A star map from Dunhuang, c. 700 CE, today in the collection of the British Library. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

In my research on early modern East Asian diplomacy, though it may sound purely “secular” (if that’s even the right term) and political, I found myself falling down a rabbit hole of cosmological conceptions of the Emperor’s position between Heaven and Earth, his spiritual identity and ritual role, and the relationship of all of this to conceptions of a regional or world order, with the Emperor at the center, emanating virtue so virtuous as to be seen or sensed or felt even in the most distant lands; the barbarians of those faraway lands, recognizing the Emperor’s virtue, would then naturally, as a matter of the natural proper cosmic order, would journey to the Imperial capital to pay tribute, and the beneficent Emperor, in return, would magnanimously provide these envoys with gifts. Such is foreign relations under the traditional Chinese model – tribute, and gifts, and maybe some other trade on the side.

I’m not quite sure when or how actual political policy negotiations ever took place in the Chinese case, but, at least in the meetings I am researching, between envoys of the King of Ryûkyû and the Tokugawa shogun (the shogunate having adopted & adapted certain aspects of the Chinese discourses of Imperial power & legitimacy), no such discussions of actual mundane matters took place – it was all pure ceremony – ritual obeisances, etc. Perhaps most importantly in all of this, which I think those questioning political or economic motives miss, is the belief that all of this was necessary towards maintaining the proper cosmic order; the emperor was responsible for keeping the entire cosmos spinning correctly, and if foreigners didn’t come to give tribute, and if the emperor did not reciprocate with gifts, all would fall into disorder and chaos. Perhaps the crops would stop growing; such was the importance of maintaining proper Confucian relationships.

If you’re interested in learning more about this, I would strongly recommend John King Fairbank’s edited volume The Chinese World Order (Harvard University Press, 1968). Of course, plenty of newer works draw upon this, but none have really superseded it as the seminal volume on the subject. Other things I’ve read which may be of interest include the chapters on Han Dynasty foreign relations in the Cambridge History of China, and James Hevia’s book Cherishing Men from Afar, which addresses court rituals and conflicting attitudes about foreign relations in the Macartney Embassy of 1793.

A reconstruction of the Imperial throne at the reconstructed Heijô Imperial Palace in Nara. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

But, getting to the point of this post, anyone who has studied Chinese or Japanese history and has learned anything about the arrangement of classical Chinese capitals – such as Chang’an, and the Japanese capitals of Heijô (Nara) and Heian (Kyoto) based upon it – knows that the Imperial Palace is located in the north of the city, and faces south. The main gates of the palace, and indeed of the whole city, face south, the Audience Hall faces south, and within it, the Imperial throne faces south. Why is this? Most textbooks, if they offer an explanation at all, say something hand-wavey about geomantic beliefs and feng shui and pretty much leave it at that. And I don’t blame them. To be honest, it’s not necessarily an area of things I ever thought I’d be particularly interested in pursuing further.

But, then, as I read something on the origins of the terms huáng dì (皇帝, J: kôtei) and tiān huáng (天皇, J: tennô), the most common, standard terms today for Chinese and Japanese emperors respectively, I came across something about the association in China of the term tiān huáng with the Taoist worship of the North Star. This same essay, “Restoration, Emperor, Diet, Prefecture, or: How Japanese Concepts were Mistranslated into Western Languages” by Ben-Ami Shillony, explained that the term tiān huáng was in fact only used in China very briefly, from around 675 CE until around 705 CE. So, I dismissed the whole North Star thing as interesting but ultimately just sort of obscure and particular only to ancient Taoism. Of course, there are shrines in Japan dedicated to the kami and/or bodhisattva of the North Star, known as Myôken 妙見. But, then, this too could be easily dismissed as being just another obscure corner of Shinto belief; after all, there are kami for just about anything, and it’s not all that shocking that a strain of ancient Chinese Taoism should survive in some form somewhere in Japan.

But then, today, a discovery. The Analects of Confucius, 2:1*:

One who governs through virtue may be compared to the polestar, which occupies its place while the host of other stars pay homage to it.

