Many artifacts in 正倉院 Shō-sō-in treasure house still appear fresh and inspiring. As an artist, I’ve visited Nara frequently to research artifacts of the Asuka (飛鳥) and Nara Period (白鳳、天平Hakuhō and Tempyō era). Those were the times when Japan had experienced active cultural exchanges with the Eurasian continent and the Korean peninsula as well as with the islands of South East Asia. It is well-known that antiquities in Japan are well preserved. Especially Shō-sō-in where their condition is remarkable.
The annual 正倉院 Shō-sō-in exhibition in Nara National museum that takes place every autumn is one of the most inspiring experiences both for artists and art lovers. I was usually there on opening day with my parents who are accomplished artists in their own fields. We would meet many artist friends that day, but there was hardly time for mundane conversation. Appreciating the beauty of these important collections was what we had all come for.
For me it was a mystery why the artifacts in Shō-sō-in feel very alive and inspiring to so many people. They do not seem like “old” art pieces. Rather their vibrant presence and sensitive design appear contemporary and sophisticated. Many artifacts were made by highly skilled artisans from all over Asia, but technique did not overshadow their inherent beauty as works of art.
In modern times, craftsmen often try to reveal their highly honed skills in their work. When this egoistic imposition takes an upper hand, it masks the living beauty. It is clear that what makes the Shō-sō-in artifacts beautiful is not just the skill of the artisans, but also (I am confident to say) the coming together of the noble intention of the patrons and humble attitude of the artisans.
Many of the artifacts in Shō-sō-in were gifted to the Japanese emperor either from the Chinese emperor of the Tang dynasty, or made by Korean or Japanese craftsmen.
From the ancient to medieval times, all the countries around China were connected by the Silk Road and by sea trade routes. It is widely recognized that ancient Rome lay at the Western end of the Silk Road, while Nara was on the Eastern end. Nara is well-known to have experienced the beauty and riches brought by the Silk Road and of the Tang dynasty. Not only did artifacts came into Japan, but many Buddhist monks, government officials, architects, sculptors, painters, artisans immigrated to Japan. Since this island in the Far East with a mild climate produced plenty of high quality materials, it is quite easy to imagine that artists were attracted to practice their craft and exercise their creativity in this milieu.
It is my belief that the secret for the great success of the Tang dynasty lay in the collaboration among the people from different cultural and racial backgrounds. The spirit of cosmopolitanism underscores the achievement of the Tang dynasty of China, as well as of the Nara and early Heian periods in Japan.
From an artistic point of view I perceive the Silk Road artifacts to have the presence of both generosity and sensitivity coexisting simultaneously. One can observe several exotic elements in design and choice of material, and the two are combined in a harmonious way. They also hold an anthropological value. An analysis of the origins of these materials indicates diverse trade routes in the Silk Road.
Let us consider the example of musical instruments. These are primarily played in court for the pleasure of the emperor and the nobles, or in the Buddhist temples as musical offering to the deities. In the Gagaku (雅楽) style of music which consists of many different elements in its structure, unique instruments from different cultures are played together. Some have originated in South Asia, some from the South East Asian islands, and others are of Persian or Indian origin. But these different elements get gracefully integrated in Gagaku music. In today’s Japan, one can still experience the well-preserved Gagaku dance and music.
Another example is the Gigaku dance masks(伎楽面) in Shō-sō-in. We can see many masks with exotic features. Some bear a resemblance to the Persian people, while some others carry the spirit of the West-Eurasian stock. However all of them are unique and alive. Masks were used in the enactment of stories during the festivals at the Buddhist temples in the Nara capital. While most of the audience may never have set foot outside Japan at that time, it was commonplace in the Tang dynasty capital of Chō-an(長安) to encounter many exotic profiles in daily life. In this manner, the audience in Nara could experience the diversity and lively atmosphere of the Tang dynasty and other parts of the Silk Road culture without having to travel.
My three most favorite artifacts in the Shō-sō-in collection are: 白瑠璃碗 – the Persian cut glass bowl, 蘭奢待 (Ran-Ja-Tai) incense wood, and the large collection of hand woven and hand dyed fabrics.
Ancient soda-glass artifacts were found in Egypt, Greece, Roma, Mesopotamia, Persia and India. There was no soda-glass processing technique in the Far East. One can only imagine the wonder of the Far Eastern people when they saw this beautifully crafted cut glass bowl which is completely transparent and perfectly cut and polished. There were no glazed ceramic artifacts found in the Nara period. Glazed ceramics appeared later in the Heian period. It tells that there were no advanced practice of furnace work in Japan except in bronze and iron.
Ran-Ja-Tai (蘭奢待) is a precious incense wood piece and it carries unique story. It is a large piece of Kyara – 伽羅 (156 cm length and 11.5kg). It is formally listed as 黄熟香. 蘭奢待 (Ran-Ja-Tai) is an informal title. Each letter in 蘭奢待 contains the letter from東大寺 (蘭＝東、奢＝ 大、待＝寺）, 東大寺is one of the main temples in Nara capital since its establishment in 742 AD. It is recorded that the six major rulers in the history of Japan cut and used this extremely rare incense wood block. The paper labels on this wood shows those names but according to the recent research, the wood was carved and used at least fifty times in history. The island in Japan did not produce 伽羅. It was probably brought from South East Asia by Chinese delegates and offered to the Japanese Emperor.
The most beautiful and inspiring pieces to me is the great collection of exotic fabrics. In Japan they are called 正倉院裂(Shō-sō-in fabrics). The weaving and dyeing technique in China, India and Persia were already far advanced compared to other countries. Beautiful woven/dyed silk, cotton and hemp were highly valued at that time. The designs and color used in these fabrics are breathtaking. Today, many designs from 正倉院裂(Shō-sō-in fabrics) continue to be reproduced for Tea ceremony utensils and contemporary Kimono design. These are held in high regard because of their elegance, beauty and of course, their profound historical significance.
Finally, we should pause to acknowledge the building of Shō-sō-in itself as a great masterpiece. Its highly functional structure is critically appreciated by many modern architects and specialists. Actually it was because of this building that many treasures were well preserved for over centuries.
In these highly materialistic times, we have a lot to learn from the 正倉院宝物(Shō-sō-in treasures). It seems that all the advanced technologies at our disposal have started to hold influence over our daily life. Technology is no more just a means for a better way of living, but is fast becoming the primary aim of life. On the other hand, the artifacts in 正倉院 silently suggest the ideal of the East that is called真善美 (Truth, Goodness and Beauty). 真can be applied to the spiritual and social order in that period of time. 善 may represents the sincerity towards the order. And 美 probably the outcome of 真 and 善.
It is a blessing for us that we still can examine and experience 正倉院宝物(Shō-sō-in treasures) and other treasures from the Silk Road culture. They were mainly created during the golden era of the Tang dynasty which I would boldly venture to call as the ‘Golden era of Asia’. The message I receive from these artifacts is that we must set our aims very high to produce and appreciate objects of long-lasting beauty instead of chasing short-lived trends. To do this, we need to regain a different sense of time in order to invest in a higher quality of life. A creative and sustainable way of living can be the first step in re-empowering ourselves.
“Beauty in永恒的現今 (The Eternal Present)” – I think this is the spirit and secret of the Golden era of Asia.
Jyoti Naoki Eri – 江里尚樹