Via he 16th-century Japanese tea master Sen no Rikyū is said to have ignored his host’s fine Song Dynasty Chinese tea jar until the owner smashed it in despair at his indifference. After the shards had been painstakingly reassembled by the man’s friends, Rikyū declared: ‘Now, the piece is magnificent.’ So it went in old Japan: when a treasured bowl fell to the floor, one didn't just sigh and reach for the glue. The old item was gone, but its fracture created the opportunity to make a new one.
Smashed ceramics would be stuck back together with a strong adhesive made from lacquer and rice glue, the web of cracks emphasised with coloured lacquer. Sometimes the coating was mixed or sprinkled with powdered silver or gold and polished with silk so that the joins gleamed; a bowl or container repaired in this way would typically be valued more highly than the original. According to Christy Bartlett, a contemporary tea master based in San Francisco, it is this ‘gap between the vanity of pristine appearance and the fractured manifestation of mortal fate which deepens its appeal’. The mended object is special precisely because it was worth mending. The repair, like that of an old teddy bear, is a testament to the affection in which the object is held.
A similar principle was at work in the boro garments of the Japanese peasant and artisan classes, stitched together from scraps of cloth at a time when nothing went to waste. In boro clothing, the mends become the object. Some garments, like the fabled ship of Theseus, might eventually be overwhelmed by patches; others were assembled from scraps at the outset. In today’s trendy Tokyo markets, the technique risks becoming a mere ethnic pose. But boro was always an aesthetic idea as much as an imposition of hardship.
Although quite different in their social status, boro and the aesthetic of repaired ceramics alike draw on the Japanese tradition of wabi-sabi, a world view that acknowledges transience and imperfection. To mend a pot, one must accept whatever its fracture brings: one must aspire to mushin — literally ‘no mind’ — a state of detachment sought by both artists and warriors. As Bartlett explains in her essay ‘A Tearoom View of Mended Ceramics’ (2008): ‘Accidental fractures set in motion acts of repair that accept given circumstances and work within them to lead to an ultimately more profound appearance.’