The Teahouse Fire: Painstaking

I don’t often get unsolicited books with handwritten notes from the authors, unless I worked with them in some way. What was even more surprising is that the book came to my new office before I was even done unpacking! That’s pretty spiffy service. The book had blurbs from Maxine Hong Kingston and Liza Dalby, which was promising. The book was about The World of Tea, and centered on an orphaned American taken in by a prominent Japanese family; not so promising. The author, Ellis Avery is an Adjunct Assistant Professor at Columbia in Creative Writing, and a five year veteran, we’re told in her bio, of tea ceremony training. Well, most of my fun books were in boxes, so I did read The Teahouse Fire, and since it is about the bakumatsu-Meiji era, I feel I should say something about it.

The Teahouse Fire is a historical fiction, which shares most of the flaws typical of the genre: a carefully set but very selective milieu; characters cobbled together from cultural and psychosocial fragments; wildly unlikely encounters and inappropriate behavior. Though the story does less damage to the historical narrative than usual for this kind of work, it is still an excellent example of why I don’t ever use historical fiction in my teaching, and why I rarely read it (especially in my own field!). [SPOILERS ahead] (( I’m an historian, so knowing how it comes out doesn’t bother me. ))

Aurelia arrives in Kyoto at the age of nine in 1866, accompanied by her pederastic priest uncle, her only living relative, from whom she is separated (not before the pederasty manifests, of course) by a catastrophic fire; she ends up at the Shin family residence in weakened condition and is taken in. She is immediately recognizable as a foreigner due to her dress and inability to speak more than a few words of Japanese (( her linguistic abilities were what brought her to Japan in the first place, but she’d only been studying from a basic grammar for a little while )) but she has straight black hair and in Japanese garb is taken for some kind of developmentally delayed foundling by the neighbors:

“After all, we had never seen a real one before,” Chio told me some years later. “But we had seen pictures, and everyone knew foreigners were huge, piggy people with very long noses, very red hair, and very green eyes, so you obviously weren’t one. Clearly someone was playing a trick on us with that clothing.” (54)

Aurelia — known as “Urako” in Japanese — isn’t properly revealed as foreign until her mid-30s, 1891, when she’s expelled from the local bathhouse as “unclean.” (344-347) (( Also, she develops a decidedly non-Japanese figure (142, 400), but that’s mostly concealed by kimono-style clothing. Though there’s an awful lot of time spent unclothed, too, in baths, in bed, etc. )) All of this strikes me as a little anachronistic: There was a pretty brisk trade in woodblocks featuring foreigners in the 1850s and 1860s, so the distorted view of Perry had certainly been supplemented over the intervening decade, and foreigners — priests and teachers, at least — were beginning to be a presence even in Kyoto. Still, not a lot of foreign children had been seen, so I could buy it for a while; a quarter century, though? During the intervening years, the family uses her for translation in their dealings with foreigners several times, and she works as a translator/secretary for a girls’ school mistress. The expulsion from the bathhouse as “unclean” seems over-dramatic, given that foreigners were living all over Japan by the 1890s, but it’s vaguely possible it’s a function of this being Kyoto instead of Yokohama and Tokyo, and that they are responding to the “child of prostitute and foreigner” theory they had rejected earlier. (55) (( There have been recent reports of “no foreigner allowed” bathhouses, but those are, in fact, recent. There is, it’s true, a real tradition of discrimination against the offspring of foreign-Japanese unions, especially non-caucasian foreigners. ))

Anyway, moving on, Aurelia becomes a part of the household, gets better and better at Japanese (( eventually reading some classical works like Sei Shonagon. )) and more and more aware of the sexual and cultural politics of the family. The Shin clan is cast as very prominent Tea practitioners:

Rikyu, the founding ancestor of tea ceremony and tea teacher to Hideyoshi, the most important warlord of his day, was forced to commit suicide once he’d ceased to please his master. The tearoom Cloud House was built in the style favored by Rikyu’s grandson, Sotan, a man so beggared by his grandfather’s disgrace that his favorite teascoop was the one worn on the side from years of use. When his luck changed for the better, Sotan had a one-and-a-half-mat hut built to keep himself honest, to honor the years he’d spent in his own company. A generation later, his oldest son Shinso built a copy of the tiny house on his own property, to memorialize his family’s hardship: this was our Cloud House, where the Mountain [the head of the household] drank his dwindling store of tea. (109)

This may be the tradition that Avery learned in her Tea training, the “wabi Sotan,” but it’s a myth: Sotan may have been Rikyu’s grandson, but he was head of the household starting just a few years after Rikyu’s death, and he was deliberate and active in promoting the well-being and prominence of the Sen family and tradition. The Shin family is described as taking Rikyu as an “adopted forefather” (109) because of the connection with Tea, but they act as though the Sen schools didn’t exist, or at least didn’t exist in Kyoto. In fact, as you’ll see, the Shin family is the Sen family, with the name changed to protect, presumably, the author from the wrath of the Urasenke familia.

