A Brief History of Wabi-Sabi

Sabi: a mood–often expressed through literature–of attentive melancholy.

Wabi: a cozier, more object-centered aesthetic of less as more.

The Japanese terms wabi and sabi may embody peaceful ideals of beauty, but they were forged by violence. In a brutal late-12th-century civil war, the imperial court culture gave way to military rulers called shoguns. Afterwards, Japanese aesthetics shifted from a refined hedonism to a pensive, “postwar” mood, seen especially in poetry.

The term sabi first appeared in the writings of literary critics, who used it to help define a new poetic beauty “to be found in the autumn dusk, in withered fields, or in the sight of drab brown birds winging across a marsh at twilight,” as Japanese literature scholars Robert Brower and Earl Miner write in Japanese Court Poetry (Stanford, 1961).

The legacy of this sere medieval beauty lived on in the concept of wabi, which, like sabi, combines ideas of loneliness, removal from life’s bustle, and genteel poverty. But wabi was especially cultivated by aesthetes who, in the 15th and 16th centuries, created the Japanese tea ceremony by making aristocratic tea-drinking gatherings simpler and sparer, infusing them with the spirit of rustic solitude (old iron teapots, cracked teacups, earth-toned décor) and simple manners.

Wabi-Sabi: As a single idea, wabi-sabi fuses two moods seamlessly: a sigh of gentle melancholy and a sigh of slightly bittersweet contentment, awareness of the transience of earthly things and a resigned pleasure in simple things that bear the marks of that transience.

Contributing editor Jon Spayde holds a B.A. in Japanese literature from Harvard University.

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