New temporary display of works by Xu Bing

From 2 March

Gallery 10 | Admission Free

Xu Bing (b.1955, Chongqing, Sichuan) is a leading contemporary artist from China renowned for works of art that explore language. To mark his visit to Oxford in March for the 2018 Oxford China Forum and the launch of Professor Peter D. McDonald’s Artefacts of Writing: Ideas of the State and Communities of Letters from Matthew Arnold to Xu Bing (Oxford: OUP, 2017), the Ashmolean is displaying three important works by Xu Bing.

Xu Bing, Beijing, January 2013 © Xu Bing Studio

Most famous is his Tianshu ‘Book from the Sky’ (1987-92), which presents 4,000 unintelligible ‘Chinese’ characters created by the artist in four bound volumes, each printed in traditional format using fine materials.

View of temporary display in gallery 10, Book from the Sky, and its box, Sullivan Bequest © the artist, EA2015.340

A more recent book, in some sense a companion to it, is Dishu or ‘Book from the Ground’, which uses the pictograms and emojis present everywhere in modern life to narrate a story that everyone can understand. Disrupting reading habits in different ways, the two works raise questions, at once sceptical and creative, about all established forms of writing.

Book from the Ground: from point to point, Cambridge, Mass: The MIT Press, 2013 © 2013 Xu Bing

Book cover, Artefacts of Writing, Ideas of the State of and Communities of Letters from Matthew Arnold to Xu Bing by Peter D. McDonald

Xu Bing’s Landscript (2002), in which he has created an ink landscape painting composed of pictographic Chinese characters, using the character for ‘tree’ 木, the stones using the character for ‘stone’ 石, and so forth, completes the display.

Landscript, 2002, ink on Nepalese paper, 50 x 173 cm, Sullivan Bequest © the artist, EA2015.341

More information on his 2013 exhibition Xu Bing: Landscape Landscript at the Ashmolean Museum can be found here. The exhibition catalogue is available at the Ashmolean shop.

Posted on behalf of Shelagh Vainker, Curator of Chinese Art.

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Object Spotlight: Japanese gunpowder flask with figures in Portuguese dress

Gunpowder flask with figures in Portuguese dress, EA1983.243 © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford


Gunpowder flask with figures in Portuguese dress, EA1983.243 © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford











This lacquered wood gunpowder flask (kayaku-ire) was produced in Japan. It is artistic in form but with an important practical use. The flask gives a useful insight into a fascinating period of Japanese history and reflects the history of contact between Europe (especially Portugal) and Japan. It depicts Portuguese figures, in exaggerated poses, on the front and back panels of the flask. The two flat lacquered panels are affixed to a wooden body, rounded at the sides and bottom.  It is an example of an artistic style known as Nanban, which developed during this period of initial European contact (1543‒1639), although it is possible the object was produced later than this date. Apart from the wood and lacquer, it also includes copper, which was used to make the spout and side pin (likely for attachment to a belt or equivalent). It was acquired by the museum in 1983, purchased at auction with the help of the Friends of the Ashmolean.

Historical Background

The period of initial European contact with Japan coincided with what the Japanese call the Sengoku jidai, ‘the Age of Warring States’. This was a protracted period of civil strife lasting almost one hundred and fifty years up to around the early 1600s. Japan at this time, although ruled nominally by an Emperor who commanded the loyalty of the nobility, was in practice ruled by a shogun, a powerful lord who was the supreme commander of the armed forces and acted as a head of government in whom most practical power rested. The Japanese term for the shogun’s government (shogunate) was bakufu, which literally means ‘tent-government’ and came to refer to the host of bureaucrats and court officials who worked under the shogun. The sixteenth century in Japan was characterized by the instability resulting from the collapse of one shogunate and the rise of another. This gunpowder flask was produced around 1600, when the warlord Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543–1616) was establishing his rule, beginning the era of the Tokugawa shogunate (1615–1868). This period is also known as the Edo period, as the new government was based in the city of Edo (modern Tokyo), as opposed to Kyoto, the former capital where the emperor still lived. The period saw the initial contact between Japan and Europeans, the Portuguese having come upon Japan in the 1540s. As their arrival coincided with this period of conflict and upheaval, the Portuguese were able to initiate trade with the Japanese, as well as engage in Christianization, courting provincial rulers (daimyō) and even negotiating control of Nagasaki in the 1580s, although this was short-lived.

