Wabi Sabi, A Brief History of an Aesthetic. Part One

Originally, the term Wabi (侘) described an unpleasant personal state and was the nominal form of a verb meaning ‘to feel dejected’, ‘to be exhausted from doing something’, ‘to lead a life of poverty’.

The term Sabi, on the other hand, expresses the notions of ‘silence’, ‘solitude’, and ‘the passage of time’.

How did Wabi and Sabi come to be associated, forming today a unique aesthetic concept that expresses inner satisfaction in simplicity and lack, the true essence of the Japanese spirit?

In this first part, we focus on the term Wabi 侘 and its origins.

An Origin: The Tea Ceremony or Cha no yu

The tea ceremony, a poor translation of the term Cha no yu, which literally means hot water for tea, is a cultural practice gradually codified in Japan from the 12th to the 16th century.

Tea (Cha) in the form of leaves was introduced to Japan during the 9th century by a Buddhist monk from China, and then in powdered form (Matcha) in the 12th century. It is in this latter form that tea was used for Cha no yu.

Initially used by Zen monks to stay awake during their long meditation sessions, the consumption of tea gradually spread to all classes of Japanese society. The Cha-yoriai (tea gatherings), during which the host prepared tea for their guests, became fashionable.

Two trends emerged. For the aristocracy and the warrior class, the custom of drinking tea became a social pastime in the form of competitions such as gourmet contests (tocha) or tea tasting (incha-shobu). Often associated with betting, these competitions were followed by banquets and allowed organizers to demonstrate their wealth and refinement, notably through the stakes of the bets consisting of luxurious objects.

Among the lower classes, the consumption of tea, although of lesser quality, was also an occasion for friendly and socially less formal gatherings. These gatherings were often accompanied by banquets or baths. Gradually, Cha-yoriai spread to the bourgeois and military classes, who integrated a luxurious dimension by using better quality tea and expensive utensils, notably of Chinese origin (Karamono). The pursuit of refined aesthetics, notably through the use of a dedicated room, the Shoin, elegant and solemn, laid the foundations for the tea ceremony.

It was Shinno Nōami (1397-1471), a painter and poet, who codified this social phenomenon by unifying these tea consumption practices into a fusion that he elevated to the rank of art before the Zen monk Murata Jukō (1423-1502) gave it a path, an artistic ideal to achieve. This path, later called Wabi-cha, was consolidated by Takeno Jōō (1502-1555) and then by his disciple Sen no Rikyū (1522-1591), who perfected the art of the tea ceremony in the Wabi spirit that we know today.

Wabi-cha: Birth of an Aesthetic

During the 14th century, the objects and utensils used for the tea ceremony were as much symbols of prestige and influence when given as gifts. Reflecting the rank and importance of their owner, the value of these objects, mostly of Chinese origin, the Karamono, could represent considerable sums. Thus, this period saw the peak of imports destined for the wealthy aristocratic classes of Chinese ceramics like qingbai porcelain, a white and bluish glazed porcelain, or celadon glazed porcelain from the Longquan kilns, as well as tenmoku, stoneware bowls with hare’s fur glaze which were the first ceramics used for powdered tea.

Bol – Dynastie Yuan (1271–1368) – céramique de LoBol – Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368) – Longquan ware- The MET New-Yorkngquan – The MET New-York
Bowl with Two Boys and Foliage – Southern Song Dynasty (1127–1279) – Qingbai Ware – The MET, New York
Tenmoku Tea Bowl with Hare’s Fur Glaze in Stoneware – Song Dynasty (960–1279) – Jian Ware – The MET, New York

During the Muromachi period (1336-1573), under the influence of Shogun Yoshimasa Ashikaga (1435-1490), a cultural movement called Higashiyama bunka, or the Culture of the Eastern Mountain, emerged and saw the codification of Cha no yu under the influence of the artist Nōami and later the monk Murata Jukō, who was trained in the tea ceremony by Nōami himself. Murata Jukō directed Cha no yu towards a new form that was later named Wabi cha during the Edo period (1600-1868).

Murata Jukō changed the practices of Cha no yu, which previously involved valuing expensive Chinese objects, known as karamono, by favoring Japanese utensils for the first time. This new approach directed the tea ceremony towards the use of local, everyday, or less expensive objects, such as Korean ceramics, which were considered coarse.

Buncheong Bowl with White Slip (Korea) – Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910), first half of the 16th century – The MET, New York

Continuing the innovation of Murata Jukō, Takeno Jōō, and especially Sen no Rikyū, intensified the use of simple Japanese ceramics with a minimalist aesthetic specifically created for Cha no yu.

In a spirit of simplicity, these new tea masters, guided by Zen principles towards a rustic simplicity (Wabi Suki), redefined Cha no yu and directed Japanese potters towards new forms, breaking away from the Chinese-inspired aesthetics of earlier times. These new ceramics, inspired by everyday utensils, were characterized by irregular shapes, stylized decorations, and thicker walls with naturally textured glazes. Thus, around 1580, Sen no Rikyū commissioned Chōjirō, a Japanese potter from Kyoto, to create a tea bowl with straight walls and a round body. This shape was quite different from the usual tea bowls.

