skip to Main Content

Aoki Shukuya (1737-1802) 青木夙夜

“The Red Cliff, after Wen Zhengming”

Hanging scroll, ink and color on paper
81.0 x 29.0 cm. (31 7/8 x 11 3/8 in.)

“Painted by Yo Shukuya.”

Artist’s seals:
Shuku; Ya

Box inscription:
By Teiryō (Taigadō VI; late 19th-early 20th c.)

(See inscription below)

Inscription: the Chibi fu of Su Shi (in the translation of Burton Watson):
In the autumn of the year renxu (1082), the seventh month, when the moon had just passed its prime, a friend and I went out in a small boat to amuse ourselves at the foot of the Red Cliff. A fresh breeze blew softly across the water, leaving the waves unruffled. As I picked up the wine jar and poured a drink for my friend, I hummed a poem to the moon and sang a phrase on its strange beauty. In a little while, the moon rose from the eastern hills and wandered across the sky between the Archer and the Goat. White dew settled over the river, and its shining surface reached to the sky. Letting the boat go where it pleased, we drifted over the immeasurable fields of water I felt a boundless exhilaration, as though I were sailing on the void or riding the wind and didn’t know where to stop. I was filled with a lightness, as though I had left the world and were standing alone, or had sprouted wings and were flying up to join the immortals. As I drank the wine, my delight increased and, thumping the edge of the boat, I composed a song that went:

With cassia sweep and oars of orchid wood,
Strike the empty moon, row through its drifting light.
Thoughts fly far away—I long for my loved one
In a corner of the sky.

My friend began to play on an open flute, following my song and harmonizing with it. The flute made a wailing sound, as though the player were filled with resentment or longing, or were lamenting or protesting. Long notes trailed through the night like endless threads of silk, a sound to make dragons dance in hidden caves, or to set the widow weeping in her lonely boat.
Saddened by his playing, I straightened my robe, bowed and asked, “What makes you play this way?” He replied,

‘The moon is bright, stars grow few,
Crows and magpies fly to the south.’

That’s how Cao Cao’s poem goes, doesn’t it? There you can see Xiakou to the west, Wuchang to the east. A dense tangle of dark green, bounded by mountains and river—this is the very spot where the young Zhou You swooped down on Cao Cao, isn’t it? After Cao Cao had conquered Jing and taken Jiangling, he sailed down the Yangze to the east. The stems and sterns of his ships touched for a thousand miles, and his flags and pennants blocked out the sky. He drank wine overlooking the river, laid his lance across the saddle, and wrote his poems. Surely he was the greatest hero of his time—yet where is he now?

“What then of you and me? Fishermen and wood gatherers by the banks of streams, companions to fish and crayfish, friends of deer and elk, riding this leaf of a boat, dipping gourds into the wine jar and pouring for each other—we are no more than summer flies between heaven and earth, a grain of millet on the waste of the sea! It grieves me that life is so short, and I envy the long river that never stops. If we could only link arms with the flying immortals and wander where we please, embrace the moon and grow old with it…But I know that such hopes cannot quickly be fulfilled, and so I confide these lingering notes to the sad air.”

I asked, “Do you know how it is with the water and the moon? ‘The water flows on and on like this,’ but somehow it never flows away. The moon waxes and wanes, and yet in the end it’s the same moon. If we look at things through the eyes of change, then there’s not an instant of stillness in all creation. But if we observe the changelessness of things, then we and all beings alike have no end. What is there to be envious about?

“Moreover, everything in the world has its owner, and if a thing doesn’t belong to us, we don’t dare take a hair of it. Only the clear breeze over the river, or the bright moon between the hills, which our ears hear as music, our eyes see beauty in—these we may take without prohibition, these we may make free with and they will never be used up. These are the endless treasures of the Creator, here for you and me to enjoy together!”

