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8 / Writing

Poems with Floral Decoration
Poems with Floral Decoration
Artist / Origin Kojima Soshin (Japanese, 1580–ca. 1656)
Region: East Asia
Date Edo period, 1652
Material Handscroll; ink and color on gold-decorated paper
Dimensions H: 12 ½ in. (31.7 cm.), W: 25 ft. (765.6 cm.)
Location Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC
Credit Courtesy of the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

expert perspective

Yoshiaki ShimizuProfessor of Art and Archeology, Princeton University

Poems with Floral Decoration

» Kojima Soshin (Japanese, 1580–ca. 1656)

expert perspective

Yoshiaki Shimizu Yoshiaki Shimizu Professor of Art and Archeology, Princeton University

The Japanese attitude toward calligraphy is very interesting. There are two experiences of the Japanese as a nation that consumes culture. One is the attitude toward Chinese calligraphy. It is the canon—in other words, they know, even though they may not speak Chinese, but they know that these great calligraphic giants in China of the eighth and ninth centuries are the models. They will simply accept that. But at the same time, while they are accepting and they want to emulate their style—and there’s a whole lot of school of calligraphic learning that starts with this canonical example—they also accept the category called ‘Japanese mode.’ Japanese mode is largely squiggly, trembling style; it’s an aesthetic of disarray. Sometime it’s all interconnected writing. You don’t know where the one character ends, unless you yourself were the calligrapher.

These writings are reserved especially for writing memo and writing clandestine letters, especially to your loved ones, and usually it’s identified with women’s writing habit. So they are called ‘women’s hand.’ And all the Japanese artistic canon could be very sexist because as a man you’re not supposed to practice these things—these are reserved for women. And, in fact, by and large, these subtle, very refined calligraphy, using a very thin tip of brush, which consists of the mouse whisker, by the way, and you write very, very subtly. And every three inches or so, you have to dip your tip in the ink. And that is a very feminine style. On the other hand, they say that the model of these women’s style was written by men. If you read the tenth-, eleventh-century novel, there’s lots of reference to women writing and exchanging memoirs. And sometime a more enlightened man will look at this and say, ‘This is an extraordinarily beautiful writing.’ But historical samples, canonical examples that the students of calligraphy learn today, the examples all bear male names.” 

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