I hope that I am not reading too deeply into this one passage, or jumping to conclusions too quickly, but as I read this, a concept sort of clicked into place for me. The Emperor is like the Polestar. He stands fixed, and Heaven and Earth revolve around him. This is what is meant by the Emperor being the “axis” between Heaven and Earth, a word choice I never quite understood. And, if the Emperor is associated with the North Star, then, standing at cosmic North, it makes perfect sense that everything he surveys, in all directions, would be to his South.

Now, granted, when it comes to other aspects of traditional Chinese beliefs about the cardinal directions, the Emperor is traditionally associated with Center, and yellow, and not with North, and black. But, I shall continue to keep my eyes out for further pieces to this puzzle.

*Sources of Chinese Tradition, p46.

Above: A suit of samurai armor donated by Bashford Dean to the Metropolitan Museum, along with a photo of him wearing it, c. 1900.

As a kid, I loved the Metropolitan Museum’s Arms & Armor section, as I am sure a great many other kids did then, and do today. But I never really appreciated until quite recently just how special, how unusual, it is for a major museum to have such a large and prominent permanent exhibit of arms & armor. In the case of the Met, it’s all thanks to a fellow by the name of Bashford Dean, who founded the museum’s Department of Arms & Armor in 1912. In honor of this 100 year anniversary, the Met has organized an exhibit about Dean and the founding of the department of Arms & Armor, which I got to see last summer. It’s a great little exhibit, and it will be up through Fall 2014.

A 5th-6th century helmet and piece of body armor from Kofun period Japan, the latter donated to the museum by Dean in 1914.

Some highlights for me included an actual catapult stone from the Crusades, and, of course, the various Japan connections. Dean traveled to Japan around 1900, and lent his collection of over 125 objects of Japanese arms & armor to the Metropolitan in 1903. The catalog he wrote for that 1903 exhibition was the most extensive treatment yet at that time, in English, on the subject of Japanese arms & armor, and after he donated much of his collection to the Met, it became by far the largest collection of such objects anywhere outside Japan. I’d be curious whether it retains that title today. But Dean went further – in 1905, he arranged an exchange with the Tokyo National Museum, giving Tokyo a number of Egyptian objects in exchange for a number of pieces of arms & armor from Japan’s kofun, or “tomb mound” period (c. 250-550 CE).1 Cool as it is to get to see all these swords, helmets, and suits of armor from the Edo period (1600-1868, as I imagine the majority of the collection must surely be) which Dean brought back, kofun period artifacts are far more rare, and so to have these in the collection from such an early date is really something.

Allison Meier has written a great review of the exhibit, loaded with lots of great pictures.

Dean started collecting armor as a child, but his first academic love was fishes. At Columbia University he studied both paleontology and zoology, especially intrigued by those ancient fishes with flesh that seemed born for battle. He soon became a professor at the university and started to travel, and while that would be achievement enough he branched out into a full obsession with Japan, especially its military history. Soon he had the most impressive Japanese armor collection outside of Asia, and this transitioned into an extensive delve into the whole history of military protection that entailed the building of a whole display hall at his home of Wave Hill. Eventually in 1912 he became the first curator of arms and armor at the Metropolitan Museum, in addition to already being a curator of fishes at the American Museum of Natural History. He’s still the only person to have held curatorial positions at both places simultaneously.

Check out the rest of Meier’s review over at Hyperallergic.

Above: A Dutch or Flemish pikeman’s helmet, or “pot,” adapted in Japan in the 17th century. Another rare and quite special object from Dean’s collection – certainly the only example I recall ever seeing of a European helmet adapted by the Japanese. The gallery label says these modifications took place in the mid-to-late 17th century, after all large-scale fighting had ended. But, if it were just slightly earlier, the 1570s to 1630s were the high point of the use of arquebuses in battle in Japan, and the adoption of European armor to help defend against European weapons certainly makes a degree of sense.