Nanban panel attributed to Kano Naizen, Image: © National Museum of Ancient Art, Lisbon, Wikimedia Commons


Besides the significant social and cultural exchanges that followed the Portuguese arrival in Japan, there was also a marked economic interaction. The Portuguese were enthusiastic for Japanese goods such as porcelain (and there was also a significant trade in Japanese slaves) but there was very little in the way of European items imported into Japan. The Europeans’ main contribution was to act as middle men for other Asian goods such as silk from China. The main exception to this rule was the trade in gunpowder weapons: specifically the European matchlock heavy arquebus, known as the musket. The general term for gunpowder weapons in Japan was Tanegashima, after the island where they were said to have been first introduced, but other names included hinawajū, ‘fire-rope gun’, and teppō, ‘iron cannon’ or ‘metal gun’. Teppō would subsequently become the standard term. Although the Chinese had pioneered the use of gunpowder technology, the matchlock, the first firearm with a trigger, was a European innovation which was introduced to Asia (India and likely also China) through the Ottoman Turks. However, the first documented trade of firearms in Japan was conducted by the Portuguese in 1543, when a Chinese pirate/trader vessel with several Portuguese on board was shipwrecked near Tanegashima and the local daimyō was much taken with the weapons and purchased them for a huge sum. Print designer Katushika Hokusai (1760–1849) imagines the incident in the work below.

‘First Guns in Japan’, Katsushika Hokusai, 1817, Image: © Noel Perrin Giving Up the Gun, Wikimedia Commons


Firearms were transported to Japan from the Portuguese bases in Goa and Malacca, where armouries and workshops were able to produce these guns in significant numbers. By the 1560s gunpowder weapons were being used in large numbers in Japanese battles by Japanese foot soldiers (ashigaru). Their advantages and drawbacks in Japanese warfare were much the same as with European. They were dangerous to the user, inaccurate, slow to load and reload, and could be very unreliable in wet weather. Conversely, they were easy to manufacture, easy to use (meaning people of low status and no military background could be instructed in their use) and had superior penetrative power compared to other missile weapons like bows. Oda Nobunaga (1534–1582), a successful military leader of this period, recognised the potential of muskets early on and won repeated successes using large numbers of musket-wielding troops, most famously at the Battle of Nagashino in 1575.

Japanese ashigaru, Image: © Noel Perrin Giving Up the Gun, Wikimedia commons



The flask under discussion is a gunpowder flask, used in the loading of matchlock guns. To fire the weapon, one pulls a lever or trigger attached to the bottom of the weapon. The action of pulling the trigger moves a second lever, causing a match (burning cord) to be lowered into the flash pan where the priming powder sits. The flash from the lit priming powder moves through the vent and ignites the main powder charge in the gun barrel. This reaction expels the projectile down the barrel and out of the muzzle. The powder flask is used to accurately apply a measure of powder to the weapon via the narrow spout. As the smaller amount of priming powder had to be of finer quality, typically the user would have two flasks, one with priming powder, and one with coarser powder used as the main charge. The most efficient way to use the flask was to prepare cartridges containing the right amount of powder before battle so one did not have to fumble around with multiple flasks in the middle of an engagement.

Production and Design

To make Japanese lacquerware, objects are covered with the treated sap of the lacquer tree or sumac. The objects can be of any material: wood, paper, leather, textiles and ceramics. Wood was the preferred medium for Japanese artisans.

Lacquer Tree, Toxicodendron vernicifluum, formerly, Rhus verniciflua. It is indigenous to China but has been found across East Asia since ancient times, Image: © Takami Torao, 15 August 2009, all rights released, Wikimedia Commons

In Japan the tree is called urushi, a name from which the name of the oily allergenic compound urushiol comes. Urushiol, contained in the tree’s sap, is toxic but vital in the production of the distinctively hard-wearing East Asian lacquer. The tree bark is cut and the sap collected: the sap is an almost clear liquid which releases a poisonous vapour and is then refined by sieving and evaporating to reduce the water content from around 30% to 3%, by which time it is more viscous and completely colourless. This process must be performed in a dust-free environment with very high relative humidity. Pigmentation can be achieved by adding dyes, metallic oxides, ash or cinnabar.[1]

‘Harvesting lacquer in Mikawa province’, from the woodblock printed book Products and Industries of Japan (Dai Nippon Bussan Zue), 1877, by Utagawa Hiroshige III, EA1964.224. © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

Japan already had a highly developed lacquerware tradition by the time of initial contact with Europeans, 1543‒1639. With the arrival of the musket, and foreign traders who prized Japanese lacquered objects for trade, the powder flask rapidly became a well-established item of lacquer production. As there was no surface treatment equivalent to lacquer in Europe, lacquered objects were prized for their quality, rarity and exotic character and therefore fetched very high prices in European markets. Objects that were produced for sale to Europeans, initially the Portuguese, were known as Nanban wares. Nanban, which translates as ‘Southern barbarian’, was the term used to refer to these early European visitors.  Originally coming from Chinese, the term was used in China and Japan to refer to South Asian peoples, or any foreigner who was not Chinese, Japanese or Korean. However, by the sixteenth century in Japan it came to be used in reference to Europeans, specifically the Portuguese. The subsequent interactions between these two groups gave rise to the production of a distinctive type of art: Nanban art. Typically, Nanban-style objects comprised thick black lacquer, as seen on the side panels of the flask.

