Bunjin and Sencha

Bunjin and Sencha
An arrangement of utensils used for sencha tea ceremony at a gathering of the Nijyouryu tradition

The following is an essay I had to write for one of my university modules on Japanese culture and society. It is not an academic paper or anything remotely close to it. But it summarises many topics I have been reading and experiencing since I moved back to Japan and started to get more direct contact with some tea traditions and the people who practice it.

Bunjin and Sencha

Tea is an integral part of Japanese culture. It acts as a cultural glue through the tea ceremony, joining concepts like architecture, cuisine, gardening, flower arrangement, clothing and other traditional crafts like pottery, bamboo tools, metal work and a myriad of subtle details. At the same time, tea culture has been packaged up and exported, making it one of the most visible and successful aesthetics perceived abroad when talking about Japan and its culture. There is a distorted reality cloaking many of the depth levels of the ceremony, now packaged as a Japanese tea ceremony "experience".

As a mere initiate in the tea ceremony of matcha and sencha traditions and a tea farmer in rural Japan, I find the interplay among them fascinating. At the same time, I am increasingly worried about the touristic consumption and bending of those traditions as plain and merely transactional activities. "It's impossible to participate in a tea ceremony unless you practice the tea ceremony or are invited to one by someone you have an existing relationship with through related arts or culture. Also, being "let in" to this world is not transactional in that you don't go, pay, drink tea and then it's over save for the memories. There will be social dept and obligation created which can be difficult to navigate for people who are not part of the culture." (Thoughts shared by my tea ceremony teacher). At the same time, "Tea practice continues to thrive in ritualised formats such as chanoyu and sencha, preserved and disseminated by the large, corporate schools that dominate the tea landscape." (Pitelka, 2003) That system, underpinned by the Iemoto system, a headmaster structure adopted in many traditional arts, crafts and martial arts of Japan, both perpetuating lineages and methodologies

For this essay, I would like to explore how the relationship between tea and people flourished and how these everyday activities can get elevated to a practice. Or rather, formalised and moulded with time into a practice necessary for their dissemination in a cohesive manner. (Davies, 2002)

Does the formalisation process affect the original components of these traditions in modern times? For that, I would like to explore not chanoyu, perhaps the better-known example of tea culture, but the rise of sencha as a tea culture, a technological development in its time that housed, with time, a congregation of different personalities, in particular those artistically and literally ones, inspired by the imaginary Chinese culture which they had in high regards.

Introduction and expansion of tea in Japan

In the 7th and 9th centuries, Japanese sent expeditions to Tang China, known as the Kentōshi, (Fuqua) which influenced Japan through the language and culture, but more importantly, religious teachings through travelling monks participating in those expeditions. Those monks would bring back items they had become familiar with while living in China. One of those was tea. At the time, Dian cha or "brick tea", was a tea that was processed, compacted into bricks and let to dry. Afterwards, one would break part of it and ground it using stone mills similar to the ones used for medicine, and whisk it into a bowl and drink.

Not widely cultivated in Japan, it remained traded exclusively as gifts (Farris, 2019), an example of the gift economy, which continues nowadays. Later on, tea became an integral part of the lives of Buddhist monks in China. (Mair, 2009) And temples started to grow tea on their premises to fulfil their consumption needs. Many technological and societal developments later landed into the 15th century with a powdered tea much better tasting, grown in Japan for consumption and closer to the modern one. "Drinking powdered green tea ... became an element of opulent social gathering held at the residences of the military elite". (Slusser, 2003) Contrasting to the aesthetic view we have today of tea ceremonies, these gatherings became a display of richness, power and culture for the elite. With time, there was a countermovement away from that style of tea into the more down-to-earth style that would define a new aesthetic ideal following the belief in "demonstrating ritual skill" (Slusser, 2003) while showcasing the items collected. From here, there are many other developments in the tea ceremony of chadō, both in aesthetic practice and in the mentality and focus of its practitioners. But, let's focus on the other less-known tea tradition, Senchadō and in particular some of its practitioners, the bunjin or literati.

