Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Emissaries to the Tang exhibit at Narahaku

Part of our reason for going to Japan was so Mrs. Sgt. T could visit Nara. Nara is the focus of much of her research, and this year happens to be the 1300th anniversary of its founding as the first permanent (at least, it was intended to be permanent) Chinese-style capital in Japanese history. Those may sound like a lot of qualifiers, but believe me, it was a big deal.

Usually when we visit Nara we hit a lot of temples. This time we didn't have much time; instead we visited museums and special exhibits. The big one of these was at the Nara National Museum: "Imperial Envoys to Tang China: Early Japanese Encounters with Continental Culture." The Japanese title, Dai Kentôshi Ten 大遣唐使展, was much more concise. It can be, because basically everybody in Japan knows what the kentôshi were: they were official envoys sent by the Japanese court to Tang China. There were nearly twenty such missions between the 7th and 9th centuries, and their job was to not only do diplomatic stuff (that's historiographical terminology, by the way) but to bring back Chinese culture, as much and as thoroughly as possible. Basically they were supposed to learn a lot of stuff, and bring back a lot of stuff. What kind of stuff? Books. One of the things they did was to buy as many books as they could bring back in their ships.

Mrs Sgt T's joke this whole trip was that we feel like kentôshi when we go back to Japan. It's true: as academics whose subject is Japan but whose base is the US, in particular a part of the US where books in Japanese are not quite as plentiful or easily obtained as one might wish, one of the things we do when we get back to Japan is to buy as many books as we possibly can. Scholarly monographs and manga, weighty reference works and light trash novels: we order them used, we buy them new, we pile them up and put 'em on boats. We're kentôshi, no doubt about it. And it's some comfort to know we're following in illustrious footsteps. Those who study history are sometimes delighted to realize they're repeating it.

So that was one thing I got out of the Great Kentôshi Exhibit: a better understanding of these people to whom the Mrs was comparing us. I love getting the joke, on those rare occasions I do.

The other thing I learned was: dude, emaki are awesome. I mean, I knew about them, and that they're very important. I've known people who studied them. But they're a little before my own period of specialization, and for some reason I guess I'd just never paid much attention. But they had one on display, the Kibi Daijin nyûtô emaki 吉備大臣入唐絵巻, or (as the MFA, which owns it and lent it to Narahaku for the exhibit, titles it) "Minister Kibi's Adventures in China." I love how the MFA cataloguers (donor?) add that "Adventures," as superhero-ish as it sounds, and as unjustified a "translation" as it is, because it perfectly captures the direct, vervacious spirit of this scroll. Japanese government official travels all the way to China, braving horrible dangers, only to face more peril at the hands of the wily Chinese - but don't worry, kids, he outsmarts them all!

This part was on display: the Chinese challenged Kibi to beat their masters at go. He cheated - he swallowed a piece. They try to find it - the way you try to find any game piece one of your kids has swallowed. You examine his spoor. Awesome!

Only a portion of the scroll was unrolled for view, but what was there was great. Really made me want to know the whole story. Eight years in Boston, and I only discover this jewel now, in Nara.

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