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Brush Writing in the Arts of Japan

August 17, 2013–January 12, 2014

Chinese versus Japanese Writing

Two Pages from the Ishiyama-gire

Attributed to Fujiwara no Sadanobu (Japanese, 1088–1151 or later). Two Pages from the Ishiyama-gire, ca. 1112. Book leaves remounted as a hanging scroll; ink and silver on decorated paper. Lent by John C. Weber Collection

"Anyone who has been asked to read an inscription on a painting…will know to what extraordinary extremes of non-communication this love of beauty carried Japanese writing."

—Donald Keene (b. 1922), scholar of Japanese literature

Japanese calligraphers had the option of using kanji (Chinese characters), kana (Japanese phonetic characters), or a combination of both, depending on the nature of the text. Even after the Japanese phonetic syllabary became standardized, Chinese remained the preferred language for business, administrative, scholarly, and religious writing. An inscription in Chinese carried with it a cachet of authority, dignity, and propriety.

Individual kanji are more complex and denser in appearance than kana. By the tenth century, Japanese court calligraphers were already experimenting with ways of harmonizing the two writing systems to attractive effect. What is called "Japanese-style" (wayō) calligraphy is the presentation of Chinese cursive styles in a way that is compatible with the gently rounded shapes of kana. Chinese characters may be written in a variety of different scripts distinguished by their level of cursiveness and abbreviation. The three basic script types encountered in this exhibition may be broadly classified as standard (kaisho), semicursive (gyōsho), and cursive (sōsho).

While kana was originally based on highly cursive forms of Chinese characters, by the tenth century it had evolved into a distinct writing system with its own set of aesthetic priorities. Yet kana texts are not always easy to decipher, since many of the characters differ from the ones in use in modern-day Japan. They are often written in variant forms, and each phoneme can be represented by any one of three, four, or sometimes more variations. Only at the end of the nineteenth century did publishers adopt standardized kana forms.