The Bunjin

Bunjin or literati were men of letters regarding the Chinese language, literature and culture. For example, the Japanese literati painters, also under the umbrella term bunjin, followed Chinese painting techniques and mixed them as they saw fit under their class or region in Japan. An example of taking and absorbing cultural elements or techniques and adapting them to the Japanese sensibilities. In this case, bunjinga or Nanga painting. In China, literati paintings were usually linked to the Southern schools, while professional painters were related to the Northern schools. (Graham, 1990)

Those Chinese scholars were government bureaucrats using painting, calligraphy and poetry as a form of self-expression. These groups of literati made an impact, together with the overall Confucianism and Daoist principles in the Japanese high-ranking samurai class and later on to the artistic and literate society. Who saw those paintings as a reinforcement of the Chinese ideals and those related to the literati of the time.

Later, with the Bakufu established, Chinese Confucianism morality and cultivation of "bun" arts like Noh, poetry composition, tea ceremony (chanoyu), painting and calligraphy were instilled in the warrior class. They mixed both Japanese and Chinese concepts and values and made them their own, a prime example ofIitoko-Dori, instilling chosen ethical values into the ruling class. At the same time, it also dripped down to an audience that made it their aspiration and helped develop a Japanese nationalistic sense (Surak, 2013).

Later, the warrior class would become acquainted with tea in leaf form. Loose-leaf tea was a development of the Chinese Ming dynasty, and different tea-drinking consumption developed with it. This new consumption method, as Patricia J. Graham states: "began as a pastime of a heterodox sub-culture whose participants considered themselves eccentric and individualistic inheritors of the Chinese literati tradition." (J. Graham, 1993). Or what the Japanese literati understood to be the lifestyle of the Chinese literati they revered.

Ishikawa Jozan (1583-1672), a samurai official and scholar, is singled out for holding to the original Chinese literati values. "Yet, it is unclear whether Jozan drank actual Chinese sencha, his poetry only indicates a fondness for informally consuming tea." (Graham, 1993) Jozan and his reclusive way of living after his forced retirement became a light pole for later aspiring literati who saw in him the closest example of Chinese literati values. Following Ming literati customs, Ingen (1592-1673), originally from China and patriarch of the Obaku Zen sect, although not the first to introduce steeped tea consumption in Japan, his steeped tea preference and the influence of his sect and the influence of his disciples created the foundation on where sencha tea ceremony would stand.

From Gettan Docho (1636-1713), a disciple of Ingen, we see how tea preferences were clear according to the social classes. Quoting (Graham, 1993) again: "He claims that from the time Eisai introduced tea to Japan, priests drank sencha while others drank matcha. In contrast to samurai and courtier preferences for collection and arrangement of the tea utensils, monks did not pay attention to such matters but just enjoyed the flavour of the tea and the lofty feelings which resulted from its consumption." This view marks an important distinction that would grow bigger later on, in part thanks to two instrumental figures of Japanese tea culture. On the one side, Nagatani Souen (1681 -1778) developed the modern sencha hand processing techniques. Sencha is the modern green tea type common in Japan today and different from sencha or senjicha, which is related to just steeped or boiled tea until that point in history.

On the other side, Ko Yugai, also known as Baisao ("Old Tea Seller"), a monk and later on a tea peddler, poet, calligrapher, tea shop owner and one of the most interesting and eccentric personalities in tea at the time. Baisao also wrote the first Japanese book on sencha, "Summary of the Plum Mountain Collection Tea Record", in 1748. Some points addressed in the book show the clear division and discontent among classes and tea drinkers, and one of the main points of connection between Sencha and the literati. (Graham, 1993)

Sencha, a silent revolution

On the one side, Baisao dismissed priests who used tea as a pastime and did not follow the path of enlightenment. Baisao left priesthood later in his life and lived a meagre life selling tea and calligraphy services. Baisao had a close friendship with monks, religious teachers, and his clientele, composed of artists and literary figures of the time. Who saw him as a profound Zen figure (Waddell, 2010), weaving the constant tension between enlightenment and enjoyment.