The Meiji Restoration was not good for the Shin family. At least not this version of the Meiji Restoration:

At the end of the second year of Meiji, the Emperor decreed an end to the feudal aristocracy. On the night of his restoration, he had announced that he was taking back all the land he had entrusted to the Shogun and his lords, and all the rice money that the land yielded. In place of a hereditary warrior caste, each man loyal to his liege, the Emperor now announced that in a few years’ time he would establish an army conscripted from boys of all origins, loyal to himself alone. To do this, and to fund the new government, he cut loose all the lords and samurai who had benefited from the Shogun’s largesse for two hundred fifty years. … Worse still, the Emperor announced a program of Bunmei Kaika, Civilization and Enlightenment, dismissing tea, like falconry or incense-guessing games, as an archaic “pasttime,” better abandoned than subsidized. (108)

This collapses several years of history — not to mention the bakuhan system — into a single, catastrophic stroke, effectively bankrupting the Shin family. (( I also don’t recall any proclamations which denigrated tea ceremony, though it wasn’t something that interested the Meiji Emperor. )) This sets in motion some of the core plots of the book: the attempt to support the house in the short term by finding new students and other sources of income, and to reinvigorate it in the long term by making the study of Tea a part of the national curriculum for girls’ schools.

There is the old “traditionalist v. innovater” tension, overlaid with a strong dose of “aloof samurai v. worldly businessman” — or “businesswoman” in this case, as it’s Aurelia’s protector Yukako who becomes the energetic center of the family, teaching new students, making political connections, brokering the Shin family name to create low-cost tea sets for educational use, popular consumption and foreign markets. (e.g. 300-313) (( You can, by the way, buy a complete tea ceremony set, “inspired by” the implements described in the book, with a complimentary copy of the novel for good measure. )) She is immensely successful: by 1891, middle and higher schools for girls are to have tea ceremony training as part of the curriculum.

Though it struck me as odd, at first, this is, Morgan Pitelka assures me, quite correct. (( Many thanks to Morgan for his feedback and, of course, his fine scholarship on these matters. All remaining errors of history, culture and interpretation are either mine or Avery’s. )) Here’s how he described it in his book on Raku, Handmade Culture:

In the last two decades of the nineteenth century the Sen iemoto began to initiate more direct contact with people interested in tea. Perhaps they understood that to survive in modern society, tea would have to expand beyond the confines of the elite and enter the domain of mass culture. In the 1880s, Urasenke started offering tea lessons at one of the prefectural girls’ schools in Kyoto. The lessons proved popular with students and parents. Such programs were expanded rapidly, and by the early 1910s, female practitioners came to outnumber male ones in Urasenke. (( Kumakura, Ima no chanoyu, mukashi no chanoyu, 204-5. )) Modern tea teachers placed great emphasis on performing the movements of tea with a calm intensity. The focused atmosphere of the tea room and the physical and mental discipline acquired by hours of tea practice often paired with flower arrangement were deemed ideal for the education of cultivated young women. By the 1930s, after-hours private schools taught tea and flower arrangement to young women across the country. (( Kagotani Machiko, “Josei to chanoyu,” in Kindai no chanoyu, ed. Kumakura Isao, vol. 6, Chadô shûkin (Shogakkan, 1985), 253-9. ))

As an aside, until I read that passage in conjunction with Alan Baumler’s recent commentary on ritual and music in early philosophy, and the introduction to Confucianism I’m doing in my Early China class that I realized that, at some point, the dominant philosophical tradition guiding Tea practice shifted from Zen to Confucianism. I don’t ever recall reading any discussion of Confucian influence on Tea practice, outside of some generalizations about sociality, but compare Morgan’s comments above with this description of Confucian ritual:

The rituals Confucius discussed, many of them deriving from the ancestral worship of the Zhou, had many more steps than a simple handshake; but if they were learned correctly, they too could express one’s innermost humanity. Confucius emphasized that the rites had to be performed with feeling:

The Master said: “Authority without generosity, ceremony without reverence, mourning without grief — these, I cannot bear to contemplate.” (3.26)

Ritual, then, should not be an empty form.

