The comfort and luxury of an emperor: Emperor Shomu’s personal possessions on display

No no Gorairi, Ceremonial Shoes of Emperor Shomu (Source: Yomiuri Shimbun)

No no Gorairi, Ceremonial Shoes of Emperor Shomu (Source: Yomiuri Shimbun)

These vivid scarlet shoes with gold and white painted detailed edging, measuring 31.5 cm long were decorated with flower-shaped metal studes that are embedded with pearls, colored glass and crystals. The shoes are said to have been worn by Emperor Shomu (701-756) at the Consecration Ceremony of the Great Buddha in Nara in 752.  (Based on Yomiuri Shimbun article, “Magnificent red shoes with humor.”

Red sandalwood armrest

Red sandalwood armrest

Also on display are “shitanmokuga no kyoshoku” a red sandalwood armrest and two pieces of furniture he used, including a “gosho” (Japanese cypress bed frame).

Part of Emperor Shomu's bed

Part of Emperor Shomu’s bed

New theory on Emperor Shomu’s bed (source: The Japan News — Nov 11)

Among the items associated with Emperor Shomu (701-756) on display at the 66th Annual Exhibition of Shoso-in Treasures, held at the Nara National Museum to commemorate the 80th birthdays of the Emperor and Empress, “Gosho,” a set of two beds, has drawn attention over how it was used.

Each bed was made from a Japanese cypress, measuring 237.5 centimeters in length and 118.5 centimeters in width. An established theory is that the set is believed to have been used as a double bed for Emperor Shomu and Empress Komyo (701-760). However, Kazuko Koizumi, president of the Japan Society for the History of Interiors, Furniture and Tools says that large furniture used back then was believed to have been used together with another piece of furniture and that one of these beds would have been too small for a nobleman. Therefore, a view arose that two of the beds were put together for use by the emperor and two were put together for the empress.

– See more at The Japan News — Nov 11 or via; see also related video clip: Imperial residence of  Empress Komyo

"Kuwanoki no genkan" This rare lute of mulberry wood is probably from China and is inscribed with the words Todaiji on the back. Courtesy of the office of the Shoso-in, Imperial Household Agency

“Kuwanoki no genkan” This rare lute of mulberry wood is probably from China and is inscribed with the words Todaiji on the back. Courtesy of the office of the Shoso-in, Imperial Household Agency

The Chinese immortals motif is seen here

The Chinese immortals motif is seen here

From China, a rare round-bodied lute, called a “Kuwanoki no genkan” (mulberry wood lute) is one of the more popular attractions. Only two “Genkan” round-bodied lutes are believed to exist in the whole world and both are in the Shoso-in collection.  The other “Genkan” is also housed in the Shoso-in.

What is distinctive about the “Kuwanoki no Genkan” is its round body, which features an image of people playing a game of go at the center. The instrument is named after one of the seven sages during the Chinese Jin dynasty (3rd to 4th century) who was known to have loved playing it.

Byobu screens were an extremely popular item with the Nara period court, but relatively few examples remain in the repository. The Record of Offerings to Todaiji Temple which dates from the mid-8th c. lists over 100 folding screens among the imperial household articles donated to the Shoshoin. These are four- and six-panel screens assembled by means of cords through holes in the panel frames in the Chinese method. The materials and other clues show that the screens are definitely Japanese.

The most famous of these, known as “Ladies Under Trees” (Torige Risujo), depicts a Tang beauty on each of its six panels and was originally decorated with colourful bird feathers; another has Chinese calligraphy, again done in bird feathers; the other two have nature scenes executed in wax-and press-resist dyeing techniques. [Up to six of the screens are believed to have been displayed in the bedroom of Emperor Shomu (701-756).]

Though the panels’ designs and expressions created through the women’s makeup apparently are heavily influenced by the Tang dynasty culture, a document dated “the fourth year in Tenpyo Shoho period” (752) was used in the panels’ lining, indicating that they were produced in Japan.

The latest Tang dynasty fashions and culture were believed to have been brought to Japan by Japanese envoys to the dynasty and used in various items decorating the court.

“Clothes decorated with feathers were all the rage in the Tang dynasty court. I believe the dynasty’s latest trends were imported to Japan,” said Akio Donohashi, professor emeritus at Kobe University.

According to the 8th century classic Chronicles of Japan (Nihon Shoki), the first folding screens to reach Japan came during the reign of the emperor Tenmu (672-86) as gifts from the Korean kingdom of Silla. (Source:  Traditional Japanese Furniture by 和子·小泉 (at p. 165)

The 66th Annual Exhibition of Shoso-in Treasures at the Nara National Museum, centered around the “Torige Ritsujo no Byobu” (Screen Panels with Bird Feathers Decorating a Lady under a Tree).


Torige Ritsujo no Byobu, bird feathers (tori-ge) used to be pasted on the lady’s clothes which explains the name

Of the six panels, which are believed to have been a prized possession of Emperor Shomu (701-756), four are on display at the Nara National Museum. The remaining two are being shown at the “National Treasures of Japan” exhibition at the Tokyo National Museum in Ueno Park, Tokyo.

To find out where the motifs come from, a Yomiuri Shimbun reporter visited various locations in China and Central Asia.

Tracing the secrets of Torigeno Ritsujo no Byobu beauties (The Japan News, Oct 26, 2014) by Kiyofum Matsunaga

The face of the court lady depicted in “Torige Ritsujo no Byobu” panel No. 2

The face of the court lady depicted in “Torige Ritsujo no Byobu” panel No. 2

Plump cheeks, tiny lips painted deep red. A group of life-size women putting on elegant shawls are vividly seen.

