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Poem Accompanying an Overrobe (Uchikake) with Bamboo

Artist:
Rai San'yō (1780–1832)
Period:
Edo period (1615–1868)
Date:
dated 1824
Culture:
Japan
Medium:
Handscroll; ink on paper
Dimensions:
11 7/8 x 116 3/4 in. (30.2 x 296.5 cm)
Classification:
Calligraphy
Credit Line:
The Harry G. C. Packard Collection of Asian Art, Gift of Harry G. C. Packard, and Purchase, Fletcher, Rogers, Harris Brisbane Dick, and Louis V. Bell Funds, Joseph Pulitzer Bequest, and The Annenberg Fund Inc. Gift, 1975
Accession Number:
1975.268.89
Not on view
Long sleeves of twilled silk from Wu,
as white as snow.
Upon them painted bamboo thrusts
as if alive.

Madam [Shimo]mura, from the north hall
of the Karakane family,
In her wedding trousseau, precious
without compare.
Carefully wrapped up at the bottom of a
chest, no one dared wear it.
Her grandmother's thing, handed down
by her mother.

Who could have painted such beautiful
bamboo?
The record states: by Gion known
as Yoichi.
Ah, Nankai, was it he or not?
For the one in the ladies' chamber, he
painted the skirt of the robe.

At that time, old man Karakane was
a dilettante.
On famous gardens, he composed
splendid poems.
Once he persuaded the master
[Nankai] to stay at his mansion.
The whole household rejoiced, waited
upon him, and surrounded him
like a human screen.

At times, with wine at his side, he
dipped into the ink.
Droplets make Xiang rain from the
movements of his hand.
[The brush,] like rising hare and
swooping falcon, without care
for where it might land.
Clothes and socks of the same fabric,
the brush abruptly flew.
The fair ones stretched out silk in
substitution of the silk canvas.
Facing straight at the skirts, here thin
here plump, contesting.

Sir, do you not know that formerly
Yang Shen was exiled to Dian
[Yunnan] and Shu [Sichuan]?
On the pretty girl's robe always
remains the scent of wine
and ink.
Men say, "Enough to wear down a
man's spirit."
But, what the famous did was
unfathomable.

The lady still knows how to respect
old excellence.
What her family instructions urged
was unlike present fashions.
Nowadays, the eyes of rich young men
in silk trousers are callow.
She is willing to believe that ink traces
are superior to fine silk garments.

I make a song to sing of this affair.
What coils in the bosom is ten-
thousand-foot bamboo.

—Rai San'yō
(transl. Sadako Ohki)

This poem was inspired by the overrobe exhibited in the next case. Painted by the renowned Nanga artist Gion Nankai (1677–1751), the garment was treasured for generations by the Karakane family. In 1824, on the occasion of the marriage of a young Karakane woman and the inclusion of the overrobe in her dowry, the prominent poet and Confucian scholar Rai San'yō was commissioned to compose a poem about the garment. This kanshi (a poem written entirely in Chinese characters) is the result.

Multiple interpretations of San'yō's poem have been suggested: a conservative reading focuses on Nankai's calligraphic painting of the garment, while another refers to more overtly sensual content. At one point, in an abrupt departure from the narrative, the poet addresses the reader (and Nankai), warning of the dangers of excess by mentioning the disgraced Chinese official Yang Shen (1488–1559), who was exiled on account of his hedonistic lifestyle.

In his postscript to the poem, San'yō writes that he agreed to compose the poem because Nankai had agreed to paint the overrobe. Perhaps San'yō felt the need to justify his involvement in a project devoted to a woman's garment by couching it in terms of his relationship to his Nanga forebear.
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