My friend was pleased and, laughing, washed the wine cups and filled them up again. But the fruit and other things we had brought to eat were all gone and so, among the litter of cups and bowls, we lay down in a heap in the bottom of the boat, unaware that the east was already growing light.[1]

On the sixteen of the second lunar month, spring of the year 1534 of the Jiajing reign-era, written by Wen Zhengming of Changzhou.” Seals: Zheng; Ming


This painting and its poetic inscription illustrate to perfection the ways in which later Japanese painters could evoke far distant times and places and weave those various strands together with their own contributions to create visual fabrics rich with historical and art-historical overtones. In the pre-sent case, the scene derives ultimately from a Chinese historical event of the year 208 A.D., a battle between forces struggling for hegemony during the waning days of the Han dynasty. Charged with opposing the 800,000-man army of Cao Cao (155-220), advancing via war-ships the banners of which darkened the sky, was the young Zhou You (174-218), who brought to the battle only 30,000 men but a superior strategy: to loose burning ships among Cao Cao’s fleet, which was destroyed and most of his crew and soldiers lost in the crushing defeat. The theme at this level celebrates the heroic image of Zhou You, relying on superior ideas to triumph over brute force, and one can easily imagine the action-packed drama of any painting based directly on this event.

Intervening between our painted image and the historical event is a poet, Su Shi (1036-1101), whose imagination was greatly stimulated during several visits to the Red Cliff at Huanggang in Hubei, one in early autumn of the year 1082, when he wrote the poem quoted above, and again in early winter when Su wrote a second descriptive poem. The poet’s romantic response to those circumstances was also embodied in a poem that followed the first descriptive account:

The great river flowing ever eastward,
Its waves have washed away all the gallants of ancient times.
West of the old rampart, so people say,
Lies the Red Cliff of young Zhou You of the
Three Kingdoms.
Riotous rocks cleave the clouds;
Roaring billows rend the shores,
Rolling up a thousand piles of snow.
The river and mountain look like a picture.
How many heroes were there at that time?

I think of Zhou You in those days,
Newly married to the young Qiao girl—
His heroic looks, majestic and spirited.
Holding a feather fan and wearing a silk kerchief,
Amidst talk and laughter,
He reduced his strong enemy to flying ashes
and smoldering smoke.
In this spiritual tour of the ancient kingdom,
I should be laughed at for being so sentimental,
My hair turning gray in these early years.
Life is but a dream.
Let us pour a goblet of wine as a libation to the
river moon.[2]

Scholars since the Ming period have taken some delight in pointing out that the actual site of the great battle was not the Red Cliff visited by Su Shi at Huanggang, to the east of Hankou, but rather the Red Cliff at Jiayouxian, to the west of Hankou. But poetry won over history, and it was at Huanggang that pavilions were built to shelter the myriad visitors enticed by the compelling imagery of Su Shi’s poems.

Artists very soon gave visual form to Su’s poems on the Red Cliff, such as Li Song’s painting of the early 13th century (fig. 1), which is a direct presentation of Su’s visit to the cliff over `the great river…with roaring billows rending the shores.’ During later centuries innumerable calligraphers and painters wrote out the text and painted their versions of the theme, thus claiming for themselves a place in the literati lineage emanating from the Sung poet. Wen Zhengming (1470-1555), mentioned in the inscription on the present painting, chose “The Red Cliff’ as his theme on numerous occasions during a long and very productive career. Wen’s hanging scroll dated to 1534, the immediate inspiration for the present painting according to the inscription here, is not known to be extant, but a painting done by Wen in 1555 may be used to suggest his approach to the theme (fig. 2). Both Wen and the artist of the present picture were fine calligraphers as well as painters and both wrote out the complete original prose-poem by Su Shi. The compositions are also rather similar, in that the boat functions as a pictorial fulcrum between small fore-ground bank and the cliff towering above. Major differences between the two include the closer viewpoint of the Japanese painting and the use of color to create a more intimate scene. One in which delicacy of line and form serve to transport the image to the realm of myth and poetry.

The artist, Aoki (originally Yo) Shunmei (Toshiaki), called Shukuya, was born in Ise, perhaps of Korean parents surnamed Yo. His elder cousin Tenju (1727-1795), who was later adopted by the Nakagawa family in Kyoto, sometimes called himself Kan Tenju, the “Kan” surname being derived from the Japanese name for Korea, Kankoku. Shukuya was adopted by the Aoki family in Kyoto, and was probably introduced by Tenju to his close friend Ike Taiga (1723-1776), who became Shukuya’s teacher and exerted profound influence over the later course of his life. The three masters worked together on a number of occasions, for example in 1761 when Shukuya did an interesting version of the “Orchid Pavilion” theme (fig. 3), based, according to his inscription, on a painting by Dong Qichang (1555.1636), and Tenju and Taiga added colophons alluding to the original text written by Wang Xizhi (321-379).

