Arrival of Kanji Characters in Japan

Kyoto National Museum

Invented in China and used throughout East Asia as a lingua franca, kanji (Chinese characters) have immeasurable cultural value

Kanji are truly a cornucopia of Oriental wisdom, conveying all manner of information, ranging from characters pertaining to everyday life to religious secrets and national histories. Moreover, kanji were required to be perfectly beautiful in their forms, as well as being conveyors of information. The Kyoto National Museum’s calligraphy collection invites viewers to explore the history, underlying ideas, and beauty of each and every character written by wonderful calligraphers of the past.

Album of Stele Rubbings of Calligraphy by Wang Xizhi
4th Century


This famous album of rubbings is known as the Seventeenth Album because its first line commences with the characters for “seventeen.” It is regarded as a masterwork for its representation of the cursive script of legendary calligrapher Wang Xizhi (303–361) of the Eastern Jin dynasty. The album consists primarily of letters believed to have been addressed to Zhou Fu of Shu (modern-day Sichuan).

The calligraphy itself survives in the form of rubbings taken from stone stele engravings of the texts. This edition of rubbings from the Ueno collection has in its postscript a large character meaning “imperial edict,” followed by an inscription describing how the stone engraving of the calligraphy was produced with utmost meticulousness for the purpose of study and practice of calligraphy by teachers and students of the Great Literary Academy (Hongwenguan) by calligrapher and chancellor Chu Suiliang (597–658), who served the Tang Emperor Taizong (r. 626-649). Because of this inscription, this version of the rubbing is sometimes called the “Academy” (guan) edition.

During the Kangxi era (1662–1722) of the Qing dynasty, this album was owned by the renowned calligrapher Jiang Chenying (1628–1699). It was later acquired by distinguished scholar Luo Zhenyu (1866–1940) before entering the collection of Ueno Yūchikusai (1848-1919). Known today as the Ueno Edition of the Seventeenth Album, this album has long been considered the finest extant copy of this calligraphy.

Shishuo xinshu (New Account of Tales of the World), Segment of Volume 6 
7th Century


The Chinese literary scholar Liu Yiqing (403–444) compiled this collection of anecdotes, known as The New Book of Tales of the World (Ch. Shishuo xinshu; J. Sesetsu shinsho), during the Song period (420–479), one of the Southern dynasties of the Six Dynasties period. The work relates the words and actions of prominent figures in China from the Later Han to the Eastern Jin dynasty, and it reflects the atmosphere surrounding daily life and society for members of the military class in that day.

This scroll, part of the original volume 6, comprises the second half of the section entitled “Admonitions and Warnings” and the entire section entitled “Quick Perception”. The script is at once bold, rigorously proper, and elegant. Written on high-quality paper, it dates to the early Tang dynasty, unquestionably within the seventh century. This work is a masterpiece that embodies the height of Tang calligraphy. Also, because it has later additions of phonetic Japanese kana characters and diacritical marks in red, together with other notations in black ink, this text has been prized as a reference for the study of how Chinese texts were read in Japanese.

This scroll was preserved for centuries in the Buddhist temple of Tō-ji, in Kyoto. On its reverse side appears an esoteric Buddhist manual entitled Kongōchō rengebushin nenju giki, which appears to have been copied during the late Heian period, and which attests to this Chinese scroll’s longterm presence in Japan.

Yupian (Jade Chapters) Dictionary, Segment of Volume 9 
7-8th Century


Yupian is a dictionary of Chinese characters that was compiled during the Datong era (535–536) by Gu Yewang (519–581) and originally comprised thirty volumes. It is the second oldest Chinese dictionary after Xu Shen’s Shuowen jiezi (Explaining and Analyzing Characters) of the Later Han dynasty. Yupian organizes characters by radical. Each entry focuses first on pronunciation, using the fanqie system, and then follows with a commentary on meaning.

This fragmentary scroll is made up of three adjacent sheets of paper. These were separated at the latest in the Edo period from another fragment of Yupian’s volume 9, now owned by Waseda University. From the style of script used, we can date this manuscript to China’s Tang dynasty, seventh or eighth century. On the backside of the manuscript is a partial copy of the esoteric Buddhist text Jingang jie siji ( J. Kongōkai shiki, Commentary on the Vajra Realm), which was transcribed in the eighth month of the year 1021 ( Jian 1). Thus we know that this manuscript had already been imported into Japan by the middle of the Heian period.

