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Soga Shôkô, about mid-17th century
Pine, Bamboo and Plum
Ink and gold wash on paper

This exceptionally large pair of byôbu, each consisting of eight panels rather than the standard six, depicts the "Three Worthies" or "Three Friends": pine, bamboo, and plum. The pine symbolizes endurance and longevity, the bamboo reflects strength and flexibility, and the plum evokes purity of character. In Chinese painting, the source of this theme, these qualities epitomized the scholar-official class that served the government in various ways. Japan had no direct equivalent of this class, but the samurai, de facto rulers of Japan from 1180 to 1868, appropriated the symbolism of the three worthies. The "Three Worthies" theme appealed to samurai because their culture was based on feudal relationships overlaid with Confucian ethics. Zen monks, whose arduous practices often extended over an entire lifetime, were also drawn to this theme, evident in the Byaku-e Kannon Triptych in the first gallery.

Soga Shôkô has created a work of remarkable elegance and power. Both the pine and the plum twist in and out of the golden mist as they spread laterally across the surface of the screens. Shôkô used the folds of the byôbu to accentuate these movements. The bird that swoops down toward the pine carries the upward gesture of the long plum branch from the right to the left screen. Shôkô's repertoire of washes and brushstrokes adds a remarkably rich variety of textures to the bark, branches, and leaves of the pine and plum. His calligraphic rendition of the bamboo, with each spray of leaves slipping in and out of the mist, is a technical masterpiece in and of itself.

Ackland Art Museum, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Ackland Fund; 87.11.1

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Copyright (c) 2000, Mayumi Ishida, All Rights Reserved Last Updated: April 11, 2000