The figures on both the front and back of the flask wear the distinctive bombacha trousers worn by the Portuguese in the East, which were notable to the Japanese eye. Both the clothes and poses of the figures seem to be exaggerated for humorous effect. This light-hearted depiction of foreigners suggests that this item may have been made for the domestic market, a theory supported by the fact that the likely date of production of the flask is after the expulsion of the Portuguese from Japan in 1639. Beyond the obvious association between the Europeans and the firearms they introduced, there is no clear connection between the figures on the object and the purpose of the flask.

Historical epilogue

The Portuguese were not able to monopolize contact with Japan for long, as other European powers – the Spanish, Dutch and English – were keen to muscle in on the lucrative opportunities in the Indian Ocean and the Far East. With the end of civil war, and the restoration of a strong central government in Japan in the early 1600s, the Japanese authorities clamped down on the presence of foreigners in the country. This policy came to be called sakoku (‘closed country’ or ‘national isolation’), following an edict of 1635. It has traditionally been thought to have been due to a desire to minimize foreign influences, whether political religious or economic, but recent scholarship has also highlighted that this was part of the centralizing agenda of the Bakufu: being part of a range of policies aimed at limiting the power of the local lords (daimyō). In any case, of the four European powers involved in Japan, the English left first, in 1623, voluntarily because they were not profiting from their trading post in Hirado. Subsequently the Spanish were expelled from Nagasaki in 1624, and likewise the Portuguese in 1638 because of continued illicit missionary work which the Japanese government had forbidden. Only the Dutch were left.

The Japanese had a different term for the Dutch: kōmō, meaning ‘red hair’, more to suggest a demonic nature than to describe the actual colour of all the Dutch visitors’ hair. Although the Dutch had shown no desire to interfere politically or religiously in Japan, and were only interested in trade, they were limited to occupying a tiny artificial island in Nagasaki harbour called Deshima (next to a slightly larger island reserved for the Chinese). For the next two centuries or so, it was the Dutch who monopolized the European trade of Japanese goods. This tiny outpost also allowed the Japanese to retain a tenuous connection with the West and to enable transmission of Western technology: see the term Rangaku (literally: ‘Dutch learning’).

‘Dish with Dutch East India Company monogram’, EA1994.103 © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

This porcelain plate of the late seventeenth century bears the emblem of the Dutch East India Company in the centre (VOC,  for Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie). It is an example of Japanese export porcelain, a valuable trade commodity which the Dutch were the only Europeans legally entitled to export to Europe. The plate is currently on display in the Ashmolean’s ‘West Meets East’ gallery (Gallery 35).

  • Ben Skarratt, UEP Museum Assistant, responsible for collections and object teaching support across the Ashmolean’s Eastern Art, Western Art and Antiquities departments.


[1] Process description taken from Japanese Export Lacquer 1580-1850, Impey and Jörg, Hotei Publishing, Amsterdam, 2005, p. 75



Japanese Export Lacquer 1580-1850, Impey and Jörg, Hotei Publishing, Amsterdam, 2005

Giving Up The Gun: Japan’s Reversion to the Sword, 1543-1879, Noel Perrin, Godine, New Hampshire, 1979

The Namban Art of Japan, Yoshitomo Okamoto, translated by Ronald K Jones, Weatherhill/Heibonsha, New York & Tokyo, 1972

Lacquer: technology and conservation: a comprehensive guide to the technology and conservation of Asian and European lacquer, Marianne Webb, Butterworth-Heinemann, Oxford, 2000

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Persian and Indian Playing Cards

Card games are amongst the most popular games in the world. Tracing the history of playing cards however is difficult, due to their perishable nature and ephemeral quality. It is believed that playing cards originated in China, later spreading westward into Iran, India and Egypt. The early history of cards in Europe is related to contacts between Egypt and North Africa with Italy and Spain during the 13th-14th centuries.

