Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Luzon Jars (Glossary)

The Luzon pottery or Rusun-yaki, was renowned for its value in Japan, during the 16th century.

Jars have a long history of sacred and medicinal use in the region of the Philippines and Borneo.

Since Late Neolithic times at least, huge jars or urns were used in this region for primary or secondary burial. The presence of ceramic sherds at many of these burials, apparently from pots smashed during funerary rites, further highlights the spiritual importance of pottery.

Starting in the early to middle medieval period, imported Chinese, Thai and Vietnamese porcelain, sometimes of very high quality, are found along with native earthernwares in excavated burials.

To the present-day, heirloom jars, some massive in size, continue to have spiritual and prestige value among indigenous peoples in the region.

High-priced pots

Just how much they valued the sacred jars can be seen in the amount they were willing to spend on these items, or by their refusal to part with them at any price.

The sacred jar owned by the Datu of Tamparuli in Borneo, was originally sold to a merchant by a Malau chief for two tons of brass cannons, the equivalent in the mid-1800s to 230 pounds sterling. The merchant sold it to the datu for the equivalent in rice of 700 pounds sterling.

When the Sultan of Brunei was offered the equivalent of $100,000 to part with his sacred jar, he said that no offer would be sufficient. Water from the jar was believed to have special magical properties and visiting farmers from as far as the Bisayas in the Philippines were said to have come to obtain a little magic water for their fields.

For the Japanese, the Luzon jar was important because it was the only vessel capable of storing high-quality tea to their liking. From various reports, the jars also appeared to have been viewed as having medicinal and spiritual properties.

The most sensational report of one of these containers comes from Carletti, who reported that the best of the tea-canisters were valued at up to 30,000 pounds sterling, or about US $4 million in 2006 dollars. And these jars were actually used to store tea or tea leaf!

Europeans were astonished at the high amounts paid for these jars, all of which were old, the older the better, and of uncomely appearance. A similar situation was found in Borneo.

Rusun ("Luzon") Sukezaemon's story is well-known in Japan. The Sakai merchant brought back 50 Luzon jars and sold them to agents of the Shogun. He became fabulously rich and built a mansion that put the local castles to shame.

Types of jars

That the Luzon jars were made in Luzon is quite clear from the Tokiko, a work on the Namban, or Southern, ceramics trade.

The Luzon jars are marked as Rusun-tsukuru "made in Luzon" and all the jars from the south are manufactured with "Namban clay." Shogun Hideyoshi had a tsubo or pot purposely manufactured in Luzon during his reign.

Luzon pots, according to the Tokiko, were marked with symbols that relate to the native scripts of the Philippines, and jars with these markings have been found in archaeological works.

Pots (tsubo) were differentiated from the more-valued tea-canisters (cha-ire).

The Japanese were exceptional at distinguishing these pots for quality and in weeding out fakes. A similar situation was noted in Borneo where attempts in China were made, without success, to imitate the ancient wares and sell them on the local market.

The Luzon tea-canisters were of the best quality. However, European witnesses unanimously described the most valued of these vessels as earthenware. The Tokiko says of the Rusun-koroku, or Luzon ware, that it "is soft because it is not thoroughly baked."

Three types of clay were used for glazed wares: white clay which was of the best quality, yellow clay mixed with white clay and sand in the middle, and purplish-black clay was of lowest quality. All Luzon wares were marked with the wheel-mark or rokoru, a clockwise spiral.

The different types of Luzon tea-canisters described in the Tokiko are:

* Stamped with plum-blossoms with thin yellow-green glaze.
* Black-gold glaze.
* Gold glaze.
* Black glaze.
* "Tea-colored glaze and "ears."
* Green-yellow glaze.
* Yellow glaze.
* Rice kettle shape.
* Four knobs.
* Projecting bottom.
* Cleaned of extra clay with a thread (Usu-ito-giri).
* Cord marks? (Hi-tasuki)
* Candy-brown glaze.
* Monrin type.
* With ears.
* Utsumi type.
* "Eggplant" type.
* Divided lids.
* Bizen-shaped.
* Iga-shaped.
* Other types.

