The Tale of Prince Vessantara

Exhibition dates: 27 March to 9 September 2018

Gallery 29 | Admission Free

The current display in the Eastern Art Paintings Gallery (Gallery 29) highlights the Vessantara Jataka, the most popular story in the Buddhist world. It explores how the story was represented in Burmese and Sri Lankan art during the 19th century, using examples drawn from the Ashmolean’s own collection.

The Tale of Prince Vessantara, exhibition view © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

The Vessantara Jataka is the last and most popular of the jataka tales, or stories of the past lives of the Buddha. Numbering around 550, the jatakas (‘birth stories’) are among the most ancient and largest collection of tales in the world. In these stories the Buddha was born in many different forms, not only as other human beings but also often as animals. The tales typically contain a moral and they play an important role in conveying Buddhist teachings and values.

Vessantara gives away his magic rain-bringing elephant to brahmins, from the Vessantara Jataka. Sri Lanka (Ceylon), 19th century. Paint (probably gum-bound) and gesso on wood, 43.5 x 61.4 x 3 cm. EAX.174 © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

In the Vessantara Jataka the Buddha was born as Prince Vessantara, a very generous man who gave away everything to help others. His actions exemplify the virtue of generosity (dana), which in Buddhism is one of the ‘perfections’ (paramita / parami) required to achieve enlightenment.

The story is as follows: After giving away his magic rain-bringing white elephant, Vessantara was exiled from his kingdom. He leaves with his wife, Maddi, and their two young children, Jali and Kanhajina. A greedy brahmin named Jujaka needed slaves for his wife and asked Vessantara for his children. Vessantara gave them away to Jujaka, and later also gave away his wife to the king of the gods, Sakka. However in the end the whole family was reunited, while Jujaka died from overeating due to his greediness.

Vessantara gives away his children to Jujaka, from the Vessantara Jataka. Japan and Myanmar (Burma), c. 1880s. Watercolour, gouache and gold on paper and bamboo, 32.4 x 44.5 cm. Presented by Mrs K. L. Ferrar, 1970, EA1970.141.ii © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

Versions of the Vessantara tale can be found among most of the major languages of the Buddhist world, including Pali, Sanskrit, Sinhalese, Burmese, Thai, Chinese, Sogdian and Tibetan. It is also often depicted in art. The earliest known depiction of the tale is on the stupa of Bharhut (second century BC), and further examples can be found in the major Buddhist sites of Sanchi, Ajanta, Dunhuang, Pagan and Angkor. Today the story still continues to play an important role in the rituals, literature, art and performance of Myanmar (Burma), Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Sri Lanka (Ceylon).

Vessantara gives away his chariot and horses to brahmins, from the Vessantara Jataka. Wall painting in Wat Chaiyamangalaram, a Thai temple in Penang, Malaysia. Photo: Farouk Yahya

Events in the Vessantara story played a very important role in the Buddha’s final life as Siddhartha Gautama. As he was meditating under the bodhi tree, the demon Mara tried to distract him from achieving enlightenment. Siddhartha touched the earth to witness his generosity during his life as Prince Vessantara. The earth testified to this and Mara was thus defeated, enabling Siddhartha to reach enlightenment and become the Buddha. Images of the Buddha in this earth-touching gesture, as well as the forces of Mara, can be seen in Gallery 32 (India 600-1900).

The Buddha in the earth-touching gesture. Arakan, Myanmar (Burma), 13th – 14th century. Sandstone, 58 x 39 x 11 cm max. Purchased with the assistance of funds bequeathed by Fleurette Pelly, in memory of Colonel Hutcheson Raymond Pelly (last British Commissioner of Tenasserim Division, Burma, 1942), 2008, EA2008.70 © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

For general information on The Tale of Prince Vessantara and related events, click here


Further reading:

Naomi Appleton, Sarah Shaw and Toshiya Unebe, Illuminating the Life of the Buddha: An Illustrated Chanting Book from Eighteenth-century Siam, Oxford: Bodleian Library, 2013.

Richard F. Gombrich and Margaret Cone, The Perfect Generosity of Prince Vessantara: A Buddhist Epic, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977. Reprinted by the Pali Text Society, 2011.


Farouk Yahya


Posted in Collection research, Curator Blog Post, Exhibitions, Temporary display | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Qu Leilei: A Chinese Artist in Britain at the Ashmolean

Exhibition dates:  7 November 2017 – 15 April 2018

Gallery 11 | Admission Free

Qu Leilei: A Chinese Artist in Britain is a retrospective of the contemporary artist Qu Leilei on display at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford until the 15th of April 2018. The exhibition curated by the former Christensen Fellow in Chinese Painting Dr Yan Liu includes works from the early 1980s up to recent works from 2016 demonstrating different artistic techniques such as calligraphic collage or an exploration of new ink language blending lively brushwork with western technique.