Two of the most popular games in Iran were the ganjifa (or ganjafa/ganjafeh) and as (or as nas). The name ganjifa (‘playing cards’) comes from the Persian word ganj which literally means ‘treasure’. The Persian ganjifa was played with 96 cards consisting of eight suits. Unfortunately early Persian cards have not survived, but the game became popular in India from where we still have many extant examples.

Ganjifa was brought from Iran into India and popularised during the early Mughal period (early 16th century), although an earlier transmission via Turkmen princes in the Deccan during the 15th century is also possible. Indian cards are typically circular (although some rectangular decks have been produced), and they are usually kept in painted wooden boxes with a sliding lid. The standard Indian version of the ganjifa was the eight-suited Mughal ganjifa (Figure 1). Its suits are similar to the Persian ones, consisting of the crown (taj), silver coin (safed), sword (shamsher), servant (ghulam), harp (chang), gold coin (surkh), document (barat), and merchandise (qimash). Each suit contains ten numeral cards (1 to 10) and two court cards: the king (mir) who is usually depicted enthroned (Figure 2), and the minister (wazir) who is usually depicted on horseback.

Figure 1: The Mughal ganjifa, with cards from the taj suit in the foreground. Rajasthan, India, 19th century. Cards: Paper, painted and lacquered, diam. 3.8 cm; box: wood, painted, 5.5 x 12.8 x 5.2 cm. Presented by the Church Missionary Society, 1966. Ashmolean Museum (EA1966.69) © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

Figure 2: The king (mir) of the harp (chang) suit in the Mughal ganjifa. Rajasthan, India, 19th century. Paper, painted and lacquered, diam. 3.8 cm. Presented by the Church Missionary Society, 1966. Ashmolean Museum (EA1966.69) © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

The dasavatara version of the ganjifa is a Hindu variation introduced later, that has ten suits and 120 cards instead (Figure 3). Each suit represents one of the ten incarnations (avatars) of Vishnu, commonly Matsya (the Fish), Kurma (the Turtle), Varaha (the Boar), Narasimha (the Man-lion), Vamana (the Dwarf), Parashurama, Rama (hero of the Ramayana), Krishna, the Buddha, and Kalkin (the Horse, the future avatar). The structure and rules of the game are roughly the same as with the Mughal ganjifa. There are ten numeral cards and two court cards in each suit, with the king (raja) depicted enthroned while the minister (pradhan or mantri) is shown either on horseback or seated on a smaller throne.

Figure 3: Dasavatara ganjifa, Sawantwadi, India. c. 1900. Cards: paper, painted and lacquered, diam. 10 cm; box: wood, painted, 12.2 x 13.6 x 12 cm. Ashmolean Museum (EAX.2078) © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

The Mughal Gallery of the Ashmolean Museum currently hosts a beautiful deck of dasavatara ganjifa from 19th-century Sawantwadi in Maharashtra, western India (Figure 3). The cards, measuring 10cm in diameter, are made of painted and lacquered paper. They are housed in a brightly painted wooden box. In Sawantwadi ganjifa sets, instead of being depicted enthroned, the king (raja) cards often show the avatars of Vishnu engaging in action. For instance, in the Ashmolean deck the king card of the Matsya suit depicts Vishnu emerging from the mouth of a fish, while grabbing the hair of a demon who was hiding in a conch shell (Figure 4).

Figure 4: The king (raja) card of the Matsya suit in the dasavatara ganjifa. Sawantwadi, India, c. 1900. Paper, painted and lacquered, diam. 10 cm. Ashmolean Museum (EAX.2078) © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

The other card game is the poker-like as or as nas, popular in Iran between the end of the 17th and the beginning of the 20th century. It was played with five suits of five identical cards, each bearing creative motifs depicted under a lacquer finish: ace or lion (as), king (shah), queen (bibi), soldier (sarbaz) and courtesan (lakkat). The ace (as) cards often feature felines fighting a dragon, and sometimes the sun with a human face is added on the top of the card. An Ashmolean example from 19th-century Iran depicts the sun in the form of a mustachioed man, whose image recalls official portraits of the Qajar ruler Naser al-Din Shah (1831-96) (Figure 5).

Figure 5: The ace/lion (as) card in the as. Iran, 19th century. Paper, painted and lacquered, 6 x4 cm. Presented by Miss E. M. Buller, 1958. Ashmolean Museum (EA1958.282) © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

Both ganjifa and as cards were hand-painted and covered with a heavy lacquer finish in order to protect them from damage due to constant handling.

Further reading:

• Diba, Layla, ‘Persian Playing Cards: A Courtly Art’, in eds, Colin Mackenzie and Irving Finkel, Asian Games: The Art of Contest (New York: Asia Society, 2004), pp. 232-9.

