Jonathan A Hill Bookseller has released Catalogue 246 of Chinese, Japanese, & Korean Books, Manuscripts, & Scrolls. Hill specializes in material from East Asia, an area not well known to most in the West until well into the 19th century. Many of these works date back to those times when interactions between East and West were small. For the most part, the Westerners wanted to move in and become more involved in those lands while Easterners were more likely to want to be left alone. In time, that proved impossible as the world became “smaller,” travel becoming easier. Here are a few selections from this latest Jonathan Hill catalogue.
We begin with a journey way back in time, printing before the invention of printing, at least in Western parlance. We think of Gutenberg as inventing printing in 1455, but that was printing with movable type. Woodblock printing in the East goes back many centuries earlier. This is an Orihon, accordion format woodblock printing of the Sutra of Perfection of Wisdom, or Mahaprajnaparamitasutra from Japan. It was printed by the monk and Buddhist priest Chikan in January 1363. The book contains wisdom believed to have been preached by the Buddha. It was originally translated to Chinese by Xuanzang, who traveled to India in the seventh century and returned with a wealth of writings which he and a team translated. This copy contains a manuscript inscription from the traveling priest Kanjinso, dated June 1399. Item 82. Priced at $7,500.
I guess you could call this a “picture book,” though that term generally connotes something different. This is Mekura-kyo, or “Sutras for the illiterate.” The chanting of sutras is an important part of Buddhism, but in its time, late Edo period of the 19th century, many Japanese, particularly in the countryside, were not literate. How could they learn the words of the sutras to chant? The answer was to use pictures which combine to phonetically spell out the sounds of those words. Hill provides an English example of this principle. To spell out in pictures how to pronounce the word “belief,” you could show a picture of a bee followed by one of a leaf. Since its audience was largely rural, the pictures used were ones people from the countryside would recognize, including animals and farm tools such as saws. Item 32. $4,750.
Next is an illustrated manuscript related to an American attempt to open trade with Japan. We all know about Commodore Perry's visit to Japan in 1854 that finally forced Japan to open their shores to foreign trade, but an earlier attempt was made by Commodore James Biddle. Biddle had completed a trade agreement with China when he sailed to Japan. Rather than proceeding to Nagasaki, where the Dutch held the exclusive right to foreign trade, to argue his case, Biddle headed toward the capital at Edo. There, he was met at sea by local officials where his request was denied. This manuscript contains a drawing of the coastline and terrain, made in Japan. In the water near the bottom of the illustration Biddle's two ships are shown, with dozens of canons and the American flag displayed. The text cites distances and details about forts, barracks, and other defenses. This document was top secret as the Japanese did not want foreigners to have access to the information. An inscription says this was copied from a document belonging to a regional lord. Item 2. $4,500.
Here is a very strange ritual that took place during the Edo Period at the Rinnoji temple in Nikko. It is called Gohan Shiki (ceremony of forced rice eating). If you like rice, really, seriously like rice, this is for you. Three participants are brought bowls of rice, very, very large bowls of rice. They are 75 times the size of normal rice bowls. The monks then proceed to berate the participants, chastising them for not being sufficiently respectful, forcing them to bow to the ground. Those witnessing the ceremony, on the other hand, have a great time. Actually, it is a good time for all. The participants don't actually eat the rice despite it being called “forced” eating. But, it is said that those participating in or witnessing the ceremony along with their families will have good luck. This event still takes place at the temple today. Item 26a is a hand scroll on mica-sprinkled paper depicting five colored scenes from this ceremony with explanatory text. $4,250.
This is an account by a Korean taken prisoner by the Japanese during the Imjin War, which took place from 1592-1598. The Japanese invaded in 1592, hoping to take control of the Korean Peninsula. A truce was concluded, but the war started up again in 1597. It ended when the Japanese withdrew in 1598. The account was written by Hui-duk Chong, here called Wolbong, with the title being Wolbong haesangnok (Wolbong's records from out at sea). When the Japanese first landed in 1592, Chong and his family were able to hide. When the Japanese returned in 1597, things did not go as well. The family got on a small boat and headed north along the Korean coast. Unfortunately, the wind blew them off course and they ended up encountering Japanese ships. As Chong describes it (translated), “My old mother, my older and younger sisters, my wife, and [some of] my children threw themselves into the sea and perished.” His elderly father and two infants were of no use to the Japanese, so they were left on shore. Chong was taken prisoner, “having not had the time to choose death.” He was placed on a “bandit ship” and taken to an island off Japan. Despite it all, Chong did have some nice things to say about the Japanese, including the quality of their medicine. The book was later read by diplomats traveling to Japan. Item 4. $17,500,