On the other side, Baisao highly criticised schools of tea. By extension, his followers found a countercurrent to the Bakufu, who made it a required protocol. Baisao used loose-leaf tea in contrast to the powdered forms used in chanoyu, following the traditions of the Obaku to which he belonged for many years. After encountering Nagatani Souen, he started promoting Sencha in the Kyoto area.

Baisao was key in its popularisation, but many developments helped it to jumpstart Sencha consumption, which later on, in the early Meiji, rivalled the popularity of chanoyu. First, the Chinese learning promoted by the government permeated society at all class levels. Trade with China, books, and loose-leaf tea highly linked to the literati culture were available in Japan, which allowed "to learn about the intellectual and aesthetic environment in which to enjoy sencha". (Graham, 1998) At that time, the Japanese were not allowed to travel abroad, although they found the best representation in Japan through Ishikawa Jozan, which, through his reclusive lifestyle so appealing to Japanese literati, defined the models of the sencha gatherings.

The links between the Obaku sect and their customs for drinking sencha, in stark difference to other zen sects, together with their Chinese philosophy knowledge, Chinese temple architecture and influence in the political elite of the time, gave sencha "an established source of moral authority". (Graham, 1998) Baisao, painters, poets, scholars and priests popularised the consumption of Sencha. All the historical context made the time for Sencha ripe for popularisation, especially in the artistic class of Kyoto, which found in Sencha a way to express itself against the established regime. Interestingly enough, some of the ruling elite also partook in sencha consumption. A counteract to the obligatory practice of chanoyu, but a more informal way to delve into the Chinese cultural interest of the elite rather than an active pursuit of the practice.

Sencha preparation required no ritual or expensive tools and branched out from Chinese culture and knowledge, highly regarded by the Japanese literati. That culture was exclusive to the high-ranking society of Japan through wares, books and, of course, the utensils used. Sencha allowed a broader part of Japanese society to partake in Chinese ideals. Although the tea practised by Baisao was "artless" (Graham, 1993) or "unritualistic" (Waddell, 2010), you can see nowadays a high degree of ritualisation in senchadō schools. Most schools have a more informal character, although the procedures or temae are highly structured. It grew this way by introducing elements from chanoyu and by establishing, with time, schools and an Iemoto system that began after the death of Baisao by some of its followers.

Establishing senchadō

Before his death, Baisao burned most of his tea utensils so they would not be revered. As was the case for the ones owned by important figures of chadō. However, it did not prevent his followers from revering him after his death. The biggest exponent of that is Kimura Kenkado, a sake brewer who then turned to a writing utensils seller who attracted painters, poets and other literati figures as part of artistic gatherings. He sketched Baisao's utensils, later on, those were painted by a Nanga painter and by extension those became an aesthetic model to follow. (Graham, 1998)

Although the Senchadō tradition at first differentiated itself from the formalism of chadō, senchadō schools mirrored the developments that chadō had undergone. Following a similar formalisation into the establishment of senchadō schools. However, other senchadō practitioners following the bunjin ideals of the Chinese literati respected self-expression and individuality. Thus, bunjincha or literati practitioners of the sencha tradition cannot be considered a lineage but more of a source of philosophical and aesthetic matters. That did not avoid the creation of schools following gatherings associated with particular groups of people either, eventually deriving in formally declared schools. As a practitioner, it is interesting to see which schools stem from the more formal, established lineage or a bunjincha expression. Some schools weave a needle somewhere along that intersection, with an Iemoto and teacher-student relationships, a highly formalised temae and then an encouragement toward the teachings and philosophical approach of the bunjin to break those formalisations on occasions.

