This year marks the 1300th anniversary of the establishment of Nara (often referred to as Heijô-kyô when discussing that time) as the capital of the Yamato state, that is, “Japan.” As part of the related events, the Nara National Museum is holding a special exhibit on (Japanese) Imperial Envoys to Tang China, an exhibit I attended this past Wednesday.
I wish I could embed the dramatic “trailer” promotional video for the exhibition here on the blog, but if you’re interested, please do check it out at the exhibition’s official website: http://kentoushi.exh.jp/ (in Japanese). Highlights of the exhibition, i.e. some of the objects of particular interest, can be seen on that site as well.
The Kentôshi (遣唐使), as they are referred to in Japanese, were formal missions organized by the Imperial Court, for the purposes of trade, and in order to learn about, adapt, and adopt Chinese technologies, legal systems, political systems, and the like. The missions represent a major element of Japan’s involvement in Silk Road trade and exchange, by which countless ideas and objects were obtained, and which contributed to numerous profound developments.
Roughly twenty missions were sent in the 7th-9th centuries, so, actually, not all that many, but their impact was huge, and some of the people involved are among the greatest names in Japanese pre-modern history. Abe no Nakamaro traveled to China on a kentôshi mission, passed the Imperial examinations, and remained there for decades as a Tang official, cavorting with the likes of Li Bai and Wang Wei. The monk Ganjin traveled to Japan with one of the returning envoys, and founded Tôshôdai-ji. Kibi no Makibi famously traveled to Tang; his story is related in an emaki handscroll painting which was one of the highlights of the exhibition, on loan from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
(Above: A section from the Minister Kibi Scroll, depicting Kibi and other members of the mission arriving in China.)
Kibi led the 9th mission to Tang in 717, along with Abe no Nakamaro. The envoys journeyed across the sea in four ships, the mission consisting of a total of 557 people, including the monk Genbô. They arrived in Chang’an in the 10th month, but for reasons not entirely clear to me, Kibi Daijin was (according to the fictionalized account related by the scroll painting) captured by the Chinese authorities and imprisoned in a tower. The scroll, dated to the 12th century and executed in astonishingly skillful and fine ink brushwork and bright mineral pigments, relates how he was then visited in the tower by an oni (a demon) disguised as a man. The demon informs the minister of a go competition being held, and Kibi is for some reason permitted to leave the tower to attend, and ultimately ends up defeating the greatest master in China. Of course, it is quite impractical, if not truly impossible, to display the entirety of the actual scroll in exhibition; it was a most pleasant surprise to see the exhibit accompanied by a video presentation thoroughly depicting the entire scroll and describing the entire story. I am not entirely clear on whether winning the go match allows Kibi his freedom, or to what extent any of this story of his imprisonment and participation in a go competition is even true.
(Right: Kibi imprisoned in a tower in China.)
In any case, the historical records indicate that Kibi and the monk Genbô departed China in the 10th month of 718, one year after their arrival. Abe no Nakamaro remained in China, passed the Imperial examinations, and served as a Tang official for over 30 years.
The missions to T’ang were not the first sent by the Yamato state to China. Roughly three to six missions were, in fact, sent to Sui dynasty China between the years 600 and 614. Roughly seven were then sent to Tang China between 630-669. These earlier missions consisted usually of two ships which sailed north from Hakata (Fukuoka), following the Korean coast before crossing the Yellow Sea and arriving in Shangdong. At this time, the Yamato state refused to submit to Chinese authority, and to pay tribute.
Ono no Imoko led a mission to Sui in 607. He was dispatched by Shôtoku Taishi in the 7th month of that year, and met with Empress Yang in Luoyang in the 3rd month of 608. It was during this meeting that he is said to have conveyed a message containing the now-famous phrase 「日出づる処の天子、書を日没する処の天子にいたす。恙なきや。」 (“The Son of Heaven in the Land where the Sun Rises sends this message to the Son of Heaven in the Land where the Sun Sets. Are you well?”) I am not so expert in such matters to know whether or not this was the first instance of Wa/Yamato being called “the Land of the Rising Sun,” but it is certainly known as a famous example of such. Imoko returned to the Japanese islands shortly afterwards, arriving in Kyushu in the 4th month of 608, along with Pei Shiqing, a Chinese envoy, and arriving in Asuka in the 8th month. The following month he turned around and escorted Pei back to China, where he remained for roughly one year, returning once again to Yamato in the 9th month of 609.
Tang sent its first embassy to Wa in 632; Min, a Chinese immigrant who had lived in Japan previously, served in the Yamato government, and led the 608 mission to Sui, journeyed with them.
The introduction of Buddhism to Japan around this time, along with other factors, led to great political struggles, and the knowledge of Chinese legal and political systems brought back by the missions likewise contributed enormously to the shaping of the structure of the Yamato political establishment. In 645, the Taika Reforms were passed, putting in place a number of structures and systems which would remain (at least in some respects) the foundation of the Japanese governmental system for over a millennium, until the late 19th century.