Dean’s concurrent specialties in fish and arms may seem bizarre, and indeed it is, but, it’s hardly unique. In fact, it reminds me of Edward Sylvester Morse, Dean’s rough contemporary, who originally traveled to Japan to study brachiopods, shellfish and such, and ended up playing a major role in introducing Japanese ceramics to the West (as Dean did for armor), and in pioneering the beginnings of archaeological research in Japan.

As someone interested in the history of museums and of collecting, in the history of Japanese Studies, and in the sometimes quite exciting provenance of individual objects or collections, this exhibit on Bashford Dean was really quite a treat. As Meier points out in her review, the Met’s Arms & Armor permanent displays, and this long-running but temporary exhibition are all the more interesting, and important, in light of the fact that the Higgins Armory Museum, located in Worcester, Mass., closed down at the end of 2013 after 83 years of being the only museum in the entire United States devoted exclusively to arms and armor. Though I lived in Boston for several years, I never made it out to the Higgins; and I’m sad to learn that now I never will. Still, we have the Metropolitan, and the smaller but still excellent permanent exhibits of Japanese arms & armor at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Bashford Dean and the Creation of the Arms and Armor Department is on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1000 Fifth Avenue at 82nd St) through Fall 2014.


1) When visiting the Tokyo National Museum last summer, I got to see some mummies which were the very first Egyptian objects acquired by the TNM, back in 1904. It would have been a wonderful connection if these were the same objects given the TNM by Dean & the Met in exchange for the kofun era objects, but, alas, it is not the case.

All photos in this post are my own.

A stele at the temple Zuikô-in in Kyoto marking the burial site of the topknots of 46 of the 47 ronin. The graves of the ronin themselves, and of their lord Asano Naganori, are located at Sengaku-ji in Tokyo, a temple which is much more strongly associated with the 47 Ronin today; but, as I haven’t been there, and prefer to use my own photos…

I have yet to see the new “47 Ronin” movie starring Keanu Reeves, and most likely will not be seeing it any time soon (if at all). So, I post this having admittedly not seen the film myself. That said, Prof. Jonathan Dresner of Pittsburg State University in Kansas has seen the film, and in a review entitled “The Many Things “47 Ronin” Gets Wrong About Shogun-Era Japan (And the One Thing It Gets Right),” has some choice words.

Nearly everything in the movie, from a cultural and historical standpoint, is questionable or wrong. Nothing unusual about that, but the movie credits two historical consultants, and begins and ends with voiceover claiming historical and cultural authenticity: “To know the story of the 47 Ronin is to know the heart of old Japan” … Even discounting the “witches and demons,” the movie frames the Tokugawa Shogunate (1603-1868) as “Ancient,” “Feudal,” and shoguns as “an absolute ruler,” none of which is helpful. It perpetuates the myth of samurai as “master swordsmen” and “protectors” and the conclusion praises them for enacting “the old ways of Bushido” as though there were a continuous tradition which had degraded in the contemporary age (but which the Shogun had no desire to actually revive).

These are, of course, some of the key ideas I have tried to impart to my students. Three hundred years ago is not “ancient times,” but is actually relatively recent, and indeed many scholars consider the Tokugawa periodearly modern.” Shoguns were absolutely not absolute rulers; the daimyo (regional lords) had onsiderable autonomy within the Tokugawa state.

Samurai were bureaucrats and administrators who paid lipservice to a martial tradition generations past. Training in swordsmanship and the like was certainly a part of their upbringing, but by no means does that mean that most, or even many, were truly masterful fighters. And as for them being “protectors,” or “honorable,” honestly, do you know of any class of people that can truly be said to be just and honorable? Certainly, there were some samurai who were more ethical and upright in belief and action, but so too were there many who were corrupt, selfish, or just trying to get by. Many frittered away their meager incomes gambling and cavorting in the pleasure quarters. Many took up dishonorable by-employments (side jobs) in order to earn enough just to get by. Many were unable, all their lives, to secure an official government position. Many got into fights in the streets. And, of those who did hold official posts, and relatively sizeable incomes, many were corrupt and selfish in a variety of ways, just like politicians or corporate elites today.

