This single column of cursive script by Zekkai Chūshin quotes a longer poem by the Tang-dynasty poet Wei Yingwu (737–790) that captures the experience of deep solitude in the mountains. Zekkai first studied Zen as a teenager at Tenryūji, a major monastery in western Kyoto that Musō Soseki (whose work hangs nearby) had established just a few years earlier; he then joined Musō at nearby Saihōji. In his thirties he journeyed to China, where he studied Zen at storied monasteries in Hangzhou such as Wanshousi and Lingyinsi. He returned to Japan a decade later and briefly practiced in seclusion before accepting abbotships at several major monasteries in Kyoto. Recognized as one of Musō’s most influential disciples, he is also celebrated for his achievements in poetry.
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Title:“The Mountain is Empty; A Pinecone Falls”
Artist:Zekkai Chūshin 絶海中津 (Japanese, 1336–1405)
Period:Nanbokuchō (1336–92)–Muromachi (1392–1573) period
Date:late 14th century
Medium:Hanging scroll; ink on paper
Dimensions:Image: 34 1/2 x 8 9/16 in. (87.6 x 21.7 cm) Overall with mounting: 65 7/8 x 9 7/16 in. (167.3 x 24 cm) Overall with knobs: 65 7/8 x 11 3/8 in. (167.3 x 28.9 cm)
Credit Line:Gift of Sylvan Barnet and William Burto, in honor of Elizabeth ten Grotenhuis and Merton Flemings, 2014
"There is no one in the mountain and I can only hear the sound of the pinecones falling" (Yama munashiku shite) shōshi otsu): this one line from a longer poem is complete as a work of calligraphy and is accompanied by a certificate (kiwame fuda) dated 1761 by the eighteenth-century calligraphy connoisseur Kohitsu Ryōen. Two seals are found in the lower left corner, the one above a tripod shaped seal reading "Zekkai;' below which is a square relief seal reading "Chūshin”. It is rare for both seals to be found on the same work by Zekkai Chūshin. Comparison with other works by this Zen priest proves difficult because his most famous examples are executed in an orderly regular script, as opposed to the running script of this scroll.
The verse captures the experience of deep solitude in the mountains. Without any other human presence, the only sounds are those of the falling pinecones. The line is taken from a poem by Wei Yingwu (737–790), who along with Wang Wei (701–761) was one of the most renowned poets of the Tang dynasty (618–907). The verse selected is the third of a four-line poem, effecting a transition from the opening subject to the concluding one. The choice of a verse loaded with such semantic movement indicates how deeply Zekkai understood the aesthetic dimensions of the art of calligraphy. On the flat surface of the two-dimensional paper ground, the brushwork dances in a lively manner, as if the kinetic movement of the ink were corresponding to the semantic movement of the verse.
"There Is No One in the Mountain” takes full advantage of the brush's physical properties. Its relaxed, leisurely tone is created by a rhythmical placement of brushstrokes, which repeatedly angle down from upper right to lower left. These diagonal strokes are especially prominent in the transition between characters. In four instances the brush does not leave the paper but floats in a thin line before entering the next character with great vigor. It takes immense skill to use the ink reserves in the brush head to connect the characters in this manner. Furthermore, while Zekkai repeatedly employs softly arching diagonals, he expresses each in a slightly different way, again revealing his marvelous skill and control.
The quality of line is quite straightforward and clear. This clarity results not only from the consistent ink gradation but also from the balance between the physical quality of the brush, the type of brush hair employed, and the handling of the brush. While the ink lines are full of variation, they do not change abruptly. The strokes are stable, covering relatively long distances with great sureness. When making a circular motion, the brush tip sometimes becomes distorted, but it continues to move forward, wonderfully varying the line's appearance. The first character, "mountain” and the upper portion of the second character, "empty,” are brushed as if to suggest a single deep breath. The bottom portion of "empty'' is quite abbreviated, and the brush does not stop until the third character, "pine:' is completed.
The multiple changes in brush pressure deserve special notice. At times the brush moves over the paper with force and at other times quite gently, as if the calligrapher were sliding his finger across its surface, barely creating a sound. This movement is like the minute reverberations produced by plucking a taut string. The brush's movement dictates the thickness (or thinness) of the line, and at times the traces of individual hairs are evident, creating a scratchy appearance.
At the age of thirteen Zekkai entered Tenryūji in Kyoto and afterward moved to Saihōji to study under the famous priest Musō Soseki (see cat. no. 36). In his thirties he traveled to China, where he spent over ten years studying at Zen monasteries, including the famed Lingyin and Wanshou temples. Upon his return, Zekkai took up a life of seclusion, against the wishes of the reigning shogun, Ashikaga Yoshimitsu (1358–1409). However, he eventually returned to Kyoto to serve as abbot of Tōjiji and Shōkokuji temples. With numerous anthologies of poetry and recorded sayings to his credit, Zekkai was also known for his literary achievements.
Seals: Zekkai; Chūshin
Tadayuki Kasashima. In Miyeko Murase, The Written Image. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2002, cat. no. 39.
Signature: The mountain is deserted, and the quiet is broken only by the falling pine seeds.
(Two seals) "Zekkai," "Chushin"
Sylvan Barnet and William Burto , Cambridge, MA (until 2014; donated to MMA).
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "The Resonant Image: Tradition in Japanese Art (Part Two)," April 27–September 27, 1998.
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "The Written Image: Japanese Calligraphy and Paintings from the Sylvan Barnet and William Burto Collection," October 1, 2002–March 2, 2003.
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Brush Writing in the Arts of Japan," August 17, 2013–January 12, 2014.
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Japan: A History of Style," March 8, 2021–April 24, 2022.
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