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10 Jun 2021

A cup of wishes for the little ones

Written by Olive Wang, Curatorial Intern
An intricately patterned child's teacup in a peach colour with a clover pattern.
A Japanese tea set, which journeyed across the seas to Drum Castle, and was held in the hands of a child, sparks an insight into philosophies of life.

Originally produced in Japan, an exquisite children’s tea set in a peach colour with a clover pattern is kept in Drum Castle. It is poignant to think that these delicate Japanese ceramics once travelled across the seas to become a cup of warm, sweet tea in the small hands of a Scottish child. This small cup consists of so many efforts – its creation by Japanese craftsmen, its selection by porcelain dealers, the long voyage of the sailors and the love of the parents. Moreover, this single tea set represents the whole of Japanese tea culture, in which are contained beautiful wishes – the ability of perceiving the mundane and imperfect life, and of always keeping sympathetic communion with others. These wishes come from the philosophy of ‘Teaism’, which is symbolised by the tea set.

Founded in the 15th century, Japanese Teaism is an important aesthetic and philosophy of life, derived from the concepts of Taoism and Zen. Just as drinking tea is a common activity in the UK, Japanese people see tea-time as the recognition of the ordinariness of life. They value the use of each piece in a tea set and take care in every step of making tea as a practice of the Zen ideology in daily life. Zen holds that in the relation of things there is no distinction between small and great – a teacup possesses equal possibilities with the universe. Following this idea, Japanese Teaism appreciates the process of making and drinking tea, which leads people to perceive the ‘subtle use of the useless’. Drinking a cup of tea is understood as worshipping the mundane daily life, in which joy and sadness are equally significant.

Coloured print showing a Japanese tea ceremony, with two women in Japanese costume.
Commercial print from the collection of the artist E A Hornel captures the ritual of preparing and serving Japanese green tea

Just as in Britain, it’s acknowledged in Japan that a cup of tea can ‘solve everything’ – touching the ceramic vessels and feeling the temperature of the brew distract from the vexations of life. This idea is influenced by the meditation of Zen monks, where the process of having tea symbolises the practice of concentration through which the comprehension of both tranquillity and disturbance is possible. The location of this tea set – the busy Victorian interior of Drum Castle – is very different to a Japanese tearoom, which also follows the principle of the simplicity of a Zen monastery. It’s as bare as a minimalist cube, except for the equipment placed in the centre of the space for boiling water and serving tea. The aesthetic mood of minimalism is practised in the fields of architecture and interior design in Japan, introducing the Zen theory of evanescence into real life. The living space represents only a temporary refuge for the body, but is a sanctuary for people to focus on the demands of the spirit at the same time.

Black and white photo of people taking tea outside next to a Hebridean stone cottage
The outdoors as a tranquil place for taking tea in South Uist. Helen Binyon and Màiri Anndra sit outside Taigh Màiri Anndra, in Gleann Dail bho Tuath, Uibhist a Deas

Japanese tea culture provides another opportunity to see aesthetic differences between the West and East. While the idea of symmetry is pursued in Western artistic practice, Japanese art seeks asymmetrical arrangement based on the Zen conception that symmetry not only expresses completion but repetition. Both Taoism and Zen, the two philosophical theories in which Teaism is rooted, perceive repetition as mentally monotonous, which will eventually hinder the possibilities of growth. As a result, Teaism worships the aesthetic of imperfection and the idea of leaving something unfinished. In this way, every attempt is encouraged to complete something in the incomplete and imperfect life experiences through imagination and creation.

A coloured print depicting a family in 18th-century dress indulging in the sociable and fashionable pastime for taking tea.
A coloured print depicting a family in 18th-century dress indulging in the sociable and fashionable pastime for taking tea, from an original work by G Morland and engraved by F D Soiron

A further idea of Teaism concerns the relationship between oneself and others – perceiving the act of communication itself. In Japanese tea culture, sharing tea-time with others could lead to mutual acceptance, where people try to understand each other and share both sympathy and empathy. Understanding the significance of sympathetic communication also comes from the idea of Taoism. None of the interpretations of this idea is better than ‘Taming of the Harp’, the Taoist tale Okakura Kakuzo shares in The Book of Tea. In this ancient tale, a harp is made from the mystical Kiri tree. The tree’s stubborn spirit lives on in the instrument, which resists being played by any musician. Only Peiwoh, prince of harpists, can tame the harp and play it with sympathy:

‘Others have failed because they sang but of themselves. I left the harp to choose its theme, and knew not truly whether the harp had been Peiwoh or Peiwoh were the harp.’

The heritage of drinking tea is reflected across many National Trust for Scotland properties, which contain a multitude of exotic and functional wares representing a diversity of tea cultures with beautiful stories and philosophies from around the world.

A decorative tea caddy from Crathes Castle.
A decorative tea caddy from Crathes Castle, one of many tea-drinking items in the Trust’s collections

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