“Bushido” (“The Way of the Warrior”), meanwhile, that crown jewel in the myth of the samurai, was invented during the Edo period, and only first more fully articulated in 1900, roughly thirty years after the samurai class itself was abolished entirely. To be clear, this means that no samurai in early periods, “traditionally,” even knew of, let alone could have adhered to, the bushidô ideals articulated by Nitobe Inazô in 1900, or those described in the Hagakure (c. 1709-1716) or Miyamoto Musashi’s Book of the Five Rings (c. 1645). These Edo period texts were written at a time when the wars were already over, and members of the samurai class were working to try to understand, or re-capture, their identity as “warriors,” through a re-invention and glorification of the past. In short, bushidô is, through and through, an invented tradition. Only a small portion of people would have ever read Hagakure or the Book of the Five Rings during the Edo period; in other words, the vast majority of samurai would not have read them, would not be aware of their content, and therefore could not have subscribed to any “code” they describe. Simply put, there never was a single “code of conduct” or “honor code” widely known and widely accepted among samurai throughout the archipelago.

Certainly, samurai placed high value on loyalty to their lords, but that loyalty was based on reciprocal relationships, of service to one’s lord in exchange for titles, land, wealth, or the like, and not on some abstract sense of honor, or a coordinated structured system of honorable (and dishonorable) behaviors. In short, warriors demanded rewards for their loyal service, and when lords were unable or unwilling to provide such rewards, warriors grew disgruntled; there are numerous examples of individual samurai betraying their lords, and historians credit the inability or refusal of the Court or shogunate to grant rewards to samurai as major factors contributing to the rise and fall of shogunates. The above is a clip from the 1955 film Shin Heike Monogatari (“New Tale of the Heike”) depicting samurai returning from battle, expecting considerable reward from the Imperial Court for their service; though clearly quite stylized, in some respects, it may be the most “accurate” depiction of samurai I have ever seen. The warriors are dirty, uncouth, and violent – essentially, dude-bro frat jocks – in sharp contrast to the well-mannered, elegant court aristocrats in perfectly clean, well-put-together robes; the warriors are plainly shown as beneath the aristocrats, not only in terms of being less cultured, and in terms of political or status hierarchy, but also literally, physically beneath the aristocrats – whenever they speak to aristocrats, the warriors sit or kneel on the ground, and are not permitted to step up onto the clean wooden floors of the aristocratic mansion or Imperial Palace. This may take place way back in the 12th century, but I think it a good indication of how we should think about samurai, the warrior class, during the Sengoku Period as well. The Sengoku era, literally the Age of the Country at War, was surely not an era of glorious loyalty and refined codes of honor, but rather one of great chaos and violence, in which anyone and everyone, samurai and peasant alike, scrambled for power, or simply to survive.

For those interested, this issue of the myth of the samurai is addressed further in various places throughout the Samurai-Archives Forum, and in episodes 5, 6, 7, and 8 of the Samurai-Archives Podcast (Disclaimer: a podcast in which I am one of the discussants).

Dresner finishes his brief review of the film saying:

As I’ve told my students, family, and acquaintances many times, it’s a shame that more media creators don’t trust the original source material, the actual history, to be captivating, when it so often is much more interesting and dramatic than the fictions.

I could not agree more.

You can read the rest of Prof Dresner’s review at the History News Network.

American Way: Another Japan

I posted some time ago about the Hoshinoya Resort on Taketomi Island, and the locals’ fear that “resort(s) could consume the entire island, like a wave crashing upon it.” The resort has since been completed and opened; I haven’t heard much about the impact, but I remain not optimistic.