Ritual allowed people to express emotion, but one had to understand the rituals in order to understand what sentiment was being displayed. Like a handshake, these rituals could be confusing, sometimes impenetrable, to people outside one’s own culture. (( Valerie Hansen. The Open Empire: A History of China to 1600. W.W. Norton&Co, 2000. p. 70 ))

Though based on the real history, there’s something missing from the story, starting with the class tension when Yukako reluctantly takes on a prominent geisha as a student (who then goes on to become famous as “the geisha who does tea ceremony”). (( While not explicit on the entertainer v. prostitute debate, Avery certainly treats the geisha as though they had the status of prostitutes, and really very little class or culture before they hijack Tea. )) There is no evidence that Avery understands the role of tea ceremony training for women in the late Tokugawa and Meiji eras, when “The cha-no-yu ceremonies are taught every girl having any pretensions to family or breeding, and a woman of the high classes would hardly care to acknowledge to one of her own countrymen that she was not versed in these mysteries.” (( The New York Times, July 17, 1892, p. 6. There’s lots of other evidence, from Matsuo Taseko — late Tokugawa rural background, but tea and poetry trained — to Alice Mabel Bacon )) Something that was common to women of high rank and sophistication would almost certainly be part of the geisha curriculum as well. (( It certainly is today, with the active involvement of the Urasenke school. )) There’s a fairly strong consensus that the tea ceremony economy was in a fairly serious slump from the early Meiji until the cultural nationalism revival of the 1930s. (( Tim Cross, “Rikyu has Left the Tea Room: National Cinema Interrogates the anecdotal Legend,” Japanese Tea Culture: Art, History, and Practice edited by Morgan Pitelka, Routledge, 2003, pp. 171-172 )) During this slump, there was, as Morgan noted, a shift towards female participation at the highest levels. (( There does seem to be some discussion about when “feminization” takes place. Above, Morgan places it around the turn of the century. Elsewhere, it’s described as being a post-WWII phenomenon. e.g. MORGAN PITELKA. Review of ETSUKO KATO: The Tea Ceremony and Women’s Empowerment in Modern Japan: Bodies Re-Presenting the Past. Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies. University of London 68.1 (2005): 176-178. Research Library. ProQuest. Pittsburg State University Library, Pittsburg, Kansas. 7 Jan. 2009 )) The book gives the strong impression that tea ceremony was an exclusively male practice, with extraordinary exceptions, until the Restoration, and that it became a practice among women solely as a result of a concerted effort by tea practitioners to impose on the new national culture through formal education. Though the wealthy elites on which the Sen family relied had lost a great deal of their income and resources, there were hundreds of tea teachers, thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of tea-trained women in Japan at this point, and a strong tradition of tea as a part of the education of upper-class (or aspiring) women. The idea that the Shin/Sen family alone was responsible for the preservation of tea culture in Japan is historically absurd; they were responsible only for preserving their place in tea culture. This, as much as anything else, gave the book a feel of unreality for me, but it is, perhaps, an authentic representation of the perspective of the Sen/Shin family.

Anyway, the whole thing comes crashing to a head in 1891, including an assasination attempt on the education minister, by a character with ties to the Shin family who’s become radicalized. The exact nature of the radicalism is a little unclear: it seems to be a sort of free-floating anti-government populism. It’s not traditionalism or Imperial loyalty — there’s some serious discussion about the oppressive nature of the Tea tradition’s craft requirements — so it seems vaguely Marxist/anarchist. It’s too early for either of those in Japan, though they were in the West. Aurelia decides to go back to the United States, where she reunites with her first love, sets up shop and lives happily ever after. (( I almost wrote “happily, if implausibly” but the relationship in question wasn’t impossible (the author is described by Avery as “my partner”) and actually makes at least as much sense as many of the other tragic errors that pass for relationships in the book. ))

Avery includes a fair number of other historical references to anchor the story, including the 1872 Kyoto Exposition (187, passim), extraterritoriality (222), tattoed mobsters (252), outcaste liberation, Rokumeikan (257, though she translates it as “Belling Stag Pavilion”), the Satsuma Uprising (217-219, though it’s not clear whether this is run-up, or the uprising itself, because the scene takes place in 1876, not 1877). Perhaps its petty of me, but these really feel more like signposts than genuine plot points. Of course she has to mention the Satsuma uprising, yakuza; the Exposition and Rokumeikan are useful moments to comment on the interaction of foreign and Japanese cultures. Outcastes are a surprisingly important theme in the book, which feels more like a modern literary interest in status and transgression than an authentic sociological observation. There’s also the almost obligatory commentary and translation of the literal etymology of Japanese idioms, as though anyone actually thinks of these things when saying “goodbye” (346) or “thank you very much,” (55) or marriage negotiations (“Sightings,” 352). It clearly “marks the text” as they say, as Japanese and old-fashioned. Some of this can be explained by the use of Aurelia as narrator, I suppose, but places the book securely in the tradition of orientalia using outsiders as stand-ins for the non-native readers — Shogun, or a lot of other genre fiction.

