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Japanese Literati Culture in the Edo Period

October 7, 2006–November 11, 2007

In the seventeenth century, in response to the ideas of self-expression traveling from China, the Japanese created their own, highly sophisticated version of the Chinese literati culture. This exhibition explores the works of art that flourished as a result, both collaborative works and unique objects created by individual artists.

One important avenue for the importation of works from the continent were the Chinese Zen priests, particularly those belonging to the Ōbaku temple Mampuku-ji. A rare handscroll of calligraphies by fifteen early leaders of the sect, established in 1661 near Kyoto, Japan, is on view in this exhibition. Collaborative works became a hallmark of Japanese literati culture, whether in the form of handscrolls, albums, or sets of fans. Images of poetic gatherings became popular as well, reflecting both Chinese culture and Japanese poetry.

The literati culture also acknowledged and encouraged individuality, and even eccentricity, in artists. The free and open atmosphere of eighteenth-century Japan set the stage for a period of creative experimentation and the flourishing of literature and art by a remarkable group of talented men and women. Two of them, Ike Taiga (1723–1776) and Tokuyama Gyokuran (1727–1784) are the subjects of a separate special exhibition,

Chinese Influence on the Japanese Literati

Chinese literature and culture had been highly regarded in Japan since its introduction in the sixth century, however, it was not until the Tokugawa shoguns came into power and began the Edo period (1615–1868) that the culture of China gained prominence. The teachings of the Chinese philosopher Confucius (551–479 B.C.E.), which include theories on proper governance and social order, helped establish peace in Japan during this period.

In art, the paintings and lifestyle of the Chinese literati (scholar-officials) offered a new model. Among Chinese artists to whom the Japanese looked for inspiration were the calligrapher Zhang Ruitu and landscape painter Wang Shih-ming. The artistic ideal of the literati was to gain proficiency in the "three perfections": poetry, calligraphy, and painting. Japanese artists wrote poetry in classical Chinese and addressed Chinese themes. Calligraphic works were often based on Chinese poetry, such as Shakuhachi Jakugon's Poem by Wang Wei.

Main Building


Dr. Felice Fischer • The Luther W. Brady Curator of Japanese Art and Curator of East Asian Art

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