• Hopewell, Jeff, ‘Ganjifa: The Traditional Playing Cards of India’, in eds, Colin Mackenzie and Irving Finkel, Asian Games: The Art of Contest (New York: Asia Society, 2004), pp. 240-51.

• Hopewell, Jeff, ‘Ganjifa: India’s Contribution to the World of Playing Cards’, in ed., Andrew Topsfield, The Art of Play: Board and Card Games of India (Mumbai: Marg Publications, 2006), pp. 91-105.

• Leyden, Rudolf von, ‘Oriental Playing Cards’, Journal of the Playing Card Society 4, Supplement 4/1D (1976): pp. 1-37.

• Leyden, Rudolf von, Ganjifa: The Playing Cards of India, with contributions by Michael Dummett (London: Victoria and Albert Museum, 1982).

• Roschanzamir, Mahdi, ‘Card Games’, Encyclopædia Iranica, 1990, IV/7, pp. 802-3; available online at

• Roschanzamir, Mehdi, ‘Ās’, Encyclopædia Iranica, 2002 (last updated 2011); available online at


– Federica Duva and Farouk Yahya


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Diary of a Tea Ceremony Demonstration

Every month, except over Christmas and during the summer holidays, we hold a Japanese tea ceremony demonstration in the traditional Japanese tea house in the Museum’s Japanese galleries. The tea house was designed and built especially for the Ashmolean by a team of highly skilled Japanese craftsmen, led by the master carpenter Mr Eichirō Amakasu and the architect Mr Isao Komoda. We have always been very keen to make it an active tea house, rather than just another exhibit, and we are fortunate enough to have the support of a wonderful team of Japanese tea enthusiasts who are prepared to give their time and expertise so that we can run regular demonstrations.

To give you an idea of what happens in one of our demonstrations, here is a diary of a typical ‘Tea Demo Day’.

15 June 2017

Night before. Remember to get matcha powdered green tea out of the freezer. We stock up with really good matcha in London or – even better – in Japan, and it keeps surprisingly well in the freezer. Otherwise the startling green tea with its distinctive aroma oxidises to a slightly dingy khaki colour. I just have to remember to take it out well in advance so that it isn’t too cold and damp on the day.

8.30 am. I pop into the garden to see what flowers I can find to arrange in the display alcove of the tea house. One of the key ideas behind the Japanese tea ceremony is wabi, the notion of finding beauty in the humble, the simple and the imperfect. Everything used in a tea gathering is carefully selected to express this mood, even the flowers. So it’s important not to choose anything too flashy or scented. At this time of year Japanese anemones work well; perhaps cherry blossom in the spring, or delicate acer leaves in the autumn. I know that one of our volunteers, Masayo-san, will bring something in too – she has a garden full of lovely Japanese plants. I find some pretty white astrantia that should look good against the ochre-coloured walls of the tea house – fingers crossed it will survive the bike ride into the Ashmolean.

9.00 am. Before the museum opens to the public I give the tea house a quick clean. It’s remarkable how dusty it gets! I keep a set of special dusters and brushes and cloths that are used only for this purpose and a gentle dusting of the surfaces and wipe-down of the tatami floor with a damp cloth is all that’s needed. I like to feel there is something a little Zen-like about this task. It’s really very peaceful inside the tea house, with a faint smell of wood and tatami straw matting.

9.30 am. I get hold of the list of attendees from colleagues in the Education Department, which oversees the event. We limit numbers to make sure that all our guests can get a really good view of the tea house, and the demonstrations are almost always fully booked.

10.00 am. I set to work on creating handouts for the event, as we like to give visitors a brief record of our tea gathering to take away with them. Traditionally, tea hosts and guests in Japan would keep records of the tea gatherings they attended, carefully noting details of the event, such as the utensils selected, flowers arranged and guests invited. Through the careful selection of these different elements, a tea host can demonstrate his or her taste and create a particular mood, depending on the season, the time of day and the atmosphere they want to create. There is a lovely Zen phrase used in tea circles, ichigo ichie (一期一会), literally ‘one time, one meeting’, that expresses how each tea gathering is a unique occasion, a one-off, transient moment to be treasured. Our handouts are inspired by these tea diaries and list all the utensils we have selected for each demonstration. Like the historical tea masters, we make sure to update the list for each demonstration.

10.30 am. Our demonstrators start to arrive to get ready for the day. Every month I am impressed by their knowledge, dedication, kindness and adaptability. There are many challenges to making tea in a museum setting and the team members are unfailingly positive in the face of all of them. They are often joined by other fantastic helpers from the University Museum Volunteer Service, who provide invaluable assistance with setting up and serving tea, and generally making sure the day goes smoothly.

