The Japanese have an artistic tradition of mending broken ceramics, specifically those used in the Tea Ceremony, with gold. It is called “kintsugi” and the concept and the reality enchant me. A quote from a Smithsonian exhibition including examples of kintsugi from (I believe) 2009 follows:
One shallow stoneware tea bowl in the exhibit dates from early-16th century Japan. For centuries, its owners spooned powdered green tea into this bowl, added hot water and swirled the contents with a bamboo whisk before passing the steaming beverage to an honored guest. Someone also dropped the bowl—more than once. Tracks of precious gold snake up its side, highlighting fissures in the ceramic where broken pieces of the bowl have been rejoined.
“It’s been repaired a number of times,” Freer Curator of Ceramics Louise Cort observes of the antique. Artisans who mended the bowl used lacquer—derived from the sap of a plant related to poison ivy—to glue the pieces back in place.
Finely powdered gold was then sprinkled onto the sticky lacquer seams, a purely Japanese technique known as kintsugi, or golden joinery, illuminating the repairs.
Tea-ceremony aesthetics often focused on the beauty in imperfection, Cort explains. “Even in tea bowls that were not repaired, people came to look for the slight idiosyncrasies, even flaws, in the glaze that made one bowl more interesting than another. The context of tea drinking created a moment of awareness of transiency, of the way in which all objects, like all human beings, exist in a fleeting way and are decaying.”
The tea ceremony is a celebration of much that is valuable to the human spirit and to the world. Of course, it is a celebration of the gift of tea. All tea (not including herbal teas, which are more precisely referred to as tisanes) comes from a relative of the Camellia plant, a bush that can reach up to 15 feet in height, has glossy leaves and, in some varieties, truly gorgeous blooms. Just as no-one knows exactly where and how humans figured out the unwinding of the silkworm’s cocoon to make that most glorious of threads, no-one is quite sure how our species came up with the complex process that turns a glossy green leaf into a delicious drink. But we have drunk tea for thousands of years. The leaves of the Camellia, when dried and steeped, provide us with one of the nectars of the Gods. To celebrate the gift that is tea, the Japanese created the tea ceremony. The ceremony uses powdered green tea, made of tea leaves from the freshest shoots of the bush. The leaves are dried and pounded to a powder but not fermented (black and oolong teas, while from the same kind of bush, are fermented and dried differently from green teas). The tea ceremony, while to western eyes formal to the point of ritual, is considered to be an informal entertainment in Japan. I refer you to Wikipedia (thank heavens for them) for a detailed description of the ceremony itself. My concerns here are with the spiritual and aesthetic meanings, at least for me, of the tea ceremony and of the implements used in it, many of which are so fragile that they become, over time, treasured objects called kintsugi.
In Japanese aesthetics, the transitory and fragile nature of an object, whether created by the world, or by a human being, is an essential, integral, part of the object’s loveliness and value. Kintsugi celebrates that fragility and transitory quality. Just as cherry blossoms fade and fall from the tree, thus enhancing those brief moments of the Cherry Blossom Festival, the fact that ceramic objects break makes their beauty more heart-catching. Kintsugi captures that breakability, the temporary nature of all we see, all we create, by repairing the ceramic object with lacquer and gold powder. In western culture, we often say that we become “stronger in the broken places”. In many ways that statement is more wishful thinking than reality, but it does have something to do with the acceptance we all must have of the fact that nothing lasts, that anything can be broken, that all will wear away.
Kintsugi celebrates that. The point is not that the object has been repaired, but that its brokenness is part of its beauty, a reminder that nothing in this world is perfect, and that the imperfections enhance our experience of the beauty of life. Even a ceramic piece that has not (yet) been broken is considered, as it is in the tea ceremony, beautiful and precious for its fragility, its imperfections, the place near the rim where the glaze slipped, the wobbly bit on the base, the dip on one side that, with the best efforts in the world, the ceramicist was unable to make perfectly round. Once the piece has been broken, and repaired with lacquer and gold, the imperfections of the piece become its beauty, as in the exquisite bowl depicted at the top of this essay.
We can approach perfection, as in the breeding and refining of various varieties of tea from the same simple bush, as in the disciplines and pleasures of the tea ceremony, as in the care with which we create a ceramic bowl. We can not achieve it. And that in itself is a gift. And so we appreciate the perfect imperfections of nature, as when we contemplate the cherry blossoms during their all too brief moment in spring. As when we honor the bends and twists of natural growth by engaging in the slow sculpture, as Theodore Sturgeon called it, of bonsai.
We can, as many artists do, deliberately leave a spot unpainted because to do otherwise is to attempt to take for ourselves the prerogatives of God. We can and do honor the imperfections of living, of life, of love, of art. But in kintsugi, we go even farther. We celebrate as central, as transcendent, the brokenness of creation. We make the broken places, if not stronger, certainly essential to the experience of art, of beauty. We revel in the accidental beauty of loss. We pay homage to the fact that all of life, even the mountains that look to us so permanent and lasting, are temporary. And we transcend the brokenness by making the repair the primary part of the experience, just as the earth itself, after the water and wind wears away the mountains, builds new mountains in titanic upheavals.
Brokenness hurts and the experience of breaking, of loss, of wearing away, of endings, feels deeply sad. And the upheavals, the things that begin out of the endings, often are violent, destructive, terrifying. And yet — and yet — we can repair a ceramic bowl with gold and make of its shards more beauty than the bowl had before it broke.