The establishment of the practice also brought an affluence of new practitioners during the mid-18th century, including more scholars and the addition of imperial loyalists (Graham, 1998) who also saw in sencha a way of silent protest against the Tokugawa. Senchadō values are defined as superior to those of chadō with its formalised and highly complex rules. One of the harsher statements of this is by Murase Kotei (1746-1818), a Confucian scholar: "Chanoyu is about knowledge, but sencha is about purity of spirit." (Graham, 1998) An interesting statement, at the tipping point for the sencha tradition to widely outline its procedures while borrowing terms from chanoyu.

The bunjincha, marks a contrasted view of this, seeing Sencha as a part of the lifestyle instead of an isolated practice. It was in the mid-19th century that the term that defines this group was coined by Rai San'yo. "bunjincha (scholars' tea) which described the drinking of sencha as an adjunct to other literati activities." (Graham, 1998) At the same time, those gatherings were informal and then moved to a more private environment except for the painting or calligraphy gatherings, called shogakai. (Andrew, 1993) Those called the broader society to the practice of senchadō as it emulated the bunjin spirit. It evolved with the birth of more Chinese antique collectors and a bigger market for them and their copies. Thus, the need for introductions in the sencha aesthetics was devised and laid out in books, and of course, the reinforcement of the temae or procedures for brewing sencha. Bringing the once artless style into a more ritualistic performative art. Kagetsuan senchadō school founder, Tanaka Kakuo, was the first to record the oral transmission of procedures following chanoyu procedures for sencha. (Graham, 1998)

Many of the current Senchadō schools hold many Chinese-origin utensils on display during the temae. Others are showcased as art pieces like fans with calligraphy or paintings, flower vases or small sculptures. In a multi-school gathering at Manpukuji temple, I heard schools tend to be "showy" or "extra", trying to express a sense of overdoing the display of pieces and decorations in those gatherings.

Sencha gatherings for artistic purposes, shogakai, took another path and allowed a different way of thinking and bunjin culture to be preserved inside the sencha tea tradition. Those gatherings became more public in the Meiji and are considered one of the first public exhibitions of art in Japan. (Graham, 1998)


Senchadō is a perfect example of the long and complex process of incorporating ideas, concepts and traditions into the Japanese culture core. Although moulded into an art, at sencha gatherings still lingers a feeling of informality and freedom of movement. Many early adopters of sencha used those gatherings to discuss and view artworks and sometimes create and collaborate on making them rather than a performative act of tea as a self-contained event. It also provided this freedom of thought and counteracted the political regime of an epoch while flourishing in the minds of the artists, poets and literati of the time. Ōeda Ryūhō stated wonderfully where to drink tea, "...you should step tea wherever you can bend your knee." (Fukunaga, 2019) Sencha revolved more around the occasions on where to drink it than the procedures. I heard a similar opinion at a senchadō Gathering with the Iemoto of the Bifu senchadō school, which places importance on going outdoors and practising the team with the tools available and moulding it to them whenever necessary.

As for the original question at hand, Does the formalisation process affect the original components of these traditions in modern times?

Senchadō is a celebration of creativity and gathering of ideas, and although shaped into the structure of performative art and the dreaded "tea ceremony experience", a subtle pulse of creativity can be found. I like to call this "creative constraints", a tension that allows for creative movement inside a firm structure.

Part of the bunjin culture lives in the schools of senchadō to a higher or lower degree, and although most of the freeform, artless variations of senchadō have been formalised into different schools, some of that freeform still linger and can be experienced on occasion. Upholding the traditions of the bunjin and sencha means that tea has to be an integral part of life while being adjunct to other creative activities, as the bunjincha defended. Depending on the school, they will uphold that in different forms. As long as the ideals of the bunjin remain part of the practitioners life, sencha original means as a tool for self-expression and creativity will continue to carry over, both as an artless everyday activity and an art.


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