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Brush Writing in the Arts of Japan

August 17, 2013–January 12, 2014

Court Calligraphy and Formats for Presenting Poetry

Flowering Cherry Poem Slip

Autumn Maple Poem Slip

Flowering Cherry and Autumn Maple with Poem Slips (detail), second half of the 17th century. Japanese, Edo period (1615–1868). Pair of six-panel folding screens; ink, color, gold, silver, and gold and silver leaf on paper. Lent by Peggy and Richard M. Danziger

"It would scarcely be an exaggeration to say that the real religion of Heian was the cult of calligraphy."

—Arthur Waley (1889–1966), translator of East Asian classics

In the hierarchy of East Asian cultural pursuits, calligraphy has always ranked high. Along with adopting the Chinese language for official and religious documents, the ancient Japanese court inherited the Chinese regard for calligraphy. Writing became an essential component of the upbringing of every young gentleman or lady, and a practiced hand was considered a mark of culture and refinement. The diaries of courtiers and court ladies of the Heian period (794–1185) indicate the remarkable enthusiasm they had for exchanging poems and letters rendered in elegant calligraphy.

During the Heian period, a distinctive Japanese writing system, kana—based on a Japanese phonetic syllabary—gradually evolved, along with its own set of aesthetic priorities. Members of the Heian cultural elite approached kana calligraphy with the same enthusiasm for stylistic experimentation and refinement that they had earlier reserved for Chinese calligraphy.

Japanese calligraphers also borrowed Chinese formats, including handscrolls and fans, for poems and letters. Exemplary calligraphy, especially sutras and poetry collections, originally in handscroll format were often cut into fragments to make hanging scrolls that were suitable for presentation in a tokonoma (display alcove). Furthermore, poem cards of various sizes and shapes were commonly used by Japanese calligraphers: shikishi are usually square in shape; tanzaku are tall, vertical rectangles; and kaishi are sheets of paper for letters or poems. Conventions evolved for the way poem cards and writing papers were inscribed. For instance, the distribution of columns of text or the placement of a signature became standardized. Deluxe commissions for poetry collections often called for lavishly decorated writing papers, which further attest to the importance of poetry at court.