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Stunning greater than life-size ink paintings of female nudes and hands are one of the highlights of the show demonstrating Qu Leilei’s mastering of traditional Western subjects and Chinese media. Several nude studies and sketchbooks from the last 30 years reveal his in-depth research of human anatomy. Other elements are more closely linked to Chinese history and culture such as philosophical inscriptions quoted on his collage works, or his ink paintings from the series A Thousand Years of Empire, started in 2011. Ink and watercolour drawings depicting motifs from his travels in Britain and abroad complete the exhibition and allow viewers to appreciate different facets of Leilei’s artistic production.

Qu Leilei in his Devonshire studio, August 2017  © Riad Nassar

Qu Leilei was born in 1951 in Northeast of China into an intellectual family; his father Qu Bo (1923–2002) was a famous writer. From an early age he was trained in Chinese calligraphy and traditional painting by friends of the family. During the Cultural Revolution Leilei painted propaganda material and worked as a barefoot doctor in the countryside. In the 1970s he moved to Beijing where he became a founding member of the Avant-Garde Group Stars and participated in their first show in 1989.

In the mid-1980s Leilei took the difficult decision to leave his home country to seek a life with more freedom in the UK. In London he studied at the Central College of Art under Cecil Collins (1908 – 1989), a painter of visionary subjects and in the early 1990s, met his wife Caroline Dean, a British painter. His art works from the late 1980s and 1990s are imbued with self-questioning about the future and with negotiating Chinese and British cultural influences.

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In 2005, the Ashmolean displayed a series from his work cycle Everyone’s Life is an Epic showing portraits of people from different backgrounds ranging from close friends to complete strangers. The Ashmolean collection holds several portraits by the artist including those of the art historian Michael Sullivan (1916-2013) and of his wife Khoan (1919-2003). The artist and the pioneering Chinese art researcher were longstanding friends as illustrated in the painting Friendship from 2012, depicting Michael Sullivan holding Leilei’s wife’s hands. It is a great honour that Qu Leilei has decided to present the work along with others paintings included in the current exhibition to the Ashmolean.

Friendship, Ink on paper, 90 x 186 cm, 2012, collection of the artist © the artist

In March 2018 Qu Leilei demonstrated his collage and paintings techniques at the Museum. His collages on display, such as The Creator of Civilization from 1994, distinguish themselves through the insertion of self-written poems or philosophical texts and the seamless transition between the different layers of papers. The flatness he achieves by using traditional Chinese mounting techniques clearly differentiates his collages from early 20th century European explorations with the medium by artists such as George Braque or Pablo Picasso. In order to better understand the technique and material Qu Leilei uses, he gave a full step by step demonstration of his collage mounting process.

The Creator of Civilization, ink and colour on paper, 117 x 99 cm, 1994, collection of the artist © the artist

Qu Leilei’s first step in the process is the selection of the paper and the creation of smaller pieces to reassemble. Leilei usually uses xuan or maobian paper which he colours or inscribes before tearing it into pieces. He then lays out the pieces of paper and adjusts them until he has achieved a visually satisfying new composition which he makes sure to document with a photo. Next, he damps each of the pieces of paper lightly with water before arranging them upside down in mirrored order on a waterproof surface.

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Using a soft-bristled hand brush Leilei then applies the gluten free flour paste on the back of the paper which he has prepared beforehand. With expert hand movements Leilei ensures that the flour paste is evenly spread before he aligns the backing paper on top of the smaller pieces. He usually uses two layers of the quite strong mulberry bark paper to ensure it does not break when still wet. With a stiff-bristled hand brush he presses the pieces of the collage work against the backing paper trying as much as possible to avoid air bubbles and creases. Then he applies another layer of flour paste around the edges of the paper without covering the back of the image allowing to stretch the painting well.

The finished collage left on a board to dry. © the artist

He then gently lifts the work away from the surface using the help of a knife and places it on a vertically propped board. One last time Leilei brushes the edges to ensure the paste is fixed, making sure to blow a bit of air before closing the final corner ensuring that the actual collage will not stick to the board. The collage is then left on the board to stretch and dry for several days before it will be cut away.

Qu Leilei’s sketchbook with a nude study, 2009.

