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24 Paragons of Filial Piety

Vanessa Tothill – Japanese Cataloguer at Maidstone Museum – investigates a collection of 19th-century dishes in our collection
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24 Paragons of Filial Piety

Vanessa Tothill
10th Oct 2016
By Vanessa Tothill

Vanessa Tothill – Japanese Cataloguer at Maidstone Museum – investigates a collection of 19th-century dishes held in the museum’s collection that illustrate tales from the ‘24 Paragons of Filial Piety’, written by the Yuan Dynasty scholar Guo Jujing.

While auditing the Henry Marsham Japanese Collection at Maidstone Museum, I came across an almost complete* service of square-shaped, shallow dishes, each illustrated with a tale from the 24 Paragons of Filial Piety (Nijûshi kô 廿四孝).

These examples of Awata Ware, produced by Iwakurasan kilns in Kyoto in the mid-to-late 19th century, reveal how widespread the use of Nijûshi kô iconography had become, to the point where these morally instructive stories were being used to decorate domestic wares. The choice of Nijûshi kô as an appropriate theme to ornament serve-ware speaks of how affectionately the 24 Paragons of Filial Piety were viewed by Japanese people.

A finely-painted design in polychrome enamels of Tô Fujin (Tang furen) generously suckling her toothless mother-in-law at one breast while her child plays at her side, may strike us as a strange choice of surface decoration. Another design illustrates the tale of Kaku Kyo (Guo Ju) and his wife, who dig a grave for their baby, intent on sacrificing their healthy child so that they can afford to feed Kaku Kyo’s elderly mother. This grim story reveals the harsh decisions that families were forced to make when faced with extreme poverty. Fortunately, the couple unearth a pile of gold and the child’s life is saved.

Not all of the stories are bleak. The 24 Paragons of Filial Piety also include the charming tale of the mythical ruler ‘Shun the Great’, who as a youth helped his father and hateful stepmother by working hard in the fields. In the story, Tai Shun is joined in his farm work by elephants that generously come down from the hills to help him with the ploughing. The design on the dish also shows the small birds hovering above Tai Shun’s head that are assisting with the planting and weeding. The message of the tale is that filial acts are rewarded and that a just ruler is in harmony with nature and the cosmos.

Another popular story taken from the 24 Paragons of Filial Piety that reoccurs in Japanese Art is that of Mô Sô (Ch: Meng Zong). Owing to the number of ukiyoe woodblock prints that reference this story, ‘Mô Sô: He Cried and the Bamboo Sprouted’ is the most well-known tale from the 24 Paragons.

Mô Sô’s mother is ill and, in order to prepare a restorative medicine, Mô Sô heads off into the snow in search of the vital ingredient – a bamboo shoot. Bamboo shoots are harvested in the spring so this appears to be a futile quest that will end in failure. However, after digging in the snow for hours, Mô Sô’s efforts are rewarded when he miraculously discovers a giant bamboo shoot sprouting from the ground. Mô Sô rushes home and joyfully presents the bamboo shoot to his mother.

In spite of the gravity of some of the themes, the Iwakurasan enamel designs are gently comical, good humoured, and uplifting. The 24 tales are sentimental, in some cases they border on the macabre; but overwhelmingly, the tales offer moving accounts of self-sacrifice and filial devotion that tug at the heartstrings.

The 24 Paragons of Filial Piety (Ershisi Xiao 二十四孝) was compiled by Guo Jujing (郭居敬), a poet from Fujian Province in China, during the Yuan Dynasty (1260–1368). The tales were introduced to Japan via woodblock printed Ming Dynasty texts and found favour among Japanese Confucian scholars. Japanese editions of Guo Jujing’s popular title were printed and circulated from the mid-17th century onwards. The 24 Paragons of Filial Piety served as moral exemplars whose selfless actions were thought to promote a harmonious feudal society. The Tokugawa government, intent on reforming public morals, repeatedly espoused the filial and pious ideals epitomised by the 24 Paragons.

*20 of 24 dishes from the Nijûshi kô series are in the Henry Marsham Collection at Maidstone Museum. It is interesting that the dishes were designed as a collectable set of 24; this is reminiscent of how ukiyoe woodblock print series were being marketed to the public in ever increasing sizes. This was a clever marketing strategy that encouraged consumers to spend more money.