‘Steeped in History’ exhibition at Fowler Museum at UCLA

The "Steeped in History" show at Fowler Museum includes practical and ostentatious items.
(Ken Hively / Los Angeles Times)

The delicate, robin’s-egg blue porcelain bowl perched on a display stand in the Fowler Museum at UCLA looks like something you might find at a lovely ladies’ luncheon filled with silky vichyssoise soup.

But this Qingbai bowl from China’s Song Dynasty is actually a drinking cup, used in the late 11th century by working class citizens who enjoyed pu-erh, an aged tea pressed into a cake-like brick.

The Qingbai vessel is one of dozens of Chinese cups, Japanese tea caddies and English teapots on display in the museum’s latest exhibition, “Steeped in History: The Art of Tea.”

Tea exhibition: An Aug. 19 article about the Fowler Museum’s “Steeped in History” show included a photograph of a tall tea bowl with a caption that omitted the names of the collectors. The bowl is part of the collection of S. Baba and J. Keck. —

The objets d’art and artworks included in the exhibition are reminders of our centuries-old fascination with tea. Each tells a story about the distinct cultures that have revered the Camellia, the plant that gives us tea.

As the exhibition reveals, behind the luxurious Victorian-era silver tea sets and stoic Colonial American portraiture was a commodity that garnered an exorbitantly high price. Yet that luxury came at an even greater expense to those who have labored to keep the tea leaves in our cups.

How tea was prepared influenced the style of the decorative drinking and brewing vessels created by various cultures over the centuries. The earliest were pressed or powdered teas prepared by partially dissolving the granules in boiling water.

Perfecting a process

“The evolution of tea is not one of horticulture, it is an evolution of processing methods,” says Beatrice Hohenegger, the Los Angeles-based guest exhibition curator and author of “Liquid Jade: The Story of Tea From East to West.”

In ancient China, tea leaves were steamed, rather than roasted as most teas are today. The leaves were then pressed into a cake-like brick and dried for easy transport and long-term storage. To serve, a small portion of the tea brick would be finely shaved into a bowl and the tea flakes whisked with boiling water until the liquid became frothy.

Because these early teas were consumed for medicinal purposes, the drinking vessels in which they were served were primarily functional. “Tea was seen as a remedy, not a unique beverage,” Hohenegger says.

As Chinese herbalists offered increasingly varied styles, tea became more popular for its flavor. The new era of tea connoisseurship created a demand for brewing and drinking vessels that celebrated the esteemed ingredient.

This new reverence for tea is evident in the bluish-white color of the Qingbai bowl designed to complement the frothy head of boiled and whisked pu-erh teas.

According to Hohenegger, the paper-thin cup’s soup-bowl shape was preferred in the summer months to allow the tea to cool slightly before drinking (cups with handles and saucers were a later European adaptation). “The taller, thicker bowl shape that looks more like our mugs is a winter shape to help keep the tea hot” -- a rudimentary Thermos of sorts.

During the 9th century, tea was introduced to Japan by monks who had traveled to China to study Zen Buddhism. Its cultural importance there was markedly different.

“In Japan, tea became more the beverage of the spirit,” Hohenegger explains. “As tea became a drink of the privileged, mainly the samurai and aristocrats, tea practitioners developed an art to drinking tea.”

That religious reverence and favor among the social elite would shift the focus from the ingredient to the luxurious objects and ceremonies surrounding it.

Beyond practicality

Unlike Chinese tea bricks, matcha (the green tea favored in Japan) was powdered, so a closed container was required for transport. The exhibition includes numerous examples of these stunning vessels created primarily to accentuate the art of the Japanese tea ceremony rather than simply as practical to-go boxes.

Interspersed among the exhibition’s tea caddies (a sort of miniature picnic basket to transport powdered matcha tea) are the items necessary to properly perform a Japanese tea ceremony, including porcelain hanaire vases for flower arrangements.

In Japan, the choreographed dance of proper tea presentation meant the drink was prepared with the ultimate care. It also made tea a luxury accessible only to the wealthiest imbibers.

By the 19th century, the loose-leaf green tea sencha began to replace matcha as the preferred Japanese tea. “The shift to sencha was a reaction by Japanese intellectuals and artists to the rigid rules of the tea ceremony and elite status of matcha,” Hohenegger says.

To prepare sencha, a style of tea the Chinese had introduced centuries earlier, the leaves are briefly steamed before roasting to lend a more vegetal flavor to the brew. Because the leaves are whole rather than ground, matcha tea caddies and brewing pots were no longer necessary.

Like sencha, the teapot had been developed in China centuries earlier.

“There was no need for a teapot until the 1500s, when the Chinese began steeping tea leaves,” Hohenegger says, pointing to an earthenware vessel resembling a miniature amphora, the two-handled clay storage vases popularized by the Greeks. “The Chinese essentially modeled the first teapots after wine jugs.”

Because sencha was the everyday beverage enjoyed by the working classes, tetsubin (Japanese cast-iron teapots) soon replaced the expensive, delicate Chinese porcelain vessels initially favored for brewed tea.

Steep competition

By the time the beverage arrived in Western Europe and Colonial America, steeped teas were the prized commodity, the “liquid jade” of the global Chinese tea trade.

In the final exhibition galleries, a magnificent 17th century inlaid French tea table and a British portrait of a family leisurely enjoying afternoon tea embody what the beverage had once again become: a blatant symbol of wealth.

During the late 18th and 19th centuries, the country that controlled what went into the teapot dominated world politics. The Colonial paintings and satirical caricatures that Hohenegger has selected illustrate how the British monopoly on the tea trade was more than simply a catalyst for the American Revolution.

While the Colonists were tossing tea into Boston Harbor, the British opened large-scale tea plantations in Africa and, later, India that would squeeze small Chinese growers out of the market. In China, the loss of the control over the industry they had dominated for thousands of years was devastating. The taste for tea among the social elite soon gave way to opium, culminating in another trade dispute with the British and the brutal Opium Wars.

Yet it is the final exhibition gallery that illustrates perhaps the darkest side of the aromatic beverage. An elaborate embroidered Victorian tea gown to be worn only between the high tea hours of 3 and 6 p.m. is displayed amid facsimiles of tea plantation workers from the 1920s enduring slave-like conditions. Among them, Hohenegger has scattered recent Fair Trade posters promising fair wages for modern-day workers.

“All of this luxury has only been possible at a price.”