A Japanese mission to Tang dispatched in 659 was told by the Chinese Emperor of an impending Tang attack on Paekche, and was confined at Chang’an so as to prevent them from sending warnings or otherwise aiding in preparing a defense. In the 3rd month of the following year, a combined Tang and Silla force attacked Paekche, defeating and destroying the kingdom in the 8th month. A rubbing of the stele preserving the text of the “peace” treaty was included in the Nara exhibition.
The confined Japanese envoys were brought to Luoyang to attend and witness the pardon and release of the king of Paekche. Empress Saimei traveled to Kyushu in person in the first month of 661 to oversee the strengthening of defenses against a possible Tang/Silla invasion; the imprisoned envoys returned from China in the 5th month.
In 663, this conflict between the Korean kingdoms of Paekche (supported by Yamato, though already overthrown in 660) and Silla (allied with Tang) came to a head. The Japanese were sorely defeated in the battle of Hakusukinoe after only two days of fighting, and, while devoting great efforts to shoring up defenses against possible Tang/Silla invasions of the archipelago, sent no missions to China for over thirty years. Silla, with the aid of Tang, captured Pyongyang in the 9th month of 668, marking the end of the kingdom of Goguryeo, and uniting the Korean peninsula.
The year 702 saw the dispatch of the first mission to Tang since the unification of the Korean peninsula. It is possible that year also saw the first use of the term 「日本」 (J: Nihon; Nippon, lit. something like “source of the sun”). Nine more missions would be sent over the course of the 8th century. Unlike previous missions, these now consisted generally of four ships (not two), carrying a total of roughly 500 people. Due to unfriendly relations with Silla (which now dominated the Korean peninsula), Yamato ships now took a southern route, departing from the Gotô Islands and making port in China near or at the mouth of the Yangtze. Also in sharp contrast to previously, the Yamato government, fearing the fate of Paekche and Goguryeo, now acknowledged Chinese suzerainty and began sending tribute with some of the missions (roughly once every twenty years).
As already mentioned, Kibi Makibi and Abe no Nakamaro traveled to China on the 9th mission to Tang. The 10th mission numbered 594 people in total, and arrived in Luoyang in the 4th month of 734, three months after a member of a previous mission, Sei Shinsei (aka I no Manari) died in Chang’an. The envoys met with Emperor Xuanzong, a prominent emperor famous today for many things, chief among them perhaps his relationship with the concubine Yang Guifei, the most famous beauty in all of Chinese literature & history. This tenth mission departed from China several months after it arrived, leaving from Suzhou in the 10th month of 734. Storms or currents split up the ships; one was lost, while another, carrying Kibi Makibi and Genbô (who apparently must have journeyed to China again after their return in 718), landed at Tanegashima, its passengers eventually making their way to Heijô-kyô (Nara) in the 3rd month of 735. The third envoy ship returned to China and waited for a better time to make the journey, eventually departing in 736 and arriving in Japan in the 5th month of that year. The fourth and final ship was thrown off-course, and landed on the coast of what is today Vietnam, where most of the crew was killed by either bandits or disease. It might seem a small thing today, but naval journeys, even over what we consider a rather short distance today (it’s not like they were circling the globe, or even crossing whole oceans), were very serious and dangerous business at that time.
Kibi Makibi departed for China yet again (one would think that his unpleasant experiences locked in that tower would have caused him to want to stay home) in 752, along with Fujiwara no Kiyokawa and Ôtomo no Komaro. They arrived safely in China and celebrated New Year’s at the Imperial Court when that year came to a close. Nearly a full year later, in the 11th month of 753, they departed China, accompanied by Abe no Nakamaro who, after 36 years in China, was ready to return home. Three of the ships were blown off course and made landfall on Okinawa. Ôtomo no Komaro, along with the Chinese monk Ganjin, who had been trying for many many years to get to Japan, and who had already made five failed attempts to get there, arrived in Satsuma in the 12th month. Kibi arrived in Kii province the following month (754/1). Another ship caught fire, and was thus delayed, but its passengers and crew safely arrived in Satsuma in the end, in the 4th month of 754. Kiyokawa and Nakamaro were not so lucky, however, and ended up in what is today Vietnam, where they were attacked. Most of the crew and other passengers accompanying them were killed, but the two survived, and made their way to Chang’an by 755, where they remained for the rest of their years, never again seeing their homeland.
The ninth century saw only two missions. Tang had been seriously weakened by the An Lushan Rebellion in 755, and eventually merchant shipping came to replace any commercial need (on the part of Wa) for the trade that accompanied formal tributary/diplomatic relations. Missions were sent in 803 and 836; another was planned in 894, but never ended up departing Japan, marking the end of the Kentôshi.