Daebojeok gyeong (Mahāratnakūta Sūtra), Volume 32, from the Goryeo Gold-character Manuscript of the Buddhist Canon
1006


This extraordinarily rare work is the sole surviving scroll from a set of Goryeo-dynasty manuscripts reproducing the entire Buddhist canon in gold lettering on indigo paper. The massive set was commissioned as a joint offering by the Queen Dowager Cheonchu Hwangbo (997–1009) and her favorite retainer Kim Chiyang in 1006 (Tonghe 24).

Only two or three sutra manuscripts from the Goryeo period that date as far back as the eleventh century survive in either Korea or Japan, of which this scroll is the oldest. Its cover is decorated in silver paint with an arabesque design of auspicious Buddhist-style composite flowers, while the frontispiece uses the same silver paint to depict three bodhisattvas scattering flowers in sacred offering. That these paintings can be assigned a specific, early date makes them highly valuable reference works for art historians.

The manuscript is written on thick, indigo-dyed paper with a heavy, luxurious feel. The text, transcribed by one Choe Seongsak, is somewhat large in size, with powerful and well-formed characters that show the influence of Liang and Khitan writing. Even among the wider expanse of cultures using Chinese characters—China, Korea, and Japan—this scroll stands out as exceptional.
On the left edge of the frontispiece is a notation in red stating that the scroll entered the holdings of the Japanese temple of Kongōrin-ji in Ōmi province in the year 1388 (Kakei 2).

Jōmyōgenron (Commentary on the Vimalakirti Nirdesa Sutra)
706 AD
This eight-volume commentary Jōmyō genron (Ch. Jingming xuanlun) presents the essential points of the Buddhist scripture Vimalakīrti nirdeśa sūtra (Ch. Weimo jing, J. Yuima kyō). The original text was written by the Chinese priest Jicang (549–623) of Jiaxiang temple, known for expanding the teachings of the Mādhyamika (Ch. Sanlun, J. Sanron) school of Buddhism in China during the Sui dynasty (581–619).

This manuscript of Jōmyō genron was copied in Japan and is an extraordinarily rare historical Buddhist scripture. The fourth and sixth volumes of the set have colophons dated the twelfth month of 706 (Keiun 3), making them Japan’s oldest surviving dated manuscripts—Buddhist or secular. Some scrolls of the manuscript are reproductions: the first volume was recopied during the Heian period (794–1185), while the second and fifth volumes date to the Kamakura period (1185–1333). The prefaces of three of the volumes (all but the seventh and eighth) were also copied later.

Sutra commentaries and annotations composed by Chinese monks were typically written in freehand, without adherence to the strict seventeencharacters- per-line standard required for copies of actual sutra texts. This manuscript’s paper is made from paper mulberry ( J. kōzo) fibers, while its script evokes the tastes of China’s Six Dynasties period—providing essential information for our understanding of historical calligraphic styles. Also of historical significance are the white marks and other diacritical marks indicating the proper reading of the Chinese characters into Japanese. These notations provide a valuable, early reference for study of the Japanese language.

Segment of Kongō hannyakyō kaidai (Introduction to the Diamond Sutra)
9th Century


The text of this manuscript is an introduction to the Diamond Sutra (Skt. Vajracchedikā prajñāpāramitāto sūtra, J. Kongō hannya kyō) authored by the priest Kūkai (also known as Kōbō Daishi, 774–835). What makes this copy especially rare is that it is in the hand of Kūkai himself, who is considered one of the three greatest calligraphers in all of Japanese history.

This kind of introduction ( J. kaidai) typically explains the meaning of a sutra’s title and gives an overview of its contents. Kūkai’s introduction, however, explains the sutra’s title from two perspectives: a “revealed synopsis,” or shallow overview expressed in words, and an “arcane, esoteric” explanation, referring to its deeper, hidden meaning.

The Nara National Museum owns a segment from the same manuscript, which has been mounted as a handscroll (also designated a National Treasure); shorter fragments can be found in albums of exemplary calligraphy and elsewhere. Among these, the Kyoto National Museum scroll contains the longest existing intact section of the text, comprising a total of sixty-three lines. It begins with the phrase, “In this way, unlimited virtue is manifested within four lines,” and ends with “Thus the five-colored scriptures, we also call ‘sutras.’”

The manuscript is written alternately in cursive and semi-cursive scripts. It shows signs of erasures and corrections in places, for which reason it is believed to have been a rough draft. In fact, as a rough draft, this text is considered all more valuable for its ability to bring us closer to the real Kūkai, one of the “Three Brushes” of Japan.
Conservation work was done on the scroll, between 2011 and 2013 at which time the backing papers of the former mounting were removed. It has now been restored to its original unlined state.

The Iwasaki Edition of Nihon Shoki (Nihongi), Volumes 22 and 24
10th Century


Nihon shoki (Chronicles of Japan, also called Nihongi) is Japan’s oldest imperially sanctioned official history, compiled in the Nara period. It records the history of the country in chronological order from its mythological origins through the reign of Empress Jitō (645–702), recounting myths, legends, and documentary records that were passed down within the imperial court. Written entirely in Chinese characters, Nihon shoki was recorded in a total of thirty scrolls.

These two scrolls most recently came from the Iwasaki Bunko section of the Tōyō Bunko library, owned by the Iwasaki family, which ran the Mitsubishi conglomerate. Volume 22, “Empress Suiko[554–628],” records incidents related to Prince Shōtoku such as the Twelve Level Cap and Rank System and the adoption of the Seventeen-article Constitution. Volume 24, “Empress Kōgyoku[594–661],” relates the rise of the father-and-son pair Soga no Emishi and Iruka and their subsequent deaths during the Isshi Incident (645). From the diacritical marks and the writing style, this manuscript has been dated to the Heian period, the tenth century.

Both scrolls contain a variety of diacritical marks and notations written next to the texts. Phonetic kana characters and wokototen marks indicating how to read the Chinese characters in Japanese and markers indicating tone—all of which date to the mid-Heian period—are notated in vermillion. In the late Heian period, kana pronunciations and other diacritical marks were added in black ink. These are the oldest diacritics and readings found in any copy of Nihon shoki.

In addition, the esteemed scholar Ichijō Kaneyoshi (1402–1481) went over the entire manuscript twice during the Muromachi period, adding his own diacritical marks. Thus this work is considered to be one of the most important existing references for the historical use of diacritics in the Japanese language.

Ippongyō waka kaishi (Poems on the Chapters of the Lotus Sutra)
11-12th century


This edition of the Lotus Sutra (Skt. Saddharmapun ・d・arīka-sūtra, J. Myōhōrengekyō or Hokekyō) gets its nickname because each individual character rests on a colorful lotus pedestal. The tiny paintings and calligraphy, brushed in formal standard script, are executed in strict regularity while at the same time evoking a sense of softness within their framework of silver guide lines.

In chapter 21, “The Supernatural Powers of the Buddha,” the top of each line of the sutra begins with a series of lotus seats in a consistent color order—blue, crimson, green, and silver (alternating with black ink)—creating horizontal bands of color. Unfortunately, the final poetry text of this chapter is missing. In chapter 22, “Entrustment,” the lotuses are colored in a more complex pattern than in the previous scroll.

Surrounding central crimson lozenges are nested lozenges of green, blue, gold, and silver.
The practice of placing each character on a lotus pedestal suggests that each syllable of the sutra is itself a seated Buddha, reminding us very straightforwardly and effectively that these scriptures are indeed the sacred words of the Buddha.

Sutra of Forty-two Chapters
13th Century


The Sutra of the Forty-two Chapters contains forty-two admonitions for Buddhist practitioners on how to conduct their training and daily lives. It was especially prized within circles of Chan ( J. Zen) Buddhism in China and Japan.
This manuscript of the sutra has two red seals at the end reading “Lanxi” and “Daolong”; and the calligraphy shows the influence of the Southern Song-dynasty master calligrapher Zhang Jizhi (1186–1266). These factors suggest that this work was written in the hand of the famous priest Lanxi Daolong ( J. Rankei Dōryū).

Lanxi Daolong was born in Western Shu, present-day Sichuan province. At age thirteen, he took the Buddhist tonsure at a Chan temple in Chengdu. After traveling around to a number of Chan temples in Jiangnan, he and his disciples came to Japan in 1246. There, he became the Zen teacher to Hōjō Tokiyori (1227–1263), who was at the time regent to the Kamakura shogunate. Lanxi Daolong later became the founding priest of the Zen complex Kenchō-ji in Kamakura, establishing the foundations of Zen Buddhism in the Kamakura region. He died on the twenty-fourth day of the seventh month of 1278, immediately after which retired Emperor Kameyama bestowed upon him the posthumous title of Daikaku Zenji.

This manuscript, now mounted as a handscroll, was originally in the form of an accordion-style book that would have opened to show twelve lines of text at a time, six on each side of the central fold.

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