27 November, 2007


Look up the definition of wabi-sabi, and you'll likely be met with the following:
  • Wabi: lonely and remote living, a natural state, with associated simplicity. Also "emptiness", in terms of poetry.

  • Sabi: aging, worn, threadbare - yet solid. Poverty and humbleness.
There is no shortage of rhubarb that has been written about wabi-sabi, usually by interior designers - much like China's feng shui. It would be a great shame if these potentially interesting concepts were dismissed as being little more than pseudo-psychology for drapers.

What does all this have to do with tea? I mention it because the wabi-sabi concept is something that Lei and I often refer to when making decisions - usually about items we are considering to buy. Invariably, this affects our purchases of tea and tea equipment.

One of the tenets of the wabi-sabi philosophy is that one should live simply, cleanly, and in an uncluttered manner. It is the guiding aesthetic in Japanese culture, where "less is more". It's probably the antithesis of traditional Chinese culture, in which generally ornate and busy private lives are still the norm for the middle and upper classes. The public display of one's wealth has always been a very Chinese characteristic. The Japanese and English cultures, generally speaking, do not approve of such displays, tending to consider them an indication of nouveau riche.

This means that our home is... simple. While not exactly barren, it is certainly markedly different to the majority of our friends' homes. We have no television. We constantly prune our ever-growing book collections, and keep the local charity shops adequately stocked with our discarded clothes. I fully understand that this way of life isn't for everyone, but when I look around the packed lounge of my family home, with every horizontal surface occupied with little treasures, and every inch of wall space covered with portraits and paintings, it certainly seems more healthy than the alternatives. For us, at least. I hasten to add that we are very much "anti-consumer culture", and so wabi-sabi living is a good fit.

With tea, we have been less careful. Recently, we realised this, and turned our attention to our tea shelves. One of the charming points about wabi-sabi living is that whatever remains should be of solid, good quality, and for some definite purpose. Why buy cheap clothes that last a season (as is now highly popular in England) when paying a little bit more from a serious tailor will provide a decade's use, and look more robust and more pleasant into the bargain? Looking over our tea shelves, it became clear that there was much that was either:
  • cheap
  • useless
  • cheap and useless
Some of the beauties in the photograph below illustrate my point.

While none of them are really bad, per se, they are all redundant, and not entirely pleasing in some way. We have kept them "just in case", which is a very dangerous mentality. Packing them off to the local charity shop feels as if a burden is being lifted - and at least the charity can make some money by re-selling them.

We've also rationalised our teapot collection. It used to consist of pots for every conceivable type of tea, many of which we never touched. They literally just sat around collecting dust. Furthermore, at least half of the pots were purchased from Internet vendors. The other half were hand-picked from shops in Maliandao. The difference in quality between the two types is like Heaven and Earth. So, we packed off the Internet pots, and now have a fine collection of pleasant pieces (8 or so), all of which are used quite frequently. Combined with giving away lots of our old untouched tea, it's a good start, and feels a lot more healthy.

Every time I look down the list of teas at my favourite vendors' web-pages, I restrain my hand and tell myself, "You really don't have to own them all."

To lessen the burden of ownership is one of the greatest challenges of living a modern life.

Further reading of a decent standard can be found in The Wabi-Sabi House, by Robyn Griggs Lawrence. It's not as dreadful as the title would suggest, and is wise in places. It touches on many other aspects of wabi-sabi application than just one's home. Basho, in Penguin Classics, is also a good source of information on the same subject.


Salsero said...

Thanks for the very nice post, especially apt for those of us in the States where--with Thanksgiving behind us--we begin to careen into our season of bacchanalian greed and debt that fills the void where Christmas used to reside.

Although our media pundits may extol feverish shopping as good for the Economy (whatever that may be), it certainly damages the soul.

It's good to see someone strike out in a healthier direction.

xdustinx said...

This explains the extremely large packages I get when we trade tea.

MarshalN said...

"This explains the extremely large packages I get when we trade tea."


Hobbes said...

Dear Salsero,

I'd forgotten about Thanksgiving; do you send gifts to one another? We have a fairly large box here filled with gifts that have been given to us that we'll never use.

The argument in favour of the shopping as being good for the economy is one of the most insidious and vacuous I've come across. "It's your patriotic duty to purchase." One of the finest wabi-sabi books was written by an American, of course being Walden, by Thoreau. I'd love to hear what the big man would have to say about his modernday countrymen (and mine, for that matter).