Masayo-san arrives first, with an armful of beautiful seasonal flowers from her garden. She disappears upstairs to arrange them in the hanging vase in the tea house. Tea flowers are very informally arranged, to look as if they have been simply ‘thrown into’ the vase.

11.00 am. Meanwhile, Satomi-san starts to rinse the metal kettle used to heat the water for the tea and boils mineral water (instead of hard Oxford tap water!) to fill thermos flasks ready to use later.

Midday. Miyuki-san arrives. Another key member of our team, she is our kimono expert. Putting on a kimono is a complex process and many Japanese women are not able to dress themselves completely alone. The tying of the obi sash is particularly tricky. For the next hour, my office becomes a changing room.

Mitsuko-san starts carrying tea bowls and other equipment up to the Japanese galleries, where front-of-house colleagues have set up a table and stools for us. A proper tea room would have its own preparation area, like a small kitchen, but we make a temporary preparation area in the gallery next to the tea house.

Meanwhile, someone sieves the tea to get rid of any lumps, then piles it carefully into the lacquer tea container. The tea is supposed to be piled up like an elegant mountain inside the container, and there is even a special word for how it looks – keshiki, or ‘landscape’. Someone else selects the sweets to be used; as the tea is quite bitter, a sweet is always eaten before the tea is drunk. The sweets are often designed to reflect the season, so might be moulded in the shape of autumn maple leaves, winter snowflakes or spring blossoms. Today’s sweets are in the shape of green leaves and rippling water.

1.00 pm. The guests assemble at the tea house and we head off to one of the Eastern Art Department study rooms so that I can give a brief introductory talk: about the history of tea drinking in Japan, the notion of wabi that informs the tea ceremony, and what happens in a real tea gathering. We also handle some tea wares from the Ashmolean’s collection.

We head back to the gallery, where stools have been set up in front of the tea house. We ask one visitor to volunteer to be a guest inside the tea house (somebody who is happy to kneel for a while). Other visitors sit on the stools to watch the demonstration, but everyone receives a bowl of tea – if not made inside the teahouse then in the nearby preparation area.

At its core, the tea gathering is an act of hospitality, a way of leaving the stresses and chaos of everyday life behind for a while to enjoy a delicious bowl of tea in good company in the tranquil surroundings of the tea house. A full tea gathering can last several hours and includes a meal and two different types of tea. We can’t attempt to recreate a ‘proper’ tea ceremony at the Ashmolean, but we can certainly offer hospitality to our visitors through carefully prepared bowls of tea.

There is no chatting during a tea ceremony, with just a few set phrases exchanged between guest and host. The focus is entirely on the preparation and drinking of the tea within the tea house, so chitchat isn’t encouraged. Yet there is by no means complete silence; instead there is a kind of gentle background music made by the water bubbling in the kettle and being poured from the ladle, the tapping of the tea scoop on the side of the bowl, and the whisking of the tea. I always keep my fingers crossed that that there is not too much noise in the surrounding galleries to drown out these subtle sounds.

© Mr and Mrs H Shikanai

The name Ningendō was given to the teahouse by the gallery’s sponsors, Mr and Mrs Hiroaki Shikanai, who kindly introduced us to the craftsmen who made the teahouse. The character nin 仁 means humanity or benevolence; gen 玄 means mystery and 堂 means house or hall. The phrase, which is taken from the writings of the ninth century Buddhist Monk Kūkai, is hard to translate, but can be interpreted to describe the way that within the teahouse human existence, in all its insignificance, is united with the vastness of the universe. Mr Shikanai did the calligraphy for the plaque, choosing the archaic form of calligraphy known as tensho, or Chinese seal script. This was then intricately carved onto a beautiful wooden panel chosen for its distinctive woodgrain with the appearance of rippling water.

After the demonstration, we try to answer any questions our visitors may have. Every group responds slightly differently to the demonstrations and I am struck by how each tea gathering really is a unique experience. We invite anyone who is interested to step inside the tea house. Ningendō, at just under 2m2 with one and three quarter tatami floor mats, is the smallest standard-size tea house. Although it looks tiny from the outside, it feels surprisingly spacious when you’re sitting inside. It’s made entirely from traditional Japanese materials – cedar, cryptomeria, pine, and bamboo – with roughly plastered walls and paper lattice windows that allow light to filter softly into the room. The timber framework was first constructed at master carpenter Amakasu-san’s workshop near Tokyo, then taken apart and shipped to England, where it was painstakingly reconstructed inside the Japanese gallery by a team of specialist craftsmen. Amakasu-san and his assistant carpenter were joined by a master plasterer who used plaster made from special river and mountain sand to achieve an undulating surface of bright ochre colour. And a master paperer pasted hand-made Japanese paper onto the walls – white for the host and deep blue for the guests.

