Black art in the drinking of tea

Jianzhan dates back to the Song Dynasty (960-1279) and is inextricably linked to an ancient method of drinking Chinese tea.
Zhu Yun / Ti Gong

Made of local clay with iron oxide, limestone and feldspar, Jianzhan is heavier than most porcelain cups.

The Jianzhan, or Jian teacup, is a famous porcelain item dating to the Song Dynasty (960-1279). It is known as Tenmoku ware in Japan, named after Tianmu Mountain in Lin’an City, Zhejiang Province, where it is believed to have originated.

It is said that a number of Japanese monks encountered the vessels when they traveled to temples on the mountain. Exported to Japan for use in tea ceremonies, the ware became highly prized afterward. 

Jian refers to Jian’an, an ancient prefecture in today’s Jian’ou, Fujian Province. In the 1970s, research jointly done by Fujian Museum and Xiamen University at the Luhuaping kiln site in the province revealed that the ware was created in the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127), thrived in the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279) and went into decline in the late Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368).

Made of local clay with iron oxide, limestone and feldspar, Jianzhan is heavier than most porcelain cups and sounds like metal when tapped. The tai, or base for the ware is thick, rough and black while the glazes are dense, streaky and runny.

“The clay and glaze are high in iron content, around 8 percent, one of the characteristics of Jianzhan. The taste of tea served from Jianzhan is different from others,” says Wei Shangren, one of the founders of the Jian Kiln & Jianzhan Association of Jianyang. “Many believe the material of the ware can soften the water.” 

Wei was in Shanghai recently to give a talk as part of the 2018 Huxinting Tea Culture Festival at the Beaufort Terrace & View in Yuyuan Garden.

Zhu Yun / Ti Gong

Wei Shangren, an expert on Jianzhan, has devoted himself to promoting the history and culture of the ancient teacup.

The patterns on Jianzhan include hare’s fur, oil spot, Chinese francolins, mirror black glaze, persimmon-like red glaze and the rarest yaobian glaze of silver spots on black and an appearance of stars twinkling in space. 

“Instead of normal jet black, the blackness of Jianzhan coexists with dark cyan and reflection of metallic crystals. Around 90 percent of the vessels are with the pattern of hare’s golden fur among which those with long and thin ‘fur,’ or streak, are the best,” says Wei.

Only four Jianzhan have been found with the yaobian glaze effect. Three are on Japan’s list of national treasures and are displayed at Seikado Bunko Art Museum, Fujita Museum and the Daitoku-ji Temple. 

The fourth was unearthed by a migrant worker on the site of a chemical plant in Hangzhou’s Shangcheng District in 2009. He sold it to a dealer for 1,500 yuan (US$240). Although a quarter of the piece was missing, the dealer resold it to the owner of an antiques store for 15,000 yuan. Later, a man from Fujian Province spent hundreds of thousands of yuan to acquire it. It is now owned by a collector living in Hangzhou.

“The treasure was once exhibited in Hangzhou. Over 200 people from Jianyang and 300-500 Japanese paid a special visit to it,” says Wei. “The production yield of Jianzhan was very low ─ only a few out of hundreds of thousands of wares were complete as people used firewood to fire vessels. Today, with the help of electrical kilns, the yield ranges from 15 to 85 percent depending on the skills of the craftsmen.”

Jianzhan is inextricably linked with the diancha method of drinking tea that was popular in the Song Dynasty. 

“Jianzhan was made for diancha so it is inevitable to mention the traditional tea ceremony while referring to the tea bowl,” Wei says.

The heyday of the diancha method was in the Song Dynasty when people had a tradition of doucha (literally tea fight), competing in the quality of tea leaves, poems written for the tea and tea latte art. 

“Six major types of Chinese tea all fit the diancha method, but the most appropriate one is white tea which is set off by the blackness of Jianzhan,” says Wei.

Zhu Yun / Ti Gong

A tea ceremony performer demonstrate diancha using a bamboo tea whisk.

During his talk in Shanghai, Wei described in detail the diancha process: He mashed the steam-prepared dried tea leaves in a stone mortar before using a mill stone to slowly grind them, as aroma of tea leaves will be altered if the mill stone gets too warm, sieved tea powder, warmed up the Jianzhan, added 1.5-2 grams of tea powder and a little bit water at around 95 degrees Celsius into the bowl, mixed thoroughly into a paste, added water another seven times and continuously whipped the tea powder and hot water.

“Fragrant, sweet, dense and smooth are the four characteristics of tea processed through the diancha method, among which the last two are distinctive,” says Wei.

With the overthrow of the Song Dynasty by the Yuan force in 1279, both Jianzhan and diancha began to decline. 

“The Yuan Dynasty was ruled by the Mongols who advocated the nomadic lifestyle. Diancha, which was a very time-consuming process, didn’t conform to their national character,” says Wei.

Jianzhan reappeared in the public’s awareness along with diancha in 2011, when the craftsmanship of Jianzhan was listed as national intangible cultural heritage. According to Wei, there were only 16 domestic workshops making Jianzhan in Jianyang in 2013-2014, and most of the craftsmen were elderly men. However, many young people have been taking part in protecting the skill since 2015 and they bring new ideas in Jianzhan design.

“Young people have more knowledge of chemistry and physics, which helps them learn the appropriate proportion of composition and the temperature so the color and gloss of the Jianzhan made by them is showier and more shining,” says Wei. “Nevertheless, I hope that they can still preserve traditional skills and style.”

Those who want to see for themselves what Jianzhan is all about can visit the 163-year-old Huxinting Teahouse in Yuyuan Garden where a number of elaborate Jian teacups are collected. 

  • Huxinting Teahouse

Address: 257 Yuyuan Rd

Opening hours: 8:30am-9pm

Tel: 6373-6950

Zhu Yun / Ti Gong

Beaufort Terrace & View (Hai Shang Li Yuan)

The traditional theatrical stage where people had a panoramic view of the Yuyuan Garden is now a sky garden with traditional Chinese elements. 

More activities about folk arts will be held here as part of the Chinese art and craftmanship promotion program which intends to spread knowledge of Chinese traditional culture to the citizens.

For a full program schedule, please subscribe to its official Wechat account (gh_63bd368f13b5).

Address: 4/F, 10 Wenchang Rd

Tel: 6355-3801

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