In the basement art gallery in the Shaanxi History Museum in central Xian — the former location of Chang’an, the capital of the Tang Dynasty — I had the chance to look at a group of about 100 mural paintings depicting the day-to-day lives of Tang courtiers. There were also murals featuring round-faced maids relaxing under a tree — a design very close to that of Torige Ritsujo no Byobu panels.

According to museum official Wang Jianqi, people’s perception of beauty changed in the Tang Dynasty as people came to prefer rounder figures to narrow-faced, slender women.

“As the country prospered, people began to prefer plump figures because it symbolized wealth,” Wang, 56, said.

Though the Torige Ritsujo panels were produced in Japan, the motifs must have been taken from the beauties of the Tang Dynasty. In the Heijokyo capital in ancient Nara, Emperor Shomu must have thought of the prosperity in the grand Tang Dynasty far away. The panels used to be decorated with feathers, and a few dark brown feathers of copper pheasants remain on the panels even today.

I went to see Fan Yanyan, 36, in a silk product shop in Xian. She is a designer who mastered techniques of traditional painting by copying Dunhuang mural paintings.

She beamed as she looked at a photograph of Torige Ritsujo panels, saying, “I learned about them as an art school student.”

When asked what color the missing feathers on the panels were, she said: “They must have been green like the ones you see on kingfishers. Green was frequently used in paintings of court women.”

Imagining a beauty wearing vivid green feathers on her clothes, I could imagine how the concept of beauty has grown over time and space.

Makeup in the 8th century

The Gaochang palace ruins in Turpan in China’s Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region used to be a major trading hub on the Silk Road. At the Astana Tombs, located two kilometers north of the ruins, a number of clay figures in the shape of female dancers and court maids from the Tang Dynasty have been excavated.

One approximately 30-centimeter-high figure is decorated with a large flower on her forehead and mole-like patterns on both cheeks. The figure is kept at the Xinjiang Regional Museum in Urumqi, capital of the autonomous region.

“The flower pattern on the forehead is a makeup method called ‘flower inlay,’ while the one on the cheeks is called ‘dimple inlay,’” said museum official Adili Abulizi, 48. It was the latest makeup style in Chang’an during the 8th century, according to Abulizi.

In this way, the fashion styles of the Tang Dynasty are vividly preserved in figures and silk paintings in Turpan. The dry climate is believed to help preserve items from ancient times in good condition.

The flower inlay and dimple inlay makeup styles can also be seen on the Torige Ritsujo no Byobu panels, as there are green dots on the women’s foreheads. Flower inlay makeup, which must have become more sophisticated in the Tang Dynasty, was then brought to Japan.

Another theory is that the makeup method has its roots in more western areas. In city remains in Uzbekistan dating back to around the fifth century, goddess statues with round patterns on their foreheads and cheeks have been excavated.

I also heard there is a traditional makeup method for Uygur people that uses the leaves of a plant called wu si ma.

Meierziya Rexiti, 29, a local resident I grew acquainted with in Turpan, showed me how to put on the makeup. Green liquid squeezed from the leaves is put on a cotton swab, and then applied a number of times to the eyebrows and the middle of the forehead.

“You have to have thick eyebrows to be considered a beauty,” she said. “Legend also has it that the narrower the width between your eyebrows, the closer you’ll be able to live to your mother’s house after marriage.”

Women’s search for beauty seems to continue adding rich flavors to Silk Road culture.

Prayers for fertility

In Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan in Central Asia, I discovered a silver plate with a dull glaze in a corner in the National Museum of Antiquities of Tajikistan. Measuring 24 centimeters in diameter, the plate reportedly was excavated from a fifth- to seventh-century grave in a small village.

Inscribed on the plate was a bewitching goddess under a grapevine with abundant fruit. The goddess holds the branches with both hands, with spring water filling around her feet, making us imagine a paradise filled with water and greenery.

“Trees and women are symbols of life,” said Zarina Safanova, a 36-year-old researcher at the museum. “We can see the influence of yakshini.”

Yakshini is a symbol of fertility from ancient India, best known for the pose of putting her hands and legs around a mango tree. It is reportedly one of the first examples of the popular art motif of “beauty under a tree.”

Central Asia is called the crossroads of the Silk Road. At the center of Silk Road trades were the Sogd people, who prospered from the fifth to the eighth centuries. All types of merchandise were transported by camel, and it is possible that drawings and statues were brought from India this way.

Trees depicted in artifacts in Central Asia likely changed into grapevines because it is an abundant fruit that has been established in the area for 2,000 years.

When I visited suburbs of Khujand, northern Tajikistan, where grape fields stretch as far as the eye can see, people were in the middle of the harvest. The vines are sometimes grown near houses, helping to prevent the sun from directly hitting the inside of the houses.

“A grapevine trellis feels great because it lets the breeze go through well,” said Miryusupova Aziza, the 18-year-old granddaughter of one family. “We get so many grapes that our entire family is unable to eat them all.”

Human beings and nature have coexisted since ancient times. The motif of beauty under a tree must have gradually changed as it traveled eastward along the Silk Road with people’s prayers for fertility. It eventually bore fruit in the Far East as the “Torige Ritsuge no Byobu” panels in Nara.

Japanese scholars believe Nara was the eastern terminus of the Silk Road, which is why Shoso-in holds many artifacts that came from as far away as the Eastern Roman Empire, the ones shown here believed to have been acquired through the activities of Japanese envoys to the Tang dynasty, who brought back various items from overseas.

Also on display is the “haku-ruri no hei” (white glass ewer), which is clearly of Middle Eastern or Western Asian design, probably Iran, Iraq, or Syria.

Haku-ruri no hei (white glass ewer)

Haku-ruri no hei (white glass ewer)


Sources and references:

Treasures of the Shosoin Hoard on display (The Japan Times)

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