Ideology of Rice & Silk in Early Modern Japan


A review of Picturing Rice Agriculture and Silk Production: Appropriation and Ideology in Early Modern Japanese Painting, by Shalmit Bejarano.

Shalmit Bejarano’s dissertation offers an interesting case study of Sino-Japanese cultural transmission in the early modern period built around one specific theme: Pictures of Agriculture and Sericulture (Ch: gengzhi tu, Jp: kōshoku-zu). While relying on semiotic, structuralist, and phenomenological readings of Japanese paintings, this dissertation explains how Japanese artists made conscious changes in style and program in order to deliver a new rhetoric and message while constructing a unique identity for Japan.

The introduction effectively provides both an empirical and methodological foundation for the thesis: the importance of rice to Japanese people throughout history, the production and perception of Pictures of Agriculture and Sericulture in East Asia, and China’s image and status in Japanese culture. The focal point of the arguments laid out in this review is the author’s challenge to previous scholarship, which understood artistic changes made to paintings from China by the Japanese primarily as independent currents in Japanese visual culture.

A discussion of the origins, narratives, and functions of Pictures of Agriculture and Sericulture in Chinese literary and visual creations opens Chapter One. Providing detailed explanations not only of literary sources such as Bai Juyi (772–846) and Yuan Zhen (799–831), but also Lou Shu’s (1090–1162) painting of the subject matter, the author summarizes its meanings in China, where it was a symbol of ideal Confucian society, an admonishment to farmers requiring their diligence, and a propaganda vehicle that portrayed the emperor as merciful and virtuous. Literary forms of the topic were probably introduced to Japan during the Tang period, and its pictorial version became current in the Japanese art world as early as the Kamakura period. This chapter’s highlight comes when the author offers a meticulous reading of paintings of agriculture in the waiting room of the Muromachi period Daisen’in, sub-temple of the Zen monastery Daitokuji in Kyoto. The public nature of this space perhaps motivated the paintings’ lessened religious significance while delivering an elevated level of political signification. Comparing it with a variety of Chinese examples, the author convincingly points out how certain motifs in the Chinese paintings were modified to create a new message. For example, the figures of supervisors in the Chinese versions were replaced by a grandfatherly figure with a child, or a man bringing refreshments and snacks to the farmers. Such changes were designed to eliminate a sense of hard labor and control in order to avoid any reference to the political unease and turmoil in late Muromachi Japan. Thus, “the choice to depict an ideal agricultural society in the reception room was linked to the patron’s wish for a harmonious society” (p. 79).

Chapter Two investigates the processes by which Chinese art was naturalized into the Japanese tradition. Like most paintings by Chinese masters, Liang Kai’s (fl. first half of 13th century) Pictures of Agriculture and Sericulture also became a model for the Kano painters. In addition, Kano artists relied on Chinese book illustrations of farming as their models. Thus, while pointing out various examples—including Bianmin tuzuan (earliest edition 1502) and a book by Song Zonglu, which was later reprinted by Kano Einō (1631- 1697) —the author emphasizes that the impact of Chinese printed books on Kano work was greater than has been realized. Furthermore, the evident modification of the style and subject matter of the Chinese originals in Kano school paintings—which is explained as “Japanization”—did not result from a journalistic observation of Japanese reality, but rather was based upon the desire to build a Japanese identity distinct from the Chinese origins of the genre. This chapter further argues that the changes introduced in Kano paintings reflected the elite gaze cast upon farming communities, by which elites wanted to legitimatize the ruler’s authority over the farmers while launching criticism against the corruption of the rice-trading economy supposedly brought on by rice merchants. The high level of importance and recognition accorded to the Kano school’s role in Edo society has further turned Pictures of Agriculture, one of their primary subjects, into a symbol of an ideal Japanese past within modern academic discourse.

If previous chapters dealt primarily with how “high” art in early modern Japan adapted the artistic program of Pictures of Agriculture, Chapter Three delves into the “popular” sphere. Primary interest is given to the print artist Tachibana Morikuni (1679–1748) who shared his knowledge of Chinese print media and Kano model books with a larger public via his printed manuals. Morikuni’s impact on contemporary and later Japanese artists is well considered, with examples showing how motifs from his books were used by a number of later Japanese artists including Suzuki Harunobu (fl. 1765–1777).  In accounting for the book trade between China and Japan, the author proposes that Japanese artists almost indiscriminately used the contents of various types of books from China, e.g., agrarian manuals, daily-use encyclopedias, pedagogical works, and painting manuals. In this cultural environment, many Chinese books were even reprinted or republished for different functions and audiences. For example, Nōgyō zensho of 1696 drew heavily upon Chinese books on agriculture and was targeted at a wide range of readers: field workers, samurai, and townspeople.

It is in Chapter Four that discussion regarding Pictures of Sericulture, separate from Pictures of Agriculture, is presented. The topic’s rather marginal position in the thesis is sensitively ascribed to the growing discourse of proto-nationalism in modernizing Japan. This subject appears in Japanese pictorial art from the eleventh century onward, along with Pictures of Agriculture. Like farming, sericulture referred to imperial authority and Neo-Confucian ideals as the symbols of orderly society both in China and Japan. However, such social and political connotations were veiled in a strong sense of femininity, associated with women’s domesticity and confinement. In other words, it was not a suitable topic for male elites. Thus, the topic appeared mostly in popular prints, and only rarely in paintings. Although Kano artists made some paintings on this topic based upon Chinese examples, Pictures of Sericulture fell out of favor in the official art scene. Even so, it registered in many popular prints such as pioneering works by Tachibana Morikuni, which became a repository of inspiration to later ukiyo-e artists including Kitagawa Utamaro (ca. 1753–1806) and Kitao Shigemasa (1739–1820). In modern Japanese society, where the clear influence of military culture was affecting modern Japan’s national identity, the marginalization of this topic amply demonstrates how social and political discourses were naturalized in artistic programs.

In the conclusion, the author reconfirms her methodological perspectives on how to read Pictures of Agriculture and Sericulture. Introducing a Meiji period version of these motifs, she argues that although this new modernized painting appears to celebrate new technology, document the lives of laborers, and provide an idealized view of the countryside, the embedded narratives are not so different from those of the older versions; it was designed to confirm and enforce an ideological worldview to its intended audience. Overall, this dissertation should be applauded for the wide spectrum of primary and secondary materials it covers and its successful application of various art historical methodologies in an extremely specialized analysis of one specific painting subject. For those who appreciate in-depth approaches in art historical or cultural studies, this thesis provides a most useful model of research.

J.P. Park
Department of Art and Art History
University of Colorado, Boulder

Primary Sources

Freer Gallery of Art
Daisen’in, Daitokuji, Kyoto
Tokyo National Museum
Machida Prefectural Museum
Various books by Tachibana Morikuni (1679–1748)

Dissertation Information

University of Pittsburgh. 2010. 391 pp. Primary Advisor: Karen Gerhart.


Image: Kano Yukinobu (attributed), Pictures of Agriculture, Daisen’in temple, mid 16th c. Tokyo National Museum.

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