Qu Leilei’s techniques are based on mastering traditional techniques and on constant practice as he proved through demonstrating different types of calligraphic scripts and a colourful flower painting at the Ashmolean.  His ink nude paintings however require a different additional skillset as he uses subtle shadow and light effects to slowly sculpt real-life looking bodies. The thin paper does not allow for any mistakes and he has to carefully layer each colour patiently waiting for it to dry to be able to continue.

Reclining Nude, ink on paper, 92 x 170cm, 2016, collection of the artist © the artist

As he states: “When rendering with shadows one after the other, it requires more confident and skilful brush handling, as rice paper is very fragile and prone to tearing after multiple ink washes. To produce a good painting, we need to balance the relationship between simplicity and complexity, light and shadow, void and substance, softness and hardness.”[1] Achieving the right balance is key to Qu Leilei’s craftsmanship together with his curiosity pushing him to keep on exploring new subjects.

The Soldier, ink on paper, 170 x 90 cm, 2013, collection of the artist © the artist

Felicitas von Droste zu Hülshoff, Chinese Paintings Programme


Further reading:

Liu, Yan. Qu Leilei: A Chinese Artist in Britain. Oxford, 2017.

Qu, Leilei. The Simple Art of Chinese Brush Painting. London, 2004.

[1] Entry from Qu Leilei’s 2011 sketchbook translated by Yan Liu in the exhibition catalogue p. 25.

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Chinese New Year Prints – Good Fortune all year long!

Last month the Ashmolean Museum celebrated Chinese New Year with a range of colourful activities. The Eastern Art Department showed a selection from the reserve collection of Chinese New Prints at the Jameel Centre. This included prints from the late Qing dynasty to the mid-20th century.

Visitors viewing Chinese New Year Prints at the Jameel Centre during the China Festival.  © Ian Wallman

Chinese New Year prints, or as they are called in Chinese “nianhua” are an important part of traditional Chinese New Year rituals. They are called New Year prints as the sales for these colourful inexpensive mass-produced single-sheet woodblock images peaked around New Years’ time, even if they were actually in use all year-round. In order to prepare for the arrival of the New Year, the most important celebration in China, it was crucial to clear the house of misfortune and to invoke the blessings of the gods. To that end images often depicting terrifying guardians, gods (they are also referred to as “Paper Gods”) or auspicious motifs such as images depicting children were placed outside and inside the house. These images would be kept in place and worshipped during the whole year in order to protect the home from evil spirits and to bring good fortune to the family.

Yueying Zhong (born 1960), Figure riding a lion dog, 2012, Bequeathed by Michael Sullivan, 2013. LI2022.266.c © The artist’s estate

The quality of New Year prints varies, some were intended only for ritual use and not for display at all. On New Year’s Day Paper Gods would be presented with offerings and each member of the family would pray to them, and later on the Gods would be burned. It was believed that by burning them the Paper Gods would be sent off to Heaven, where they would watch over the family and intercede on their behalf throughout the year. These types of prints were often bought in sets of several dozen gods representing the Chinese pantheon of deities.

Yueying Zhong (born 1960), Man and boy riding a qilin, 2012, Bequeathed by Michael Sullivan, 2013. LI2022.266.d © The artist’s estate

The fact that they were objects used for worship and not considered as works of art explains why despite their mass production only few have survived, often in bad conditions. Foreign travellers would bring them back home as curiosities and this is how they often found their way into Museum collections. The exact dating of the prints is difficult as the same woodblocks would often have been used for printing over an extensive period of time.

Visitors viewing Chinese New Year Prints at the Jameel Centre during the China Festival. © Ian Wallman

Door Gods (Menshen)

The Door Gods are one of the most common subjects for New Year prints. Worshipping Door Gods dates back to the Tang Dynasty (618-907AD) when the two loyal and brave generals, Qin Qiong (also known as Qin Shubao) and Yuchi Gong (EA1970.85.a+b), were watching over Emperor Taizhong’s sleep, finally enabling him to rest without being disturbed by ghosts and demons. To honour and relieve them from their duty the emperor painted their portraits on his door. The two generals can usually be identified by their respective weapons and face colour, Yuchi Gong has a darker face holding a steel whip or batons while Qin Qiong has a pale face and carries swords.

Military Door God Qin Qiong, Presented by Mrs Dubs, in memory of Professor Homer Dubs, 1970. EA1970.85.a

In general images of Door Gods always come in pairs and are pasted facing each other. Placing them back to back is considered to bring bad luck. They are placed to face the visitor when entering the house. Back entrances would equally be watched over by fierce looking Guardian Gods such as the popular demon queller Zhong Kui.

Guan Gong with sword, 19th – 20th century, Bequeathed by Michael Sullivan, 2013.

