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Returning Sails off the Distant Shore

Muqi13th Century

Kyoto National Museum

Kyoto National Museum

The title of this painting refers to one of the eight scenes the late Northern Song-dynasty literati painter Song Di (ca. 1015–ca. 1080) created in his work The Eight Scenes of Xiaoxiang. Xiaoxiang refers to the two rivers, the Xiao and the Xiang, and Lake Dongting that create the river basin in Hunan. The poetry of Li Po (701–762) and Du Fu (712–770) transformed this region into a household word, and the Xiaoxiang became a famous scenic spot.
The exquisitely applied light ink conveys the sense of dampness and was also used for the shadows of the sails as the boats travel over the river. The painter, Muqi ( J. Mokkei, n.d.), was a monk from Shu (present-day Sichuan), his Buddhist name having been Fachang. He studied under Wuzhun Shifan ( J. Bujun Shiban,
1177–1249) from the same province and later established the Liutong Temple in Xihu (West Lake), Hangzhou. Tradition holds that he studied painting under Yin Jichuan (n.d.).
In China, it appears that Muqi’s paintings were selected from an early period, and many of those works were shipped to Japan where they were clearly appreciated. The idealized land created by the literati seen in this painting illustrates the differences in approach and understanding towards brush painting that were to appear later between Japan and China.
There are six other paintings by Muqi that are known to have survived, including Evening Light in Fishing Village owned by the Nezu Museum. Four of these are large scrolls and the remaining three are small. Scholars believe that the large scrolls with Ashikaga Yoshimitsu’s seal originally were one painting, and that Yoshimitsu had the painting cut into smaller works so that he could appreciate them in his rooms. These works were then preserved by Murata Jukō, Oda Nobunaga, Araki Murashige, Tokugawa Ieyasu, Matsudaira Uemondayū, Tokugawa Iemitsu, the Toda family, Tanuma Okitsugu, Matsudaira Fumai, and the Kikkawa family.

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