Like Tenju, Shukuya maintained contacts in Matsuzaka, where they both were born. The writer Hosoai Hansai mentioned in his preface to Tenju’s Kishizukamei that he had met Tenju and Shukuya in Edo, where they may have gone on business on behalf of the Matsuzaka shop named Tamaruya. The avid collecting and publishing activities of the cousins may in fact have led to a decline in Tamaruya’s business. Shukuya’s fame as a painter continued to grow; however, and in the 1782 edition of the Heian Jinbutsu-shi, his name appears together with those of Kō Fuyō (1722-1784), a close friend of Taiga, and Ike Gyokuran (1728-1784), Taiga’s wife.

Following the death of Gyokuran in 1784, Shukuya and other pupils established a memorial hall named the Taigadō in the area of Sōrinji where Taiga had lived. Shukuya became the first master of the hall, calling himself Taigadō 2nd, and, according to Tanomura Chikuden (1777-1835): “…He closed his gate and did not go out, supporting himself as a writer. He did not clear away the grass and tree-leaves and the steps and courtyard were left unswept. For more than ten years he was cut off from others as though by a screen and few people saw his face…” Even a simple portrait of Taiga by Shukuya manifests the depths of his respect for his master (fig. 4) and suggests as well the normal restraint of his style and life.

The present painting, which was done fairly early during Shukuya’s career, considering his use here of the surname Yo, captures the delicacy and refinement of the Chinese original by Wen Zhengming while yet manifesting Shukuya’s original contributions to this ancient theme, to be found mainly in the more abstract pictorial patterns and the formalized composition. Chikuden judged Shukua’s landscape style to have been based mainly on that of Wen Zhengming and praised the grace and elegance of his precisely applied color and controlled brushwork, concluding,“ … He profoundly achieved the ancient standards. He said himself that ‘I need from five to ten days to complete even a single rock or patch of water; silk and paper (from those seeking paintings) pile up on my desk, for unless I have an idea or become inspired, I dare not work. I cannot live the life of selling mountains as practiced by the ancients.’ Thus his extant works are very rare.”

Shukuya’s individuality is also evidenced by comparison of this work here with one by his teacher, Taiga, whose screen painting of the same subject emphasizes the conviviality of the excursion through the casual postures of his figures and the spontaneity of the brushwork used on the cliffs above (fig. 5). Shukuya, a contemplative man himself, paints in a much more thoughtful and painstaking manner, seeking to make manifest the complex layers of space, time, and meaning of his theme. His words and image successfully evoke the spatial and temporal distance between his world and that of Wen Zhengming, and between that of Wen and Su Shi; for all of them the original event itself has disappeared beneath the accumulated layers of culture.

1. Burton Watson: Su Tung-p’o, New York, 1965, pp. 87-90.

2. Liu Wu-chi: An Introduction to Chinese Literature, Bloomington, 1966, p. 110.

14.1Fig. 1. Li Song: ‘The Red Cliff,” after Osvald Siren:
Chinese Painting, New York, 1956, volume III, pl. 313.

14.2Fig. 2. Wen Zhengming: “The Red Cliff’ 1555, after Richard Edwards:
The Art of Wen Cheng-ming (1470-1559), Ann Arbor, 1976, p. 209.

14.3Fig. 3. Shukuya: “The Orchid Pavilion” 1761,
after Murakarni Yasuald: Kan Tenju, Sōgeisha, 1991, p. 73.

14.4Fig 4. Shukuya: “Portrait of Taiga,” after Melinda Takeuchi:
Taiga’s True Views, Stanford, 1992, p. 75, fig. 53.

14.5Fig. 5. Ike Taiga: “The Red Cliff,”
after lijima Isamu and Suzuki Susumu:
Taiga-Buson, volume 12 of Suiboku Bijutsu Taikei, Tokyo, 1977, pl. 48.

Back To Top