diverse decoration, and a small number of Yue greenwares, Xing white porcelain, as well as wares with other origins. One of the Changsha bowls was also inscribed, before firing, with the words cha zhanzi 茶盞子, another term for tea bowl.[1] This is somewhat surprising since the bowl was most probably not intended for tea drinking in the Middle East, and the Chinese words would have meant little to a foreign user. It is hoped that further study of this tea bowl and other ceramics from Belitung will provide new insights into the production and management of Chinese ceramics in the Tang.

Contrasted with the Tang period, the Song dynasty saw the prevalence of blackware tea bowls, though other ceramic types were also used. This has a lot to do with the contemporary custom of 'tea contending' 鬥茶. While the primary tea-brewing technique during the Tang was to grind tea cakes into powder and then boil the resultant powder in a pot before ladling it into a tea bowl for drinking, the tea contending of the Song feature a whipped-tea method. This consisted of the grinding of the tea cake (usually an expensive or luxurious item) into fine powder, placing the powder in a bowl, pouring boiling water into the bowl from a ewer (usually also made from ceramic), and whipping the mixture with a whisk. The 'tea contending' partly consisted of comparison of the colour of the resulting tea. The whiter the froth of the whipped-tea the better, and not surprisingly blackware bowls were obviously well suited to this purpose. Tea contending prevailed in Song society, from the royal court to commoners, and its popularity lead to the intensive manufacturing and appreciation of blackware bowls across the empire.

Fig.3 Jizhou ware tea bowl with paper cut design encircling popular contemporary auspicious marks of May the Hall be Filled with Gold and Jade 金玉满堂, Longevity with Wealth and Nobility 長命富貴, Happiness, Longevity, Health and Peace 福壽康寧. Unearthed at the site of the Jizhou kiln. (Source: Jiangxi Provincial Museum)

A noteworthy feature of Song blackware tea bowls is that the black glaze is often decorated and fired with special markings that resemble hare's fur 兔毫盞, tortoiseshell 玳瑁盞, partridge feathers 鷓鴣斑, oil drops 油滴, or the like. And such effects were frequently praised in poems and other works of the Song and later periods by famous scholar-bureaucrats such as Su Dongpo 蘇東坡 (1037-1101). Even the Song emperor Huizong 宋徽宗 (1082-1135) declared that black was valued for tea bowls and those with hare's fur markings were the most superior. The most influential producer of blackware tea bowls were the Jian kilns in Jianyang 建陽, Fujian.[Fig.2] Some Jian ware bowls were inscribed before firing with the words 'imperial tribute' 供御, indicating these specific bowls were made for the use of the court. Blackware tea bowls from China were also cherished in Japan from Song times, and tea contending too was introduced to Japan. Blackware ceramic bowls entered Japan via diverse routes. For example, among ceramics from the Yuan dynasty Shin'an wreck 新安沉船 a few Jian ware bowls were found. This merchant ship probably set sail from Ningbo, Zhejiang, and was destined for Japan, but it sank in Korean waters after a short stop-over (as indicated by the presence of a few Korea celadon wares in the wreck). A few wood tabs bearing a Yuan reign date of 1323 imply the era of the ship's loss.[2]

Diplomacy was another channel by which Chinese blackware ceramics entered Japan. In 1406, the early Ming emperor Yongle bestowed ten Song-era Jian ware bowls on Ashikaga Yoshimitsu (足利義満, 1358-1408), the third shogun of the Ashikaga shogunate who ruled from 1368 to 1394 during the Muromachi period. The many Japanese monks who travelled to practice at monasteries in China also brought chinaware back to Japan. As a matter of fact, blackware bowls are given the generic name of tenmoku 天目 by tea masters in Japan, as it is believed that Japanese monks brought back Jian ware bowls from the Tianmu Shan 天目山 mountain in Zhejiang after studying Chan/Zen Buddhism at the local monasteries.[3]

Fig.4 Jizhou ware tea bowl with leaf pattern, unearthed from a tomb dating from 1206 in Shangrao, Jiangxi 江西上饒. (Source: Shangrao Municipal Museum)

Apart from the Jian kilns, Jizhou 吉州 in Jiangxi was another most famous producer of blackware tea bowls during the Song-Yuan period.[Figs 3&4] During the latest symposium on blackwares from Jizhou and other kilns and two accompanying blackware exhibitions held by the Shenzhen Museum in February 2012, much discussion was devoted to the interaction between blackware, tea cultures and Chan/Zen Buddhism.[4] The Shenzhen exhibitions and symposium were a breakthrough in research of Chinese blackwares that built on the exhibition in 1996 of similar ceramics organized by the Sackler Museum of Harvard University. Titled 'Hare's Fur, Tortoiseshell, and Partridge Feather: Chinese Brown- and Black-glazed Ceramics, 400-1400', that exhibition proved to be foundational for study of blackware tea bowls.[5] The reason that this exhibition included only blackwares dating from before the year 1400 is again related to tea, since another major change occurred in tea brewing techniques at this time. In 1391, Zhu Yuanzhang 朱元璋, the founding emperor of the Ming dynasty banned the production of expensive tea cakes and only loose tea leaves were henceforth allowed to be sold. Thus, in the Ming tea was brewed by pouring boiling water over leaves placed in a vessel. The emergence of what is known as the steeping method of tea making lead to the decline of blackware tea bowls that had only enjoyed an advantage when tea contending was based on the use and grinding of tea cakes. Subsequently we see the rise of the use of tea-pot in the Ming-Qing era, particularly the zisha 紫砂 or purple clay-ware tea pots from Yixing 宜興, Jiangsu, and porcelain from Jingdezhen 景德镇, Jiangxi.[6][7]

