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Chinese poetry, calligraphy, and painting were appreciated and practiced by many educated Japanese during the Edo period (1615-1868). Yanagawa Seigan, a scholar of Chinese Confucian thought, was an accomplished poet of kanshi, poetry composed in the Chinese language. The calligraphy mounted on these folding screens reveals that Seigan was also an accomplished calligrapher. His semicursive and cursive script is fluent, energetic, and gracefully composed. Seigan's proficiency in Chinese was typical of Japanese bunjin, whose lives and intellectual pursuits were modeled after the Chinese literati.
On the right-hand screen the poem on the fifth panel from the right reads:
With a song of Canglang River, on a little leaf of a boat,
In the clear wind and bright moon of a long-ago river sky;
Though out in the world the golden prize may still remain,
Such things do not entice this gentleman washing his feet.
Seigan's poem alludes to a Chinese poem attributed to Qu Yuan (fl. 4th century B.C.E) that celebrates the ideal of rejecting worldly power and status for the simple life of the fisherman.
The poem on the far right panel of the left screen reads:
Rather than being a farmer, better to be someone who eats,
For all its tangle lowly commerce is much the easier path.
The only ruler who understood this was Emperor Wen of Han,
In his reign he thrice remitted the farmer's tax of grain.
Seigan's poem suggests, ironically, that the merchants who occupied the lowest social class in both China and Japan during the Edo period at least enjoyed material comfort. The Chinese emperor Wen (reigned 180-157 B.C.E) of the Han dynasty was known for his concern for the common people and offered tax relief to farmers in times of hardship to promote social stability.
Poetry translated by Stephen D. Allee
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