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Brush Writing in the Arts of Japan

August 17, 2013–January 12, 2014

Recording Imaginary Poetry Contests of the Past

Competition between Poets of Different Eras

Competition between Poets of Different Eras (Jidai fudō uta-awase-e) (detail), probably 15th century. Japanese, Muromachi period (1392–1573). Pair of handscrolls; ink, colors, gold, and silver on paper. Lent by John C. Weber Collection

"The pleasantest of all diversions is to sit alone under the lamp, a book spread out before you, and to make friends with people of a distant past you have never known."

—Yoshida Kenkō (1283?–?1350), from Essays in Idleness: The Tsurezuregusa of Kenkō

Beginning in the tenth century, poetry contests (uta-awase) were a favorite pastime of men and women of the Japanese court. Teams would be divided into left and right, and poems were often recorded for posterity in elegant calligraphy. Imaginary poetry contests that pitted esteemed poets of the past against each other were also conceived, often accompanied by stylized portraits of the participants.

Calligraphers of such poetry-contest handscrolls frequently employed "scattered writing" (chirashigaki), used to describe two related types of calligraphic devices: phrases of a poem inscribed in normal sequence, but with columns or characters divided and spaced in a seemingly random arrangement on the page; or lines and words of a poem (usually a well-known one) arranged out of normal syntax. The primary motive of chirashigaki is to create an interesting arrangement of ink lines and blank spaces, yet it often has the secondary effect of imposing a new rhythm of reading. Words divided artificially, lines broken at the wrong places, columns overlapped to create entangled phrases—all result in a slightly slower reading process. The eye must linger a bit, perhaps go back and forth, to understand the message.

Many of the best-known examples of chirashigaki appear in poetry anthologies such as the Thirty-six Poetic Immortals (Sanjūrokkasen), Competition between Poets of Different Eras (Jidai fudō uta-awase), and the imaginary poetry contest of characters from The Tale of Genji, all of which are on view.