According to Antonio de Morga, the most valued jars sought by the Japanese were dark brown in color. Baron Alexander von Siebold confirms this and gives a more detailed description:

The best of them which I have seen were far from beautiful, simply being old, weather -worn, black or dark-brown jars, with pretty broad necks, for storing the tea in...Similar old vessels are preserved amongst the treasures of the Mikado, and the Tycoon, as well as in some of the temples, with all the care due to the most costly jewels, together with documents relating to their history.

Frank Brinkley, in the early 20th century, describes the tea ritual performed by the On-mono-chashi, the Shoguns' tea deputies who wore samurai uniforms, and fetched the "exceedingly homely jars of Luzon pottery to which the Japanese tea-clubs attached extraordinary value."

Every year the Shogun's tea-jars were carried to Uji to be filled. This proceeding was attended with extraordinary ceremonial [sic]. There were nine choice jars in the Shogun's palace, all genuine specimens of Luzon pottery, and three of these were sent each year in turn, two to be filled by the two "deputy families;" the third by the remaining nine families of On-mono-chashi. The jars were carried in solemn procession headed by a master of the tea-cult (cha-no-yu) and a "priest of tea," and accompanied by a large party of guards and attendants. In each fief through which the procession passed it received an ostentatious welcome and was sumptuously feasted. On arrival at Uji the jar, which always left Yedo fifty days before midsummer, stood for a week in a specially prepared store until every vestige of moisture had been expelled, and then, having been filled, were carried to Kyoto and there deposited for a space of one hundred days.

It's quite apparent that these are not celadons as postulated by some. The Japanese were aware of the celadons in Luzon (Rusun no seiji) which they described as shuko seiji "pearl-gray celadon," but these were different than the most valued dark-colored tea-canisters.

Europeans of the 16th century praised and imported both porcelain and celadon from the East. The communion cup of Archbiship Warham, the Lord Chancellor of England from 1504 to 1532, for example, was an imported celadon.

However, European observers of that time and afterward universally disparaged the Luzon tea-canisters. They also refer to these vessels repeatedly as earthenware.

According to the Tokiko, tea leaf kept its quality in these canisters if it touched the bottom or sides of the jar. Thus, it appears that contact with the clay was required to preserve the tea.

In Borneo and the Philippines, the sacred jars are often dated back to the first creation, and the clay is said to come from the gods.

The common division of sacred jars in Borneo mentioned by observers rates the Gusi type, a medium-sized, olive-green-colored jar with "medicinal properties" as having the highest value, followed by the Naga or "dragon jar." The latter is larger than the Gusi and is decorated with Chinese dragon figures. Last comes the Russa jar which is decorated with a representation of a type of deer.

Jars called "Gusi" also appear in the Philippines and Malaysia. They are mostly small to medium-sized but can be of many different colors. Some are stoneware, but most appear as glazed earthenware containers. A type of dark-brown Gusi known as Bergiau was found among the Sea Dayaks and was of higher value than the greenish Gusi.

Although of obvious Chinese influence, geochemical testing and other evidence suggests that dragon jars or Naga were made throughout the Southeast Asian region.

The dragon jars in the Philippines have a unique geochemical signature, but evidence shows that they also imported many dragon jars from elsewhere including the Martabans of Myanmar (Burma).

The sacred origin of the jars is a widespread motif in the region. In Ceram, pottery is one of the divine excretions of the earth goddess Hainuwele.

In Borneo, the sacred jars are made from the clay left over from the creation of the Sun and Moon by Mahatala, or his subject spirits. The Ngaju considered the vessels gifts of the gods, the fruit of the Tree of Life.

Among the Tinguian of the Philippines, the jars are also gifts, from the Sun or Sky-god Kabunian.

Jars similiar to those found in Solheim's "Bau-Malay" culture and to the Geometric Pottery of South China are still manufactured by the Kalinga of northern Luzon, to store water and wine, for fermentation, cooking and other purposes.

