Book Review
by Fred Lieberman

Tall Mountains and Flowing Waters:
The Arts of Uragami Gyokudo

By STEPHEN ADDISS. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1987. ix, 163 p., illustrations, photos, music, appendix, index, bibliography. $25.00.

Uragami Gyokudo (1745-1820) was captivated by the tradition of the Chinese literati and strove to cultivate each of their high-falutin aesthetic pastimes--painting, calligraphy, poetry, and the 7-string zither ch'in-- eventually resigning his comfortable government position to become a wandering scholar-artist. Though Gyokudo has been recognized by Japanese art historians in this century as an important painter, much less attention has been paid to his work in other fields. The difficulties inherent in assessing such a multi-faceted character are extreme even for a Japanese scholar, for whom the studied archaism and foreignness are formidable barriers, compounded by Gyokudo's eccentric and quirky styles. One is hardly surprised, therefore, to learn that Addiss's work on Gyokudo is uniqueertainly in English, probably in any language, since book-length Japanese studies of Gyokudo have been either biographical or devoted to his nonmusical work.

We are thus much in debt to Addiss for this remarkable work, the fruit of arduous preparation, which allows us at long last to meet and properly appreciate the fascinating artist-musician first glimpsed tantalizingly as item 14 in van Gulik's survey of Japanese performers on the Chinese chin (1968:237 38). Addiss introduces us to his subject with a sensitive biographical essay covering Gyokudo's career and its context in the political and artistic history of Tokugawa, Japan. Individual chapters then explore each of Gyokudo's art forms, in roughly chronological order: music, poetry, calligraphy, painting. An Afterword serves to summarize, and takes a first sounding of Gyokudo's general aesthetic principles. The University of Hawaii Press deserves credit not just for publishing a book this specialized, but for its handsome design and careful editing.

Addiss's translations from Gyokudo's poetry are clear and graceful, and the selection is generous enough to cover the range of subjects, moods, and styles. The chapter deals at length with the themes and contents of the poems, only briefly with their prosody and technique. Calligraphy is the least-known of the arts covered; Gyokudo's calligraphy, like his painting and music, has unusual, original aspects. The discussion of calligraphy, therefore, seems too brief; readers might benefit by consulting a more general background work, but none is suggested. The chapter on painting is the longest and most detailed. Addiss earnestly champions Gyokudo's art, explaining the painters themes and strategies in language accessible to nonspecialists. As in the other chapters, the narrative deals predominantly (but not exclusively) with content rather than technique. For those who are persuaded by Addiss that Gyokudo is a painter worth getting to know, it would be nice to learn where even one or two works might be seen in major museums both in Japan and elsewhere.

For the musicologist, the most intriguing and curious aspect of Gyokudo's work is his published collection of compositions for the ch'in, Gyokudo kinpu (1789). While using standard and not especially difficult ch'in notation, the compositions sound like nothing else written for the instrument. They are, in fact, Gyokudo's idiosyncratic recompositions of ancient sabbara folk songs. Addiss transcribes and analyzes several of these compositions, and hazards a reasonable guess as to Gyokudo's motives in composing them: ". . . to convey timeless musical values through a blend of scholarship and creativity..." (p.48). Addiss does not sufficiently stress, however, the extent of Gyokudo's iconoclastic gesture: not only are these pieces based on Japanese rather than Chinese roots, but also and more basically they are all new compositions. By Gyokudo's time, the ch'in repertory was essentially stagnant. Though ch'in handbooks continued to be written, they seldom included a work new to the repertory. And to my knowledge, no other 18th- or 19th-century ch'in handbook consisted exclusively of new material.

To understand and appreciate Gyokudo's musical accomplishments, access to recorded performances of his compositions is absolutely necessary. I have heard only one such recording, by a Chinese musicologist, included as a soundsheet in the 1970 issue of Kobijutsu, a Japanese magazine of fine art. Addiss has made a cassette of his own performances of Gyokudo's music, but unfortunately it was not published with the book, nor was a copy available for review; a note in the book indicates that it may be ordered from another publisher (Edukits, 1310 Heulu Street, Honolulu HI 96822), but gives no price or details. Now that compact discs can be manufactured for prices approaching those of traditional media, one hopes that publishers will devise better ways to include music sound with written words--after all, a CD is only a bit more bulky than a couple of soundsheets, and could easily be enclosed in an envelope attached to a book's inside rear cover.



Gulik, Robert Hans van

1968.  The Lore of the Chinese Lute. 2d ed. Tokyo and Rutland, VT: Tuttle


UCSC | Arts Division