June 17, 2017

A historical look at how the nouveau riche have justified their wealth through art patronage (part 4/4)

(For the introduction to this series, see here)


Sadō, or ‘the way of tea’ is a nationally revered art form in Japan. Often translated as the Japanese ‘tea ceremony,’ many practitioners of sadō resent this interpretation because it implies a restrictive ritual of rules, which erodes one’s idea of the enjoyment that it provides. For the purposes of this post, however, such a translation does not undermine the pleasure of Japanese tea culture. Rather, it highlights the complex refinement inherent in sadō that makes it worthy of its status as an art in the first place. Warlords in medieval Japan understood this fact. During the Muromachi period (1336-1573), when imperial authority was weak and warriors wielded great governmental power, they sought to emulate such refinement by becoming practitioners and collectors of tea wares. In doing so, they added a cultured dimension to their personas as military conquerors, which lent an authority to their power that otherwise lacked in comparison to the royal rulers that preceded them. Seen on a macro scale, their desire to possess fine tea wares paralleled their desire for power. Such was the case during Japan’s Muromachi period, when warlords vied in battle as well as in wealth and culture.

Tea appreciation in Japan began in the ninth century, when the monk Eichū (743-816) returned to Japan with tea leaves from China, where he had been studying Buddhism for thirty years. He served them to Emperor Saga (786-842), who emulated certain aspects of China’s Tang culture at his court, including the practice of courtiers reciting poetry while drinking tea. However, at this point tea appreciation did not catch on. It was only during the twelfth century when tea culture truly began, brought into being by Eisai (1141-1215), a monk who established the Rinzai school of Zen/Chan Buddhism. Like Eichū, Eisai also brought tea back with him from China. The difference, however, is that Eisai extolled its medicinal value, and on this basis he served tea to the ruling military elite while also integrating it into the daily practices of his Zen teachings. Long before we had an understanding of caffeine, Eisai recommended that monks drink it to revive themselves when fatigued. A set of rules for handling tea, called sarei, was soon established, and the tea ceremony was born. These protocols blended well with the other practices of Zen Buddhism, which placed an emphasis on daily discipline, rigorous training, and the harmony of mind, body, and spirit. And because this attitude resonated deeply with the military class, who cherished the same orderly virtues, the tea ceremony also became treasured by the samurai elite.

To understand how these warlords used the tea ceremony and its wares for their political aims, we must follow a timeline of their conquests and domination. After the fall of the Kamakura shogunate in 1333, the country was thrown into a series of civil wars between various fiefdoms. This lasted until 1392 when the first Muromachi shōgun, Ashikaga Takauji (1305-1358), assumed power over the country. He and his descendants continued to have an affinity for the tea ceremony and its service by monks, and during this period, Japanese architecture became influenced by this predilection. The formal palace style of the Heian period gradually gave way to the shoin (study room) style, which incorporated elements of temple architecture such as tea ceremony rooms. Once an activity only fit to be held within temple walls, the tea ceremony came to be performed in these study rooms by menservants dressed as monks, who were called dōbōshū.

The Ashikaga family collected valuable tea wares as a result of this affinity, and when Oda Nobunaga (1534-1582) seized control of their lands, as well as their possessions, he inherited an impressive collection. By this time, trade with Europe was well established through Japan’s commercial relationship with Portugal, and it was in Nobunaga’s best interests to cultivate close ties with wealthy merchants from the trading port of Sakai, who controlled the import of military firearms from Portugal. To that end, he invited these townsmen to tea gatherings where he flaunted the tea utensils once owned by the Ashikaga clan. This was his tactful way of showing that their authority was now vested in him. Oftentimes, he would also give these utensils to generals who pleased him, thereby drawing a comparison between his high regard of them and the esteem with which he prized his tea wares.

Nobunaga’s successor, Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1537-1598) perpetuated this political practice. After his ascent to power in 1582, he held three large tea gatherings within the first seven months as a way to secure political allegiances, at which he displayed Nobunaga’s collection of tea articles to remind his guests of who now had control of the country. When Hideyoshi was appointed regent in 1585 he travelled to court to thank the royal family, and as a token of his gratitude he served them tea himself. This was the first time that the tea ceremony was performed at court by a daimyō .

These conveyances of taste and enlightenment by warlords to the public poignantly illustrate the usefulness of sadō as a political tool. And while this appropriation constitutes only a minor point in the expansive breadth of manipulative tactics employed by Japanese military rulers to justify power in the minds of their subjects, it aptly explains how charmingly they could do it.



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