The exhibition was huge, taking up seemingly the better part of the entire museum. The first two rooms were dedicated largely to setting the tone by displaying a great number of artifacts from T’ang China and Nara/early Heian Japan, including some mighty impressive pieces. Though I myself have seen Han Gan’s “Night Shining White,” arguably among the most famous of all Chinese paintings, numerous times at the Metropolitan, I can certainly appreciate why seeing it here was a rare and special opportunity for the Japanese.
After these two rooms, taking up most (all?) of the newer extension building of the museum, the path led to an exhibition gift shop, to the permanent Museum Store, and to a café in the basement. It looked like the exhibit was over, and I compiled a bitter and disappointed account in my notebook to transcribe later here. Certainly, given the number of artifacts in that first half, the size of that exhibition, it seemed reasonable I think to think that it was over, and that they simply had not told the narrative I wanted. But I had forgotten how extensive Japanese museum exhibitions can be. There’s a reason the annual Shôsôin exhibition (displaying Imperial treasures from the Silk Road from the Asuka to Heian periods) consistently achieves the highest attendance of any exhibition in the world – because there’s far far more space to hold more visitors than any exhibition in the West, because they allow it to take up far more of their museum’s space!
Entering the main building of the Nara National Museum, expecting to find the permanent exhibitions but instead discovering the second half of the Kentôshi exhibit, I found myself drawn chiefly not to the objects, but to the displays introducing each section. (Yeah, I’m a horrible museum-goer, aren’t I?) As disappointed as I was by the first half of the exhibit – which dealt chiefly with “domestic” Japanese and Chinese culture in the two respective countries, and not quite so much with exchange, let alone with the missions themselves, all those concerns melted away as I made my way through the second half. Displays described in wonderful detail individual missions, the dates they left Japan, the dates they left China to return; the fate of each ship as it did or did not get caught in a storm… Granted, these are things I might have read in a history book and did not have to go to a museum to learn, but it was nevertheless fascinating for me. Japan’s involvement in the Silk Road, and in other exchanges and interaction with China in this period, was no longer for me a generalized, vague concept, but a concrete series of historical events, tied to individual dates and names.
In one of the last rooms, towards the end of the exhibition, there were a number of stele rubbings of inscriptions from China from treaties or other agreements with various other neighboring states. Now that I think about it, I’m not 100% sure the exhibit included any texts of treaties or agreements between Tang and Wa (Japan), but it was quite interesting to see Chinese text alongside Tibetan, or other scripts, in these stele which have preserved for many centuries the treaties and agreements between Tang and Tibet, Bohai, and other polities.
All in all, the exhibit was incredible, but it was also overwhelming. While my Japanese (particularly my reading ability; not so much my conversational skills) is much much better than it was a few years ago, I’m still nowhere close to being able to comfortably and easily read by glancing, skimming over text like I would in English. It takes real focus and effort to read a gallery label; and so, already tired out quite early in the exhibit, I end up just skimming through much of the rest…
It was incredible to see some objects – a belt, an inkstone, an ivory baton, a rhino horn pen knife – believed to perhaps have been the possessions of Sugawara no Michizane. A later room in the exhibit also included a famous tanjô shaka (just-born Shakyamuni) statue which was (is?) used in rituals involving spilling sacred water or oil over the statue. It always makes a great impact to see something you recognize from your survey courses and slide exams, and especially when it turns out to be a rather different size (scale) than you had imagined.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the power and impact of the canon, and how artificial it is, that we come to appreciate things more for how famous they are, how familiar we are with them already from class, from books, etc., rather than appreciating them aesthetically or artistically for ourselves. … Earlier in the day, prior to the Kentôshi exhibit, we had visited Hôryûji, and I found I could not even begin to discover Hôryûji for myself, to appreciate its historical significance or the (possible; supposed) artistic superiority of the Buddhist statuary contained within, because it had already been discovered for me. I had already been instilled with the idea that these objects were of incredible importance and value.. and one can only play along, agreeing and perpetuating such a discourse of canon, or one can be a radical and an iconoclast, but one can no longer take the neutral middle road of truly, uninformedly, discovering, examining, and considering the works and the place on their own merit and impact.
Returning to the exhibition, it was most impressive to think of how old all of these artifacts were. But, in the end, I just move on. The historical significance is astounding, but the objects themselves – rusted sword blades, scraps of pottery, etc. – are difficult to appreciate any more by looking at them any longer.. and with the crowds continually pushing (gently, mostly politely, but constantly moving like being on an escalator), I basically ended up just glancing over much of the exhibition. Pottery, more pottery, some wooden objects excavated from the site of Heijô-kyô, some Chinese stele rubbings I can’t read, more pottery, some Japanese scrolls I can’t read… moving on… next… more pottery… bronze mirrors, yup, seen other mirrors before… I think no matter what my language ability or interest level, I would have been overwhelmed by this exhibit. There was just too much there.
I imagine that many of these Japanese visitors to Tang China felt much the same way.