Chawan originally referred to a porcelain bowl made for drinking tea. Along with the spread of the tea drinking habit, the word 'chawan' has also spread and it has become a pronoun for porcelain used for other purposes also. In the Edo period, during the pace of unglazed earthenware and wooden bowls, porcelain bowls came into use and consequently the words 'meshijawan' (bowl for rice with lid), 'senchawan' (bowl for green tea) were created. Now in Japan, normally 'ochawan' means meshijawan.
As its name suggests, chawan is a bowl for drinking tea and also called yunomi (drinking hot water) or yunomichawan (bowl for drinking hot water). It is thought that it was created as a part of a tea set in China or Korea and brought to Japan with tea from the Nara period until the Heian period.
In Japan a bowl for rice is specially called 'gohanjawan' 'chawan' or 'meshiwan.'
In Japanese homes, whether it is yunomijawan or gohanjawan, each person has his or her own set of chawans as well as chop sticks. Since old times, in many homes each person has yunomijawan and gohanjawan for private use.
Chawan is equivalent to a cup in Europe. When the habit of drinking tea was brought from East Asia, the cups were normally without handles, but gradually cups with handles have spread and become common. In English, a cup without a handle is called a tea bowl and one with handle is called a tea cup. Many variations of cups have been created such as the Bute shape, Peony shape, and London shape. While a cup for coffee is called a coffee cup, there are also variations in shape for both tea and coffee. A saucer for chawan in Japan is equivalent to a cup saucer in Europe that is made of the same material and of the same decor as a cup and normally comes with a cup as a set. Most of them are porcelain or stoneware. Also a bowl for eating rice is called a rice bowl.
Chawan as a utensil for used for tea ceremonies
In a tea ceremony in Japan, various chawans are used depending on the season or the theme. Among the devotees, it is called "ichi Raku, ni Hagi, san Karatsu" to rank the porcelains classified as below depending on the production area, origin, color and shape.
Seiji chawan (celadon-ware) (colors are generated by oxidation-reduction and some of them are colored in red by copper of cinnabar.)
Hakuji chawan (white porcelain)
Korai chawan (originated in Korea)
Korai chawan, ido chawan, and mishima chawan (patterned by pressing tools)
Raku yaki (raku chawan) black, red, and white
Shino chawan, oribe chawan, setoguro chawan, kiseto chawan, and hakuan chawan
While seiji is hard, raku yaki is called nanto (soft pottery).
Most chawans are wan gata (bowl form), but there are also tsutsu gata (cylindrical from), hira gata (flat form), wa gata or tama gata (round shape), hanzutsu (semi-cylindrical), hazori (upswept rim), kutsugata (shoe-shaped) etc. Also there are forms of chawan, that were named after the features of the origin of chawan such as tenmoku gata, and ido gata. Some chawans such as tsutsu chawan and hira chawan are so called because of their shape. Tsutsu chawan is used in winter because it is deep and keeps the tea hot longer. On the other hand, hira chawan is used in summer because it is shallow and allows the tea to cool rapidly. Raku and korai ido are considered to be in a higher rank, therefore, they are often used for full-flavored powdered green tea. Also there are chawans for each kind of tea such as senchawan and macchawan. Chawans are treated as works of art and artifacts, many of which have the artist's name printed on them and some of which have been given individual names.
Because porcelain breaks easily, commercial plastic chawans are also being manufactured for restaurants and so on.