Another widespread Door God is the general Guan Yu (also called Guandi or Guan Gong) who lived during the era of the Three Kingdoms (3rd century AD). He played an important role in the establishment of a new dynasty under the warlord Liu Bei. His life has been fictionalised in one of the most famous Chinese historical novels, the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, dating back to the 14th century. For his achievements as a general Guan Yu received the honorific title emperor – Di. Guan Yu is even today seen as an epitome of loyalty and righteousness. He is usually depicted wearing a green robe and often has a reddish face.

The deity Guan Gong, 19th – 20th century, Bequeathed by Michael Sullivan, 2013. LI2022.282.a

Other military door gods (generally recognisable from their orange coloured faces and heavy weapons) are depicted together with five children. The children represent the five talented sons of the scholar Dou Yujun, who lived during the Five Dynasties period (907–960 A.D.). In one the Ashmolean prints (LI2022.282.k) the child in the middle wears a civil official robe and rides a Qilin. This suggests the wish that a successful scholar should be bestowed upon the family by the mythical animal.

The Door God with five children, 19th – 20th century, Bequeathed by Michael Sullivan, 2013. LI2022.282.k

New Year prints would often depict a selection of gods from the vast pantheon of deities Chinese people believed in. This enabled families to obtain the favours of as many gods as possible at the same time. The supreme deity of Heaven, the Jade Emperor, generally occupies the most important position in the centre of the picture. He governs the enormous heavenly bureaucracy of gods often behaving in very human ways. The strict hierarchic organisation of the gods is influenced by Daoist and Confucian beliefs and includes influences from traditional folkloric religions.

Gods on an altar, 19th – 20th century, Bequeathed by Michael Sullivan, 2013. LI2022.282.i

The Star Gods (Sanxing)

Fu, Lu, and Shou are the gods of the three stars symbolising the three attributes of a good life: Prosperity (Fu), Status (Lu), and Longevity (Shou). The first depictions of the three Star Gods in human form are said to date back to the Ming dynasty. Each Star God can easily be recognised through an individual set of symbols. The God of Prosperity or good fortune holds a baby boy in his arms as male heirs were seen as a great blessing in Confucian culture. The God of Status stands tallest with his official cap, scholars robe and a ceremonial sceptre (ruyi) in his hands.

Three Star Gods: Fu, Lu, Shou (Prosperity, Status and Longevity) with children, 19th – 20th century, Bequeathed by Michael Sullivan, 2013. LI2022.282.h

The God of Longevity takes the form of an elderly immortal with an extended forehead and long white beard holding in one hand a staff and in the other hand a peach. The mythical peach is said to come from a fabulous tree which blossoms only once every three thousand years in Heaven. Eating the fruit is reserved for the gods as it brings immortality. The clothes of the God of Longevity are often decorated with the Chinese character Shou meaning longevity. Sometimes only one of the gods is represented in human form while the others would be symbolised by animals. The crane, because of its longlife expectancy, is a symbol of longevity. The bat (fu) is a homophone for good luck and the deer (lu) stands for status. The deer often carries in its mouth the mushroom of immortality (lingzhi) as it is renowned for finding the rare magical plant.

Yueying Zhong (b. 1960), The God of Longevity, 2012, Bequeathed by Michael Sullivan, 2013. LI2022.266.a © The artist’s estate

The Stove God

Stove God with five children, early 20th century, EA1975.15

Traditionally the preparations for the New Year would start with sending off the Stove God to Heaven on the 23rd day of the last month. It was believed that in Heaven he would report to the Jade Emperor on the behaviour of the family he observed in the kitchen from his place above the oven during the past year. Based on this report the supreme deity would then decide on how much prosperity he will give to the family in the coming year. In order to make sure the Stove God would deliver a positive report the family would bribe him with sweet treats before burning his image. Seven days after the old Stove God has been burned, a new image would be installed above the stove. Even if officially he is a lower rank god, the Stove God was one of the most popular gods which even poorer families would invest in buying.


Images of Children

Displaying pictures of chubby baby boys is believed to bring male offspring and abundance. The babies are often depicted holding the peach of immortality, surrounded by magpies and mandarin ducks, both symbols for joy and happiness. Often portrayed with pink cheeks and chubby torsos, this healthy-looking youth would symbolise a rosy future. The images of children in Chinese New Year prints were intended in particular for those who wished to accomplish the chief Confucian virtue of raising a large family.