Each area within the tea house has a particular function. There is an area for the display of a scroll and flowers, an arched doorway at the back for the host, and a small door at the side for guests. This guest door (nijiriguchi) is traditionally built very low, so that all guests, whatever their social standing, are forced to bow down to enter the room. There is also a hearth for the kettle that heats the water for the tea. This would normally be laid with a charcoal fire, but for obvious reasons we use an electric heater instead. A real tea house would be located within a tea garden that allows guests physically to separate themselves from the outside world as they enter the world of tea. Of course we can’t provide a garden, but the teahouse is separated from the gallery by a tiny strip of beaten earth, and entered by stepping up onto a large stone sourced from North Wales. And it really does feel like a different world inside.

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Collecting the Past: Scholars’ Taste in Chinese Art

Exhibition dates: 21 Mar to 22 Oct 2017

Gallery 11 | Admission Free

Collecting the Past, Scholars’ taste in Chinese Art, on view at the Ashmolean Museum of Art & Archaeology, Gallery 11, March 21st through October 22nd, 2017, explores literati aesthetic taste and the tradition of collecting the past in Chinese art.

Fu Baoshi (1904–1965), The scholar artist in his studio after Wu Meicun, ink and slight colour on paper, 29.5 x 34.4, Sullivan Bequest © Fu Baoshi estate, EA2015.140.

The literati aesthetic, integrating poetry, calligraphy and painting into a single work of art, has governed Chinese art for over a thousand years. No later than the 10th century, Chinese painting developed two different traditions: the longstanding tradition of the professional, and the literati tradition. The professional painters, who had been summoned to serve the court in the past, often selected subject matter and adopted styles and techniques to satisfy their royal patrons, while the literati painters, who were amateurs, painted as a means of self-expression, in much the same way as they wrote poetry. The literati tradition of Chinese painting reached its maturity in the Song period (960-1279), and major breakthroughs followed in the Yuan dynasty (1271-1368). In the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), literati painting became increasingly popular and was promoted by the influential scholar artists Shen Zhou (1427-1509), Wen Zhengming  (1470-1559) and Dong Qichang (1555-1636), who refined the expressionistic brush-oriented manner of the Yuan dynasty masters.  Literati painting, a major genre of Chinese painting, enjoyed its last golden age from the late seventeenth century to the early twentieth century.

Collecting the Past: Scholars’ Taste in Chinese Art, exhibition view

This exhibition features a variety of paintings created by scholar-artists who were also calligraphers, poets and seal-carvers. The paintings all (dated to the 19th–20th centuries) from the Ashmolean Collection, represent lyrical themes: wandering in nature, strolling in mountains, visiting friends and writing poems. Some prominent scholar-artists were also art connoisseurs and collectors who looked for inspiration from the ancient. Also included in this display are objects of refinement and antiquarian taste used in scholar’s studios where the literati enjoyed art, literature and music.

Scholar – painters in the 20th century

The display begins with the painting The scholar artist in his studio by the renowned scholar painter and art historian Fu Baoshi  (1904 – 1965). Fu was not born into a scholarly or artistic family , but he painted in literati style. He was trained in the College of Education in Nanchang. Later on he went to Tokyo to study Western and Japanese art between 1933 and 1935 where he developed his own style based on a fusion of Western realism and traditional brushwork. This figure painting can be interpreted as a self-portrait of Fu Baoshi. Fu Baoshi inscribed the painting with a poem by the Ming Dynasty author Wu Meicun (1609-1671), writing about his friend, Shao Mi (c.1592- after 1642), the ‘eccentric painter’. Fu adds at the end of the inscription the comment ‘Meicun has portrayed me.’ As is typical for Chinese literati painters, Fu Baoshi’s works express his personal taste for subjects drawn from Chinese poets of the past. In his landscape painting, depicting a group of scholars ascending a mountain ridge to view the waterfall, also on display, he freely applied light washes for an impressionistic treatment.

Fu Baoshi, Waterfall landscape, 1961, ink and colour on paper, 135.89 x 19.05 cm © the Artist’s Estate, EA1963.71

Literati painters would generally not paint for commercial purposes but as a personal form of enjoyment. Scholar artists often exchanged paintings and poems among themselves as gifts, as acknowledgement of appreciation–symbols of their friendships. They would also share the result of their efforts with a group of friends and connoisseurs. One of the recurrent themes in Chinese art and literature is the moment of farewell between friends. Saying Farewell by the Shanghai School master Ren Yi (1840 – 1895) is an example of this subject executed in his later, freer style influenced by the works of Xu Wei  (1521-1593) and Zhu Da  (1626-1705). Especially striking is the liveliness of the horse.

