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China in the Tokugawa World, Revisited: A Print by Suzuki Harunobu

Alfred Haft
British Museum

The woodblock-print artist Suzuki Harunobu (d. 1770) is well known for having designed prints that illustrate contemporary genre scenes in some manner relating to episodes from classical Japanese or Chinese legend and literature, or that otherwise associate a modern genre scene with a classical poem.  Harunobu’s interest in such conjunctions between high culture and low culture is already evident in at least one print whose limited coloration suggests a production date just prior to the artist’s ground-breaking, 1765 contributions to the early stages of full-color printing.  The early full-color prints, however, may be considered the first developed indications of Harunobu’s facility in this mode of pictorial representation.  Harunobu’s involvement in the new technology owed mainly to the patronage of Okubo Jinshirô Tadanobu (1722-1777), a hatamoto retainer of the Tokugawa shogunate (annual income 1600 koku), who served from 1755-63 as one of the shogun’s personal guards (shoin banshi) in the west compound of Edo Castle (Nishinomaru).  Tadanobu was a haikai enthusiast who used the poetry name Kyosen, and under this name, over roughly two years from 1765 to 1766, he co-organized several theme parties at which the guests exchanged exquisite, woodblock-printed “abbreviated calendars” (ryakureki or daishô koyomi; now also called egoyomi or picture-calendars) that mark the beginning of full-color woodblock printing.  Many of these prints were designed by Harunobu, and this paper will examine an abbreviated calendar that Harunobu designed for Kyosen based on a theme perhaps derived from a combination of classical Chinese literary and more recent Chinese pictorial sources.  The print raises a number of issues central to this workshop, including the passage of cultural knowledge across regions, the passage of artistic influence from one cultural sector to another, and within a society the passage (involving a condition of change and development) of attitudes toward authoritative cultural standards.

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