Black Raku Tea Bowl – Momoyama Period (1573-1615) – Attributed to Chōjirō – The MET, New York
Raku Tea Bowl – Edo Period (1615–1868) – The MET, New York
Tea Bowl Known as ‘Bridge of the Gods’ – Edo Period (1615–1868) – The MET, New York

The Conditions Leading to the Emergence of Higashiyama Culture and the Wabi Concept

The Muromachi period (1336-1573) witnessed a significant civil war, the Ōnin War (1467-1477), which marked the beginning of the Sengoku period (1477-1573), a dark and violent era. Triggered by a succession dispute between two branches of the Ashikaga shogunal family, the inability of Shogun Yoshimasa Ashikaga to resolve the conflict worsened the situation, leading to widespread battles in Kyoto and beyond. This war was characterized by destructive fighting, looting, arson, and the devastation of Kyoto. The conflict weakened the central power of the Ashikaga shogunate, leaving regional daimyos to vie for dominance, further fragmenting Japan.

The Battle of Ōnin (1467-1477) – Utagawa Yoshitora (1836-1880) – Woodblock Print

It was in this context of violence and destruction at the end of the Muromachi period that Higashiyama culture emerged, mainly under the influence of Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa. This culture, a fusion of the cultural practices of samurai, nobles (Kuge), and Zen monks, is named after the Higashiyama district in Kyoto where Ashikaga Yoshimasa retired.

In 1482, Ashikaga Yoshimasa initiated the construction of the Silver Pavilion (Ginkaku-ji) in Higashiyama, aiming to create a cultural retreat inspired by the Golden Pavilion (Kinkaku-ji) built by his grandfather, Ashikaga Yoshimitsu. As its name suggests, the pavilion was intended to be covered with silver leaves, but the social upheaval following the Ōnin War prevented the project from being completed as originally planned.

It is reasonable to think that from this time, as Ashikaga Yoshimasa retired to this pavilion—which was meant to be an ostentatious monument—he began contemplating the calm and beauty of the gardens while the war worsened and reduced Kyoto to ashes, thus initiating Higashiyama culture.

Golden Pavilion Temple (14th-15th century) – Kinkaku-ji – Kyoto
Silver Pavilion Temple (15th century) – Gingaku-ji – Kyoto

Under his patronage, he encouraged an aesthetic that emphasized simplicity and spiritual depth. Despite a period of great turmoil, Kyoto became a significant center of cultural innovation, bringing together artists, craftsmen, and Zen monks. Besides Cha no yu, they influenced numerous fields such as architecture (with the introduction of the Tokonoma), gardens, Noh theater, painting, and flower arrangement (Ikebana).

Wabi, a New Perspective

The religious (Zen Buddhism), political, and military contexts (Ōnin War) of the late Muromachi period shed light on the rupture and shift in the aesthetics of the time. This break was between an ostentatious aesthetic of luxury and appearance, rooted in a mythical China, and a distinctly Japanese aesthetic of detachment and imperfect beauty. This aesthetic found its synthesis in the expression Wabi, whose original notion expressed a dark and despairing state of mind and body, mirroring the tumult of the era. It was through artistic expression, influenced by Zen principles, that a transformation in perspective occurred, allowing the Japanese elite to transcend this troubled period and consolidate a cultural identity that remains alive today.

It was not until much later, during the Edo period (1600-1868), that Wabi, as a concept, began to be named and then theorized in conjunction with the concept of Sabi.

Water Jar (mizusashi) shaped like a seed jar with lacquered wooden lid – Momoyama Period (1573–1615) – The MET New-York
Bruno Oribe Flower Vase – Momoyama Period (1573–1615) – The MET”
Tea Caddy (Chaire) with Ivory Lid (Gebuta) – Edo Period (1615–1868) – The MET

Bibliography

  • Okakura Kakuzō, The book of tea, 1906.
  • Jun’ichirō Tanizaki, In praise of shadow, 1933.
  • Christine Shimizu, Le grès japonais, 2001 Editions Charles Masin.
  • Iwao Seiichi, Sakamato Tarō, Hōgetsu Keigo, Yoshikawa Itsuji, Kobayashi Tadashi, Kanazawa Shizue, Dictionnaire historique du Japon, volume 3, 1975.
  • Iwao Seiichi, Iyanaga Teizō, Ishii Susumu, Yoshida Shōichirō, Fujimura Jun’ichirō, Fujimura Michio, Yoshikawa Itsuji, Akiyama Terukazu, Iyanaga Shōkichi, Matsubara Hideichi, Dictionnaire historique du Japon, volume 16, 1990.
Period : around 1920-1930