Wednesday, June 5, 2013

How illustrating

The second (and last) chance at passing my Mandarin Chinese exam is fast approaching - I've been studying even harder and more frequently, working on improving my still-poor listening and speaking skills. I've also sought counseling in an attempt to overcome the very real anxiety I'm feeling about a testing regimen designed not with people like me in mind. Still, everyone needs a break now and then, and this afternoon I paid a visit to my favorite of all the museums in Washington, D.C. - the National Museum of Asian Art, or to be more specific, the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery. Today was the third time I've dropped by the Sackler and/or the Freer Gallery of Art, the two galleries that make up the museum. As someone who 对 Japanese art 感兴趣, I generally prefer to check out the Freer, which has one of the best such collections in the United States; the Sackler, meanwhile, is most noted for its "Arts of China" collection. However, the Sackler is currently running an exhibition entitled "Hand-Held: Gerhard Pulverer's Japanese Illustrated Books" through August 11. As a brochure describes it:

Woodblock-printed illustrated books became key sources of knowledge and entertainment in Japan during the Edo period 江戸時代 (1615-1868). Working with renowned artists and authors, enterprising publishers produced compact, inexpensive paperbound volumes that were sold and circulated throughout Japan. With beautiful, intriguing, and entertaining subjects, books brought reading of words and images to the masses, creating a communication revolution similar to electronic media today. Highlights from the Gerhard Pulverer Collection now in the Freer Gallery of Art, including rare private editions and bestsellers such as Hokusai's 葛飾北斎 "Manga" 漫画 sketchbooks, are shown together for the first time since the museum purchased the collection in 2007. 

couldn't have said it any better, which is why I didn't even try. Suffice it to say that the works currently displayed, while relatively small in number, were extremely interesting, while the well-written notations helped make it clear how advanced a society Japan was during the Edo period (the Tokugawa era 徳川時代 was a time when those arts that we think of as being so quintessentially Japanese flowered and prospered). In addition to the above-mentioned Hokusai sketches, I also enjoyed taking a gander at books illustrating classic novels such as The Tale of Genji 源氏物語; travel guides written during a time the shōgunate 幕府 restricted the movement of the majority of the common people; and, naturally, the four examples of erotic imagery known as shunga 春画, one of which illustrated what must have been one of the first examples of "tentacle porn" ever put to print, The Dream of the Fisherman's Wife 蛸と海女.

Unfortunately, I can't show you any of this, as photography wasn't permitted. Obviously, if you have any kind of interest in Japanese woodblock print illustrated books, you should stop by the Sackler Gallery to check out the exhibition.

As for the test - the odds of passing I put at 50/50 at best -, if I don't reach my goal, I suppose I can always place the blame for failing to do so on distractions like today's. 

These were the only photographs I was able to take inside the gallery before a security guard politely informed me that photography wasn't permitted. The above scroll (dating from the late 18th century) is entitled Women Airing Books and Clothes, and depicts several women doing just that, an annual autumn ritual known as mushiboshi 虫干し.

A nearby room had an impressive collection of statuary from South Asia, including these two works. There was also an exhibition called One Man's Search for Ancient China: the Paul Singer Collection. However, by this point in my studies, I'm pretty much sick and tired of anything Sino-related, so I gave this one only a cursory walk-through. Still, I would minding having an apartment like the one Singer lived in, which was stuffed with over 5000 objects collected over a seventy-year period. 

I don't think my wife would be too pleased, however.


  1. hi Jim,

    pray not to add to your anxiety, but (i'm sure i'm not the only one who wants to know) what happens if you don't pass this test, since you said it was your "last chance?" i have confidence that you'll pass! take care.

    1. My career development officer told me the Shanghai assignment would be withdrawn if I fail the test a second time, and hinted that it may influence whether or not I get tenure down the line. A couple of veterans here have told me not to worry, but I can't help it. In any event, it would be much better of course to just get over the hurdle.