Possible explanations

The most prized of the Luzon wares were the locally-made tea canisters made of earthenware and dark brown or black in color marked with a spiral and native script symbols. Contact with the clay from the inside of the jar helped preserve tea. In the Philippines and Borneo, the jars had medicinal and magical properties, and could even speak to the owners and predict the future according to legend.

If we were to speculate on scientific explanations for the medicinal and preservative properties attributed to the Luzon jars, we would first suggest that the finest tea-canisters were unglazed. They belonged to the Rusun-koroku that was "not thoroughly baked" and/or to the Suyakimono or "unglazed wares," both mentioned in the Tokiko.

One of the types of Suyakimono was the Hi-tasuki, possibly marked with a cord or with a corded pattern brought out in relief, that is mentioned above as one of the Luzon tea-canister types.

Fedor Jagor tells of an artifact that he believed matched the descriptions of Luzon tea-canisters given by Antonio de Morga, the governor of the Philippines:

Morga's description suits neither the vessel of Libmanan nor the jar of the British Museum, but rather a vessel brought from Japan a short time ago to our Ethnographical Museum. This is of brown clay, small but of graceful shape, and composed of many pieces cemented together; the joints being gilt and forming a kind of network on the dark ground.

Like most other descriptions of the jars, no mention of any glaze is offered. The earthenware jars were gilded and decorated with brocade making up somewhat for their unsightly appearance.

However, the lack of glaze would explain why contact with the interior of the jar was important in preserving tea leaves. A volcanic clay with minerals like montmorillonite could have possessed the required properties, but the Rusun clay was even more unique than ordinary volcanic types.

Pinatubo volcanic deposits are very high in sulfur, an element with strong preservative properties. Sulfur is also one of the two base elements used by both Eastern and Western alchemists to divide all things into categories similar to Yin and Yang of Chinese cosmology.

Indian alchemy described the kundalini, the volcanic snake-like energy residing near the base of the spine as surrounded by a mass of sulfur.

The other element in this categorization is mercury. Sulfur and mercury are closely associated with volcanoes, fumaroles and hot springs.

Mercury mixed with other metals and then treated with sulfur produces the sulfides, among the most common types of preservatives used today. In ancient times, these sulfides were created by alchemists seeking to reproduce the Philosopher's Stone and similar products.

The Pinatubo eruptive materials are known to be particularly sulfide-rich.

Lastly, we should note that concerning the Suyakimono canisters possibly having "vermillion" cord-like relief or other types of decorations, that the Kalinga potters used carved paddles to create low relief decorations on their local manufacture jars.

Relief decoration on Kalinga pots
Source: Kalinga Ceramics

Bau-Malay-like low relief patterns.

Bau-Malay-like globular shape.

Kalinga storage jar wrapped in twisted rattan. Source: http://curieuxunivers.umontreal.ca/php/fiche.php?No=45MOA&langue=en

Paul Kekai Manansala


Brinkley, Frank. Japan: Its History, Arts, and Literature, J.B. Millet Company, 1910.

Descantes, Christophe. Hector Neff, and Michael D. Glascock, "Yapese prestige goods: The INAA evidence for an Asian Dragon Jar," pp. 229-256, IN: Geochemical evidence for long-distance exchange, edited by Michael D. Glascock, Westport, Conn. : Bergin and Garvey, 2002.

Jagor, Fedor and William Gifford Palgrave> The Philippines and the Filipinos of Yesterday ..., Oriental commercial company, 1934.

McKibben, Michael A., C. Stewart Eldridge, and Agnes G. Reyes. Sulfur Isotopic Systematics of the June 1991 Mount Pinatubo Eruptions: A SHRIMP Ion Microprobe Study, http://pubs.usgs.gov/pinatubo/mckibben/index.html, 1999.

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White, David Gordon. The Alchemical Body: Siddha Traditions in Medieval India, University of Chicago Press, 1998, pp. 234-235.