Dear Dustin,

Ah, tea packages. Do please forgive me for not sending anything of late - your name has literally been on the top of my "to-do" list for about three months, and every week-end I get sidetracked. This week-end is looking much more promising, having just passed a few major deadlines!



Unknown said...

This is my favourite among your tea-blogs so far!

Hobbes said...

Laohu wins!

Matt said...

I have read this blog for a while
Enjoying what it has to say
And what it doesn't have to say
I have to say
I love this post

Hobbes said...

Dear Matt,

I really appreciate the kind words; thanks for reading.



Nada said...

gentle hobbes,

This is my first comment, but I think I've read most of your blog & very much enjoyed it.

Along with your 'tea spirit' post this one rings deeply of truth.

I enjoy tea reviews, but after a while one fades into another and unless I actually have (or am considering having) the tea in question I find myself skimming over it.... but perhaps these are actually necessary for posts like this to shine, and I do enjoy your observations.

Regarding the spirit of wabi-sabi, I constantly have this battle within myself and without fail, less is definately more. I notice myself mentally building up the case for 'things' in particular. Sometimes I buy them, sometimes I don't. But when I do get them there very often seems to be some kind of anticlimax... it feels hollow, like I've sold myself short somehow, wasted some good fortune on a piece of junk, another peice of clutter that clutters up my room and my mind.

Sometimes the aquisition is good though, there is a sense of quality, it is often simple and functionally perfect... it feels 'honest'. I think we (I) need to overcome the mind that is looking for a bargain and trust the mind that feels the quality of things. Often the quality things are not cheap, but if we can cut through the wasteful clutter then our life does become more inexpensive.

I think we need to cultivate & cherish the mind of contentment. By this I don't mean not having things, or even not necessarily having the 'best' things, but I think there is somewhere inside where we can feel if we're cheating ourself... if we're building up the case for having something from some agitated state of mind grasping at having something, or if we honestly feel that some item is a worthwhile partner for our journey through life.

I'm still trying.

with much appreciation for your words of wisdom,

(ps you've got googlemail)

Hobbes said...

Dear Nada,

I deeply appreciate both your kind words, and the time you've taken to put together this great response, which speaks very truly: the notion of a life in which the items are more expensive, yet overall the life is more inexpensive, is very true.

Just as you wrote, it's not about finding the "best", it's about not offending your inward sense of right and wrong.

I just checked my Googlemail accounts, but I didn't find one from "Nada" - my Hobbesoxon account gets 70+ spam messages a day, but I didn't notice your e-mail in my spam folder.

Thanks again, and toodlepip,


Nada said...

after posting this comment I opened a book I'd picked up somewhere along the way. In the introduction a story was told concerning a friend of the author.

I found it rather relevant & thought provoking, so thought I'd share it.

This friend is a senior executive of a multinational bank. After accumulating things for many years he embraced what I understand to be the spirit of wabi-sabi.

He decided to get rid of this 'stuff' that was cluttering up his life & pared down his possessions until only 600 remained... right down to his tea spoons!

As he acquired some new possession he gave away one of his old possessions... and in time as he practiced this his home became more and more beautiful & refined, with each possession having some special significance for him.


it's got me thinking... (& counting!)


Tuo Cha Tea said...

Dear Hobbes,

I just wanted to thank you for this beautiful post. Made me think.


Hobbes said...

Dear Nada,

I've read about one author who tries to give away two permanent posessions for every one that they bring into the house; I can only imagine how that would work out...

Dear Tomas,

It's very kind of you to say so, thanks muchly. I'm happy to hear that it provoked some thoughts.



Justin said...

Excellent post, and comments. One of the joys of simplification, and buying high quality is that each of your possessions mean more to you. It's more intimate.

Centranthus said...

I think jtwillobee's observation is spot on: when thought is put into each possession, and you don't have a cluttering of teaware, then the session feels very intimate.

Personally, I just have a tea tray which houses the Cha-hai and gaiwan, a tasting cup, hulu, and my two "tea pets" if you want to call them that. Simple and clean. The bf is considering purchasing a very small vase for a single flower for tea sessions, and that is probably the only other thing I will consider adding to the mix.

Excellent post as always.