The Teahouse Fire alludes or borrows from a number of other traditions and works. Aurelia reads Sei Shonagon, and some other classical works, and the Heian romantic model features prominently in her romantic difficulties: the exchange of scented presents; gifts with coded and punned messages; longing and denial expressed in wisps of hair. (e.g., 378-379) The affairs, incest and bisexuality remind me of Genji more than Pillow Book, though the descriptions are 21st century “Steamy East” (( That “Steamy East” site is by the same people who created this Nishikie site cataloging, with many translations, woodblock prints used by Japanese newspapers in the 1870s to illustrate and tell many lurid and interesting stories. I’m in love. )) rather than 11th century. (( None of the sex scenes made me groan, wince or otherwise think of Scooter Libby. Some of them seemed unlikely situations and pairings, but not bizarre in the act itself. It’s not the only or most important measure of a writer, but it’s something, especially in this field. )) The “fading family fortunes” narrrative calls to mind Tanizaki’s Makioka Sisters, of course. The entrepreneurship and self-improvement narrative has hint of Samuel Smiles to it. Avery’s aesthetics of tea are very orthodox: Okakura’s Book of Tea is just one of many statements on the subject, but it certainly covers the ground well and many of its strictures are echoed by the words and actions of the characters.

There was a lot of work in putting this book together. Historical and cultural research, extensive plotting, and careful writing are all in evidence. Most of the characters seem either implausible or shallow, but they are all fairly consistent with themselves, and some of them seem to actually mature. The combination of themes from the Tea tradition and current literary trends don’t always work together all that well. The sexuality and politics of the modern novel should subvert the asexual aesthetics of Tea — just as the commodification of Tea is a fundamental paradox which practitioners fail to understand — or vice versa, but Avery’s devotion to the Practice and to her sexual politics are too great to allow either to be compromised, or even affected, by the other. It’s an interesting attempt, I suppose, but it ultimately doesn’t feel all that faithful to the history, to the real human drama, nor terribly enlightening.

The note that Avery put in my copy suggested that I might consider the book as a teaching tool. This is precisely why I don’t use historical fiction: the demands of fiction and the demands of history are two very different things. What drives the plot is psychodrama; what drives history is something else entirely. I want my students to get a good feel for historical milieu, to develop an empathy with the people of history, but by imposing a modern psychology on a bit of the historical narrative, the novel distorts reality and forecloses the development of real empathy. The novel, despite its pretensions to subtlety, mistakes complications for nuance, mistakes conflict for complexity.


  1. Thanks for this, Jonathan. By the way, a new PhD thesis by Rebecca Corbett from the University of Sydney makes the very compelling (and well documented) argument that women in fact practiced tea quite widely during the Tokugawa period. First somewhat marginal but well-educated women (such as aristocrats and Buddhist nuns), then elite samurai and merchant women, and eventually commoner women studied, read about, and practiced tea as early as the 17th century and quite widely by the 19th. So the story that tea historians have been telling for the past century (and which I adopted in my work) seems to be inaccurate.

  2. Fascinating stuff: it raises all kinds of interesting questions. I suppose my first one would be: how is it that strong female participation was effectively invisible? Or was it staring us in the face and they mythology was just too strong?

    Then there’s the question about what, if anything, actually does change in the Meiji transition…..

    You know, I might have to start reading more books about Tea.

  3. I’m in the middle of writing a story that takes place in post-1923-quake Tokyo, and it’s reading articles like this that help me understand just how much real work has to be done. I’ve now already thought of two or three elements in the story that need to be done away with, with prejudice, so that I can avoid making the same mistakes!

  4. Jonathan,

    Very good review. It hits on all the points some of us have tried to impart on a few of the aspiring writers of Japanese historical fiction over at the Samurai Archives. Thanks for this.

    By the way, regarding women and tea during the Edo period, wasn’t it none other than Ii Naosuke who pushed for greater gender equality? The more I read about Naosuke, the more fascinating this controversial figure becomes.

  5. So this is a condemnation of the novel in general? I suppose you found Homer’s work a bit too free with fact as well.

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