Then, a year ago, I was excited to see the Yaeyamas featured in American Airlines’ magazine (of all the places in the world they could have chosen), but the way the magazine is just a total tool of the tourism industry is so disgustingly obvious

I sent them an email, criticizing their recommendation of the Hoshinoya Resort, which promises to overwhelm, irrevocably alter, and damage in various ways the small island of Taketomi, known as one of the greatest “traditional culture” destinations in the country, and the private B&B business of the small local community. To my surprise, the editor emailed me back almost immediately, promising to “balance” the story next time, by also including the B&Bs. I retorted that advertising the resort and the B&Bs is not “balance” and that the proper thing to do would be to advertise the island’s traditional culture appeal & B&Bs, and to denounce the resort for the threat it poses to all of that.

I’m not sure what else to say right now… I’m hoping to visit Okinawa again next September, and to hopefully squeeze in a visit to Taketomi as well. With any luck, the island’s local and traditional character won’t be too irrevocably ruined yet.

Bodhi tree and pond at Maya Devi Temple. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Meanwhile, in other news (though not really so new since I’ve been meaning to post about this since late November), scholars have found a 6th century BCE shrine at Lumbini in Nepal, the earliest Buddhist worship site yet discovered.

The shrine pushes back the dates of the life of the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, who scholars had been estimating might have lived in the 4th century BCE. Despite the conventional wisdom associating the Buddha with India, sites celebrated as his birthplace, the site of his enlightenment, etc., are in Nepal; Lumbini is traditionally believed to be his birthplace. The wooden shrine, with an area in the center open to the sky, seems to have been centered around a tree – the Buddha’s enlightenment having taken place under a bodhi tree. The Buddha is also said to have been born under a tree, grasped by his mother Maya as she gave birth. Later brick buildings were built over the site, and remain a major pilgrimage site today; it was in excavations at this still-active holy site, the Maya Devi Temple, also designated a World Heritage Site, that evidence or remains of the early shrine were found. Some scholars, however, have suggested that a tree shrine could be a pre-Buddhist site as well.

Henoko Plan to Go Forward

*The Japan News reports today that “Okinawa Governor Nakaima is ‘set’ to approve Henoko plan.” What this means is that the controversial Futenma Air Base in Ginowan will be closed (eventually; by 2022 or so), and that a new airfield will be built at Henoko, an eastern-facing point a bit further north on the island. This runs counter, I think, to popular expectation, and to what Nakaima has repeatedly stated his position to be – the most popular opinion, I believe, amongst Okinawan citizens, is that the base should be closed entirely, or relocated outside of Okinawa prefecture, not simply relocated on the island. Many have opposed the Henoko plan, too, because of the damage the new base will cause to dugong habitats. Whether this is merely a convenient excuse, or whether people are truly, genuinely, passionate about the dugongs, is unclear; in truth, it’s probably a combination of the two.

Right: Flyers posted by students at the University of the Ryukyus, explicitly opposing new base construction at Henoko. August 2013.
Now, I don’t follow politics that closely, so I don’t know that much about attitudes towards Nakaima – whether people expected this, or whether this comes as a shock, or what. I appreciate that I’m in the dark largely because I simply choose not to take the time to read more about all of this; even so, I’m sure there are elements of the negotiations that are simply not publicly known. What precisely was said in meetings or discussions between Nakaima and Tokyo? What options were presented and considered, and why did Nakaima made the decision he did, in the end? What does he, or Okinawa, gain by doing this, and what more might they have lost if they hadn’t? Is Nakaima doing this in the best interests of the Okinawan people, or is he selling them out for his own political benefit (somehow)? What exactly does it mean to say there’s “pressure” from Tokyo? How precisely is this pressure imposed?

Whatever the story is, for what it’s worth coming from a non-expert such as myself, I’m not surprised. I love to think that the Okinawan politicians are truly standing up for the Okinawan people, and for what those people want, against pressures from Tokyo, in a romantic, gloriously rebellious “standing up for your rights” and “standing up to bullies” sort of way. But, at the end of the day, politicians are politicians, and in Japan as in the US, to hope for proper big changes is to hope for too much. It doesn’t matter what the people want – if there’s one thing we can rely on our politicians to do, it is to give in to corporate, military, and party interests, to compromise, and to betray their constituents. Will Okinawa ever be free of US military bases? Is that too much to hope for? On the plus side, if there is a plus side to any of this nonsense, it’s that the deeply unpopular new base at Henoko is not actually an entirely new base, but merely a small expansion to a base that already exists – Camp Schwab. How this never came up in previous articles I came across, I don’t know, but it seems pretty clear from the map in the Japan News article.

