Japanese Art & the Orchid Pavilion Gathering


A review of Pictures of Social Networks: Transforming Visual Representations of the Orchid Pavilion Gathering in the Tokugawa Period (1615-1868), by Kazuko Kameda-Madar.

Kazuko Kameda-Madar examines the popularity of the Orchid Pavilion Gathering pictorial motif and explains the changing motivations of the different Japanese artists who painted it during the Edo period. Through this examination, the author shows the versatility of the Orchid Pavilion Gathering theme, as artists with diverse backgrounds created new meanings out of the classical theme. As most of the previous studies of artworks based on the Orchid Pavilion Gathering have focused on artistic style, this project explores the sociopolitical background of the artists to explicate the attraction this ancient Chinese literary and pictorial theme had to Japanese painters of the Edo period. Through this endeavor, this project complements the previous stylistic studies of the Orchid Pavilion theme in Japan by considering the historical context of the artists as motivation for the production of Orchid Pavilion Gathering paintings.

Theorizations of practices for expressing discontent in the Japanese context underpin this project. The dissertation draws particularly on Michael Marra’s Aesthetics of Discontent, which Kameda-Madar summarizes as describing the “four modes of expressing discontent in medieval Japanese literature: 1) allusion, or the process of using the aesthetic products of the past to express problems in the present while evading censorship, 2) contextual reinterpretation, or the idealization of the past in order to critique the present, 3) rejection, the more overt expression of discontent with the present situation, and 4) allusive variation, or the flight from the present situation into reclusion” (pp. 6-7). In addition, the author identifies other methods employed by the Tokugawa period artists as acts of resistance: “1) alternatives… the substitution of elements or themes with others, 2) canon formation through easily recognized diagnostics, which permit other kinds of politically communicative expression, and 3) performance, which relates to Marra’s mode of contextual reinterpretation, but is more concerned with Japanese figures taking on Chinese identity” (p. 7). All of these methods of resistance were employed by the artists in their works to show dissatisfaction.

Chapter 1, “The Authorship of the Orchid Pavilion Pictorial Tradition: Canon Formation and the Authentication of Power,” offers an overview of the Orchid Pavilion gathering and its subsequent literary and artistic evolution in China. The original gathering occurred during the Eastern Jin Dynasty in the year 353 when Wang Xizhi (303-361) invited 40 guests to his villa in southern China. The men engaged in a poetry competition using cups of wine floating in a stream as punishment for failing to complete their verses within a time limit. After the gathering, Wang Xizhi composed a preface to the poems produced on that day, which came to be known as “Lanting xu,” or the “Preface to the Orchid Pavilion.” Kameda-Madar then briefly surveys the growing cult of the “Preface” from the Tang to the Ming dynasties, including subsequent calligraphic copies of the “Preface” and pictorial renderings of the Orchid Pavilion Gathering itself. Following this, the author examines the circumstances and motives behind the promotion of the Orchid Pavilion Gathering as a visual representation by Prince Yi of the Ming dynasty in the late 16th century and suggests that Chinese associations with the Orchid Pavilion Gathering see the event and its depictions as symbol of both political discontent and cultural authority. Finally, the chapter concludes with a detailed survey of the numerous extant ink rubbings of versions of the Orchid Pavilion Gathering created by Prince Yi, as well as a detailed description of one of the visual representations of the Gathering, which was transmitted as an ink rubbing to Japan in the 17th century and in turn became the basis for the beginning of the Orchid Pavilion Gathering pictorial tradition in Japan.

Chapter 2, “The Orchid Pavilion Image as Aesthetic Resistance: The Kyō-Kano Workshop and Their Network System,” examines how the Chinese Orchid Pavilion Gathering theme was used by the artists of the Kyō-Kano branch of the Kano school during the early Tokugawa period as subtle protest of the discrimination Kyō-Kano artists faced at the hands of the Tokugawa bakufu and the Edo-Kano school. Following Karen Gerhart’s definition of political art as “art that influences political beliefs and actions, either by supporting such actions or by protesting against them, as well as art that is more indirectly intertwined with politics,” the author argues that paintings of the Orchid Pavilion theme can be considered political art in Edo Japan (Karen M. Gerhart, The Eyes of Power: Art and Early Tokugawa Authority. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1999, ix). A set of four, 8-panel folding screens by Kano Sansetsu depicting the Orchid Pavilion theme is the earliest extant example of the pictorial motif in Japan. Through both theme and painting style, this group of screens may simultaneously be viewed as a promotion of cultural authority and an expression of political discontent. Because the pictorial content of the screens is similar to that of the Ming ink rubbings, one surmises that Sansetsu was familiar with the Ming ink rubbings, which had passed into the hands of the Kano school. By following the same pictorial format as the Ming ink rubbings, Sansetsu asserts his Kano school legitimacy via the subject matter. At the same time, as the second head of the Kyō-Kano branch, through his painting style, Sansetsu asserts his branch’s position as the orthodox successor to the main Kano lineage founded by Kano Masanobu and Kano Motonobu, even though he was not related by blood to either earlier Kano master. These claims of legitimacy were critical to Sansetsu because his contemporaries and rivals in the Edo-Kano school, led by Kano Tan’yu, were systematically marginalizing the Kyō-Kano branch, seeking to prevent the latter from receiving commissions despite the superior artistic skills of Kano Sansetsu. Finally, in this chapter, the author attributes several representations of the Orchid Pavilion Gathering by Sansetsu to the patronage of the Kujō family in Kyoto, exploring the commissioning of these works as potential expressions of political dissatisfaction on the part of the Kujō family.