Collecting the Past: Scholars’ Taste in Chinese Art, exhibition view

Lyrical landscapes by scholar artists

Between 1932 and 1934, scholar-artist Huang Binhong (1865-1955), widely regarded as one of the greatest Chinese landscape painters of the 20th century, travelled to Sichuan where he painted Waiting for the Ferry in the Shade of Pine Trees. This landscape is mainly depicted in layers of dots produced with the brush tip and calligraphic brushstrokes. Distant mountains, half wrapped in the mist, appear tranquil. Like many of his contemporaries born in the late 19th century Huang received a traditional education in art and literature. The learning engendered creative expression in the form of painting, calligraphy and seal carving and scholarly expression in the form of art historical research and collecting.

Huang Binhong, Waiting for the Ferry in Shade of Pine Trees, ink and colour on paper, 35 x 26.3 cm, Sullivan Bequest © The Artist’s Estate, EA2015.140.

His earlier work also on display includes six album leaves representing the rich, dense landscape of the lower Yangzi delta region in China. In these paintings, Huang Binhong used traditional brushwork in defining the forms, as well as quite fluid washes. To model the mountains, Huang Binhong used long hemp-fibre texture strokes and thick texture dots. Huang came from a well-educated scholar-gentry family, who had assembled an important collection of books and paintings. The family collection included paintings by prominent artists, such as Dong Yuan (900-962), Wang Meng (1308-1385) and Shitao (1642-1707). The exposure to these artists’ works has influenced Huang’s manner to paint. In his old age, from the age of 75 to his death, his landscapes became even darker, denser and fuller.

Collecting the Past: Scholars’ Taste in Chinese Art, exhibition view of Huang Binhong’s album leafs, Sullivan Bequest © the Artist’s Estate, EA2015.134-EA2015.139.

Delightful examples such as Chen Hengke’s (1876 – 1923) Buildings amidst streams and mountains or Zhao Xi’s (1867-1948) Landscape are included in the display. The style of these two paintings is however extremely different as Chen, who studied in Japan, uses assertive brushstrokes influenced by the Ming and Qing masters such as Shen Zhou (1427-1509) and Shitao (1642-1707), while the high-ranking official Zhao Xi focuses on creating an elegant composition bringing the “three perfections” — poetry, calligraphy, and paintings — subtly together. Zhao Xi’s painting expresses a longing for an ideal place of retreat for a scholar-recluse. The auspicious Daoist imagery of the crane and the archaic simplicity of the figures evoke a dreamlike vision of paradise.

Chen Hengke, Buildings Amidst Streams and Mountains, ink and slight colour on paper, 120 x 60.5 cm, Reyes Gift © the Artist’s Estate, EA1995.169

Other landscape paintings on view include seven album leaves by the scholar-official Weng Tonghe (1830-1904), a distinguished statesman, and a discerning collector of painting and calligraphy. He had a successful political career, and became the tutor of Qing dynasty emperors Tongzhi (r. 1861-1875) and Guangxu (r. 1875-1908). Weng was also known as one of the leading reformers of late 19th century China, who brought together the radical reformer Kang Youwei (1858-1927) with emperor Guangxu. In 1898 he was forced to retire from court life and seek refuge in Yushan (Mount Yu), a village northwest of Changshu, Jiangsu province.

Weng Tonghe, after Hui Wang, Snow on the Desk Terrace, 1902, ink and colour on paper, 27.4 x 34.3 cm  © Ashmolean Museum, EA1966.2.a

The beautiful scenery and peaceful surroundings inspired this album depicting Mount Yu in different seasons. The lyrical landscape expresses the painter’s contentment in the life of a recluse. These seven leaves are rare examples of Weng’s landscape painting as he was best known for his calligraphy. Weng Tonghe carefully modulated his brushstroke and used the calligraphic effects of dry and wet ink to render landscapes in the styles of earlier masters such as Wang Hui  (1632 -1717).  The Weng family collection was passed down through six generations, beginning with his father Weng Xincun (1791-1862), finally coming to his great-great-grandson, Wan-go H.C. Weng (b.1918), who brought it to the United States in 1948.

Weng Tonghe, after Hui Wang, Peach Blossom Stream in Spring, 1902, ink and colour on paper © Ashmolean Museum, EA1966.2.g

Yan Liu, Christensen Fellow in Chinese Painting.

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