Futenma Air Base, immediately adjacent to civilian buildings in Ginowan City; as seen from Kakazu Park, August 2013.

Map from The Japan Times. All photos my own.

Currently at the Met: Korea

The other major exhibit I was very glad to catch this winter at the Metropolitan Museum is one entitled “Silla: Korea’s Golden Kingdom,” featuring artifacts from the Korean kingdom of Silla (57 BCE – 935 CE), including a number of National Treasures.

The exhibit, located in a special gallery I don’t think I knew existed, off of the Greco-Roman galleries, begins with this expansive video screen, providing a beautiful view of the Hwangnam Daechong tomb mounds, in Gyeongju, a nod to the idea that you’re actually visiting this sunny, green, public park and entering into the tomb mounds yourself. This was surely expensive, and is only there for spectacle and atmosphere, but boy does it succeed in making the exhibit look/feel top-notch and cutting edge. I also appreciated, snarkily, how all the video screens in the exhibit were not only provided by Samsung, but included brief blurbs on the gallery labels explaining why Samsung’s technology is so amazing. You’d think you were at an industry show, or living inside a commercial or something. “Samsung’s newest such-and-such monitor includes the latest in swiveling, anti-glare, and touchscreen technology, making it the ideal device for any museum exhibition.” You can almost imagine the “wink” and plastic customer service smile at the end of it. Haha.

Tumuli Park (Daereungwon) in Gyeongju. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

But, back to the artifacts. The exhibit begins with a brief explanation of the chronology and geography of the kingdom, and a short video clip showing how the tomb mounds were constructed. Prior to the introduction of Buddhism in the early 6th century, Silla’s royal tombs tended to be made of wooden caskets in above-ground wooden chambers, covered over in earth and stones, creating a mound with no direct passageway or entrance. Various grave goods, including pottery, objects in gold, and even glass imported from as far away as Rome (via the Silk Road), were incorporated into the mounds, meaning (I gather) that as one excavates, it’s not a matter of simply digging down to the burial chamber and finding things laid there, but, rather, that these goods are mixed right in with the earth and stones that form the mound. I don’t know enough about the details of kofun in Japan to draw a comparison, so I’ll have to leave that alone…

Right: National Treasure 191, Queen’s crown and belt from Hwangnam Daechong. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Most of the objects on display in the first portion of the exhibit were these sorts of grave goods, including some heavy, and extremely finely detailed & elaborate golden earrings, with huge, thick rings, and then finely intertwined and filigreed elements dangling from the rings. Perhaps most interesting for me was the queen’s golden crown and belt, each with pendants, altogether sporting tens of jade gogok, or magatama as they’re called in Japanese. My friend who studies shamanism in Japan could surely speak more informedly to this, but throughout the region (Korea, Japan, Ryukyu, though I’m not sure if anywhere else), this particular shape of bead, like a comma, or half a yin-yang, is traditionally, especially in more ancient times, a major spiritual item. One such stone, the Yasakani no Magatama, supposedly housed at the Tokyo Imperial Palace, is one of the Three Imperial Regalia of Japan – that is, one of the three most sacred artifacts associated with the legitimacy of Imperial rule. In Ryukyu, large magatama were the central pendant item on necklaces worn by priestesses and queens, and I gather from this exhibit that similar practices & beliefs were current in Silla as well. Having seen smaller magatama before, of a much more typical size for necklace pendants today (half an inch? just a very rough guess), though I can’t quite remember where, I was surprised at how large some of the gogok were in this exhibit. Those hanging from the queen’s crown were mostly of that smaller size, but the ones on the necklaces were serious hunks of stone, maybe half the size of a fist. I’ve seen pictures of similar crowns, one of the most classic or standard canonical examples of Korean style of that time, and of the similarities between Korean and Japanese styles especially of Japan’s kofun period. So, it was really nice to get to see such an object, and especially one in such excellent, almost complete, restored(?) or conserved condition, in person.