Yueying Zhong (born 1960), Boy with a bird, 2012, Bequeathed by Michael Sullivan, 2013. LI2022.266.b © The artist’s estate

The immortals He and He

The image of the immortals He and He exemplifies the practice of depicting objects that are homophones of the desired result. This motif of the two immortals derives from the Daoist pantheon. One of the “He” is the immortal of harmony and the other “He” is the immortal of union. They are generally associated with a happy marriage. These prints symbolise double happiness or happy children and would be pasted on or near the bedroom door.

Children for conjugal blessing, 19th – 20th century, Bequeathed by Michael Sullivan, 2013. LI2022.282.c

Taohuawu Printing Workshops

The picture of a young round shaped boy is associated with the Taohuawu woodblock printing workshops in Suzhou. The roundness of the boy implies completion, perfection and harmony. The boy is wearing a lock, a common protective accessory worn by children to keep them away from harm. In this example from the Ashmolean print collection the boy is holding a banner stating that the embodiment of harmony brings good luck.

Chinese wooblock print , early 20th century, Presented by Mrs Dubs, in memory of Professor Homer Dubs in 1970, EA1970.84.b.

The production of New Year prints in China was particularly thriving in the late 19th and early 20th century and specialised workshops often with their own distinct style could be found all across China. Taohuawu is one of China’s most famous and oldest New Year Print production centres. It was already printing and distributing woodblock New Year Prints as early as the Ming dynasty. During its most productive period the annual production of Taohuawu New Year woodblock prints reached more than a million pieces which were distributed across the country. It enjoyed popularity equal to the Yangliuqing New Year Printing workshops in Tianjin. The two workshops were famous and often referred to in one breath: “Taohuawu in the South and Yangliuqing in the North of China”.

Within the printing workshops work was divided: the designer drew the motif; then the carver transferred that drawing to the woodblock; next the printer printed the black outlines and sometimes areas of colour as well. In some workshops stencils were used to colour the prints and additional details were painted on by hand.

New Nianhua

With the appearance of the more effective modern lithography studio technologies in the late 1920s many traditional workshops went out of business. However the technique was reviewed when the Chinese Communist Party, in an attempt to find a language to communicate its ideology to a wider population, identified New Year prints (nianhua) and other forms of folk art as a central component of its new arts and culture policy at the Yan’an forum in 1942. Consequently, the function and use of New Year Prints changed; they became effective vehicles of communist political messages and ideals. Their designs and technique became much more elaborate, often illustrating model behaviour. Their aim was to “emphasize labouring people’s new, happy and hard-fought lives and their appearance of health and heroism.” The new directives issued in 1949 by the Ministry of Culture stated that ostentation was to be avoided and costs should be kept down so that people could afford the pictures. Regarding the print circulations the old New Year print distribution networks such as incense shops, small book stands, or itinerant peddlers were to be used.

Ming Chu, artist, Weichen Shen, block cutter, Yanli Shen, block cutter, A Woman Transformed Into a New Person by Being in the Countryside, 1964, Bequeathed by Michael Sullivan, 2013. LI2022.466.a © The artist’s estate

Taohuawu Workshop, publisher
Changing the Appearance of Mountains and Rivers,  Suzhou, before 1965, Bequeathed by Michael Sullivan, 2013. LI2022.466.b © Taohuawu Workshop

The two prints entitled Changing the Appearance of Mountains and Rivers and A Woman Transformed Into a New Person by Being in the Countryside dating from the early 1960s demonstrate that the colourful images were meant to inspire behavioural change and praise the great achievements of the Communist Party visibly introducing modernity, such as electricity poles, into the landscapes.

Another major change was that prints were no longer the result of an anonymous production line, but they were carefully designed according to official propaganda by professional state artists. In 2006 the Ashmolean purchased a group of 12 colour woodblock New Year prints. This group was compiled by the National Art Workers Association of China in Beijing and distributed by Xin Hua Bookstore in1950.  The group of works includes prints by Jin Lang (1914 – 1998), Shi Zhan (1912 – 1993) or Zhang Ding (1917 – 2010), depicting scenes linked to the Chinese New Year such as in A Village Delegation Presents Comforts to the Troops on New Year’s Day or Greeting the New Year.

Jin Lang (1914 – 1998), artist Huabei University Art Workshop (active 1948 – 1949), printer New Rongbaozhai (established 1949), publisher International Bookstore (established 1949), retailer Greeting the New Year, EA2006.272  © The artist’s estate

Shi Zhan (1912 – 1993), New Rongbaozhai (established 1949), publisher International Bookstore (established 1949), retailer, A Village Delegation Presents Comforts to the Troops on New Year’s Day, EA2006.273 © The artist’s estate

Learn more about the Ashmolean Museum Chinese print collection on Eastern Art Online.

Felicitas von Droste zu Hülshoff, Chinese Paintings Programme

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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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