Chapter 3, “The Orchid Pavilion as an Alternative “Classical” Theme: Performing Literati for Identity Construction,” examines the different backgrounds of several well-known bunjin artists from the mid-18th to the late 19th centuries and discusses their motivations in painting the theme of the Orchid Pavilion Gathering. While each man had his own unique reasons, as a group, these artists used the motif of the Orchid Pavilion to express resistance to the rigid style of the mainstream Kano school and to vent frustration regarding their own marginal social status. By painting this theme, many of the bunjin artists sought to elevate their status by aligning themselves with a classical Chinese theme associated with learned men. The artists introduced in this chapter, including Ike no Taiga, Nakayama Kōyō, Fukuhara Gogaku, and Nakabayashi Chikutō, all painted the Orchid Pavilion Gathering using innovative manners that stood in opposition to the dominant Kano school style. They also gave props not included in the original “Preface to the Orchid Pavilion Gathering” to certain figures in their representations of the Orchid Pavilion. This decision is interpreted as representing an effort to include pictorial motifs from other well-known gatherings of learned men in China, such as the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove and the Elegant Gathering at the Western Garden, and thus updating the theme to resonate with the artists’ own lives. In other words, through their depictions of not one but several gatherings of learned men that took place in faraway China, bunjin artists of the 18th and 19th centuries were able to evoke their own more recent gatherings of like-minded artists and thinkers in friendship and camaraderie closer to home. In doing so, these artists conferred upon the otherwise marginalized members of the bunjin group the cultural authority denied them by the Tokugawa bakufu and Edo society.

Chapter 4, “The Nativization of Orchid Pavilion Imagery: Genre Painting Adaptation and the Kokugaku Movement,” examines the Japanese history of kyokusuien, a generic term for a gathering of poets around an artificial stream to compose poetry, of which the Orchid Pavilion Gathering is the most famous historical example. There is evidence that kyokusuien was transmitted to Japan and performed as early as the Nara period (710-794), when courtiers gathered around an artificial stream to drink wine and compose Chinese poetry.  During the Heian period (794-1185), poetry composition shifted from Chinese models to waka, a Japanese poetic form, in what constituted a nativization of the kyokusuien.  Although pictorial representations of this event did not appear until after the proliferation of Orchid Pavilion images in Japan during the Edo period, by the 19th century, production of kyokusuien images dramatically increased due to the influence of the Kokugaku movement, which elevated everything Japanese over Chinese imports. The author illustrates her argument with depictions of kyokusuien by Tsukioka Settei, Kubo Shunman, and Reizei Tamechika, detailing these artists’ personal motivations for painting the kyokusuien motif.

Chapter 5, “Images of the Purification Ritual Reinvented: The Orchid Pavilion Gathering and the Doll Festival,” looks at the connections between the all-male Orchid Pavilion Gathering and the Japanese Doll Festival known as Hina Matsuri, which is celebrated for girls. The author notes that the actual Orchid Pavilion Gathering took place during the annual Spring Purification Festival. She then shows that the purification ritual had older historical associations with the protection of women and their newborn daughters. The purification ritual practices arrived in Japan with returning Japanese envoys during the Nara period. Japanese examples of such purification rituals can be found in Heian period literature, including the Tale of Genji. In certain chapters from Genji, descriptions of purification rituals show that young girls were told to breathe on doll effigies before the dolls were floated away on water. This practice was believed to dispel evil. As time passed, the dolls used in the purification rituals became more elaborate and were no longer discarded into the water. Finally, in the Edo period, they evolved into the familiar Hina Matsuri dolls.

This meticulous examination of paintings of the Orchid Pavilion Gathering and the sociopolitical motivations behind their creation offers new insights into the myriad of associations that theme held for Edo period artists and thinkers. While the motif has always served as a tool of cultural elevation, the reasons behind that need to achieve higher social status differ in the various cases examined in this project.  In addition, the author explores the relationships between the kyokusuien motif and the modern Doll Festival with the theme of the Orchid Pavilion Gathering to show how a shared day for the purification festival has developed along diverging trajectories into three distinct phenomena in modern Japanese history. Finally, this project introduces an important Chinese literary theme and its far-reaching visual representations in Japan to an English-speaking audience.

Yan Yang
Department of History of Art
Yale University

Primary Sources

Prince Yi, Lanting 兰亭 (Gathering at the Orchid Pavilion), multiple versions, 1592. Handscroll, compilation of ink rubbings on paper. Palace Museum, Beijing.
Kano Sansetsu, Rantei kyokusuien 蘭亭曲水宴(Gathering at the Orchid Pavilion), e. 17th c. Two pairs of eight-panel folding screens, ink, color, and gold leaf on paper. Zuishin-in, Kyoto.
Ike Taiga, The Orchid Pavilion Gathering, 1754. Wooden votive panel. Gion Shrine, Kyoto.
Nakabayashi Chikutō, after Sheng Maoye, The Orchid Pavilion Gathering. Handscroll, ink and color on silk. Hakutaku-an Collection, Kyoto.
Tsukioka Sessai, Kyokusuien, in the Annual Events of Twelve Months. Pair of six-panel byōbu, ink and color on paper. Kansai University Library.

Dissertation Information

University of British Columbia, Vancouver. 2011. 591 pp. Primary Advisor: Joshua Mostow.



Image: Kano Sansetsu, Rantei kyokusuien 蘭亭曲水宴(Gathering at the Orchid Pavilion), early 17th century. Two pairs of eight-panel folding screens, ink, color, and gold leaf on paper. Zuishin-in, Kyoto.

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