Fig.5 Batavian ware cup and saucer, featuring brown glaze outside and underglaze painting inside. From the Ca Mau shipwreck of 1723-1735 found in Vietnamese waters. (Source: Zelnik Collection, Hungary)

During the Ming and Qing dynasties, Jingdezhen became the porcelain capital of China; it also exported its products worldwide. Consequently cups from Jingdezhen were widely used for drinking tea, both home and abroad. So-called 'Batavian ware' might exemplify the wide use of tea cups from Jingdezhen. This type of porcelain features brown glaze and is usually decorated with underglaze blue or overglaze coloured enamels.[Fig.5] It is now often called 'Batavian ware' after the Dutch East India Company port of Batavia (now Jakarta) in Java, from where these wares were transshipped in vast quantities to Europe.[8] Batavian ware was fashionable in Europe, particularly during the eighteenth century. They were much favoured in Holland and Sweden, and were also exported to America. Batavian ware was also depicted in numerous European art works. Examples include Jan Josef Horemans the Elder's (1682-1759) 'Tea Party in a Netherlandish Garden: Springtime'.[9][Fig.6] Numerous Europe museums have collections of Batavian wares, including the Zwinger Palace in Dresden that hold the porcelain collection of Augustus the Strong (1670-1733), Elector of Saxony and King of Poland. It is also found in large quantities in shipwrecks around the world.[10][11].

Fig.6 Tea Party in a Netherlandish Garden: Springtime, Jan Josef Horemans the Elder's (1682-1759), Sheaf C.–Kilburn R. 1988, plate 149.

While the tea vessels cited hitherto are all from famous ceramic centres and it is no surprising to enjoy a high status with their users, a ceramic jar widely revered as an icon of Japanese tea culture is different in this regard. It was purchased by the Smithsonian's Freer Gallery of Art at an auction held by Christie's in New York City. The jar, made in China during the late Southern Song or Yuan dynasty (thirteenth or fourteenth century) and shipped to Japan as a humble container for a commercial product, developed a distinguished pedigree in the hands of influential tea connoisseurs, collectors and rulers who used it for storing precious tea and displayed it in their tearooms between the fifteenth and twentieth centuries.[12] It was probably manufactured in the coastal provinces of Fujian or Guangdong, but the exact origin remains to be identified. How a humble ceramic jar from China became an icon of Japanese tea culture is a question that deserves more research, including its place of origin in China. In summary, ceramic tea vessels are closely associated with tea-brewing techniques of different historical periods in China and contain a great wealth of information related to their manufacturers, distributors and users in China and associated countries. Interpreting the ceramics universally represented at worldwide archaeological sites and museum collections will allow us to gain much insight into past human societies. In view of the great deal of research done on tea from China's history,[13] research dedicated to tea vessels is particularly valuable.[14]


References for the archaeological finds and history records mentioned are too many to cite in this short article and only a few primary ones are provided.

[1] Regina Krahl, John Guy, J. Keith Wilson, Julian Raby, eds, Shipwrecked: Tang Treasures and Monsoon Winds, Washington: Smithsonian Institution, 2010, plate 183. The essays in this volume are available online, at:

[2] National Maritime Museum of Korea, ed., The Shinan Wreck, Mokop: National Maritime Museum of Korea, 2006.

[3] Xie Mingliang, 'The ceramic connoisseurship of the Song people and issues related to the distribution of Jian ware tea bowls', Taida Journal of Art History, Vol.29 (2010).

[4] See:

[5] Robert D. Mowry, Hare's Fur, Tortoiseshell, and Partridge Feather: Chinese Brown- and Black-glazed Ceramics, 400-1400, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1996, see:

[6] 故宫博物院,2007年国际紫砂研讨会论文集,北京:紫禁城出版社,2009/ The Palace Museum, ed., The Proceedings of the 2007 International Symposium on Zisha Wares, Beijing: Forbidden City Press, 2009. See:

[7] Exhibition of contemporary Yixing wares at the Capital Musuem, Beijing, January 2012. See:

[8] J. Martin, 'Colonel William Thomlinson's collection of Chinese 18th century export porcelain: 'Batavian' style and other brown glazed wares. Transactions of the Oriental Ceramic Society', 57 (1994): 83-94.

[9] Colin Sheaf and Richard Kilburn, Hatcher Porcelain Cargoes: The Complete Record, Oxford: Phaidon and Christies, 1988, plate 149.

[10] Wang Shuchin, 'The story of Batavian wares', in Monthly Bulletin of the Palace Museum (in Chinese), Taipei, 2010:38-48.

[11] Li Baoping, 'Batavian' Style Chinese Export Porcelain: origins, recent finds and historic significance, in The Hungarian Southeast Asian Research Institute', The Ca Mau Shipwreck Porcelain [1723-1735], vol.2, Budapest, Magyar Indokína Társaság Kft, 2012.

[12]; and,

[13] An comprehensive collection of texts and commentaries related to tea works through Chinese history, edited by Ch'eng Peikai of the City University of Hong Kong (CUHK) and Zhu Zizhen of the Nanjing Agriculture University was published in two volumes in Hong Kong in 2007 under the title 中國歷代茶書匯編校注本. See:; see also 'The Symposium of Tea and Chinese Culture at CUHK, 2007', at:

[14] See Liao Bao-hsiu 廖寶秀, 'Empty Vessels, Replenished Minds: The Culture, Practice, and Art of Tea' 也可以清心—茶器.茶事.茶畫, Taipei: National Palace Museum, 2006, details online at: