History of Japanese
Calligraphy - Part 2

Ono no Toufuu, was considered one of the 10th century sanseki (三蹟, lit. “three brush traces”), along with two other individuals Fujiwara no Sukemasa (藤原佐理, 944 – 998) and Fujiwara no Yukinari (藤原行成, 972 – 1027).

Gyokusen-jo (fragment) (玉泉帖), calligraphy by Ono no Michikaze, cursive script, Heian period, 10th century C.E., Tokyo Imperial Household collection.

Michikaze was so talented, that he was accepted to serve at the imperial quarters at the age of 27. He was a diligent calligrapher and his style was naturally powerful yet easy for the soul to appreciate. The other two of the sanseki, greatly contributed to developing further what Michikaze started.

A good example of work that not only displays Michikaze’s potential and artistic capacity but also how versatile his style was, is Gyokusen Jou (玉泉帖), a kansubon (巻子本, lit. “a rolled book”) with poems that were composed during Tang dynasty (唐朝, 618 – 907) in China. It is also a great masterpiece of wayoushodou, full of surprising rhythm, extremes in proportional scaling, wide variety of line strength, slow brush traces suddenly rushing through paper, mocking the changes of the emotional states of the artist.

Wayoushodou was based on sougana (草仮名, cursive kana) and Kana (かな, calligraphy script), which derive from manyougana (万葉仮名, “kana of ten thousand leaves”). It was a result of pursuing aesthetics native to Japan, by members of the upper class.

Poem by Ki no Tsurayuki from the “Collection of poems by 36 people” ( 三十六人歌集), kana, Heian period, 12th century C.E

Manyougana was a remedy for grammatical differences between Chinese and Japanese languages which this new writing system had to face. Manyougana was then applied as grammatical fillings, postfixes, particles, etc. It was nothing else than kanji used purely for phonetic reasons.

Imagine how difficult it must have been to read texts with some kanji playing semantic roles and others reflecting only sounds (though they bore their own abstract meanings anyway, like any other Chinese characters). Around the 12th century there were approximately 1000 kanji in use as manyougana.

Sougana is nothing else but manyougana in Cursive script, thus in sousho (草書). Simplified sougana gave birth to modern hiragana (平仮名) which is used in a unique Japanese calligraphy script - Kana.


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