Once Buddhism was introduced to Korea from China, burial practices shifted to more closely emulating the Chinese mode. The tomb mounds became a thing of the past, and burials became much smaller, centered around stone caskets, in stone chambers, with definitive entrance passages, and “spirit paths,” rows of pillars, stelae, or sculptures leading up to the entrance on the exterior. Cremation rather than bodily burial became more common, and ceramic figures of servants, horses, mansions, boats, and the like, included directly in the burial chamber, much as in the Chinese fashion, became common. The exhibit includes a number of these figurines, as well as a few stone sculptures from “spirit paths.” The Chinese zodiac may have been introduced at this time as well, and it’s believed that it was relatively standard to have sculptures of each of the twelve zodiac animals (rat, cow, tiger, snake, monkey, dog, etc.) arranged along a tomb’s spirit path.

Korean National Treasure #83. Maitreya (K: Mireuk), c. 6th-7th century, bronze. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Moving forward, much of the rest of the exhibit consisted of Buddhist artifacts. The true highlight of the exhibit comes at this point. Situated in its own dedicated alcove, I feel so genuinely privileged to have gotten to see, in person, Korean National Treasure Number 83. A gilt bronze sculpture of Mireuk (Maitreya, J: Miroku) dating to roughly the 6th or 7th century, and roughly three feet in height, it sits in the pensive pose, with one hand up to its cheek, and one leg crossed over. An extremely similar sculpture, likely also originally from Korea, and today housed at the temple of Kôryû-ji in Kyoto, was (I believe) the first object designated a National Treasure of Japan. I do not know if I will ever get to see that sculpture, but to see this one is by no means second best.

I do not know whether it’s simply the fame, or something inherent in the sculpture, aesthetically or otherwise, but I found it truly breathtaking. My heart jumped as I gazed upon it, and I felt like I wanted to look at it, examine it, appreciate it, forever. I didn’t want to leave. I think part of the reason it had such impact was because I was surprised by its size, expecting for some reason for it to be closer to handheld in size – something so valued for its age but not for its size – when in fact it is a rather respectable size for a sculpture. I’m not myself Buddhist, but something in the design or aesthetic of the object, from the gentle curves of the bodhisattva’s body, to its gentle gaze through tiny slits of eyes, made me feel such a sense of calm, benevolence, and beauty. The following day, I was privileged to see Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring at the Frick Collection (up through Jan 19), but this did not provoke in me any special response at all. Intellectually, of course, I’m glad to check it off my list of famous paintings to be able to say I’ve seen, but, sadly, for whatever reason, the actual experience of seeing it felt like nothing special. It looks just like it does on the Internet. I was fortunate, too, to see many National Treasures and other stunning, beautiful, and incredibly historical significant objects this past summer in Japan, and eagerly look forward to doing so again.

The exhibition closes with a video showing the Seokguram Buddhist grotto, an incredible cave temple built in stone in the 8th century, and also counted among Korea’s National Treasures. A large stone Buddha is surrounded on all sides by stone slabs, which form the circular walls, floor, entrance corridor, and domed roof of the grotto, all of which where then covered over in earth to form a natural-looking cave. In the late 20th century, a wooden temple building was built before the cave entrance, expanding, or enhancing, the site. Though this grotto, clearly, cannot be removed from its location and brought into the museum, in the final room of the exhibit, they show a cast iron Buddha statue, all alone in that final room, evoking the idea, or the feeling, of the cave temple.

Between this exhibit, the one I saw at the Asian Art Museum a few weeks ago, and the comicbook/manghwa anthology Korea: As Viewed by 12 Creators, I am really eager to visit Korea… though I cannot imagine when that might come to pass.

Silla: Korea’s Golden Kingdom is on display at the Metropolitan Museum through Feb 23, 2014.


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