29 June to 1 July 2018

1599 Inspirations from the Late Ming and Early Qing, and the Azuchi-Momoyama Period

29 June to 1 July 2018

“The bonsai never sees the sun, but of itself it remains a deep green.”



Inspirations from the Late Ming and the Early Qing, and the Azuchi-Momoyama Periods
明末清初 • 安土桃山时代之风

The setting

The latter part of the 16th Century and the first few decades of the 17th Century were a tumultuous time in East Asia.

In China, this coincided with the decline and end of the Ming Dynasty (明朝) and the rise of the Manchurian Qing (清朝), whilst in Japan, the Ashikaga military government (足利幕府) was finally abolished, and the Tokugawa regime (德川幕府) established, bringing to an end a century and a half of civil war.

So the Ming gave way to the Qing, and the Ashikaga to the Tokugawa, but in each case, decades long periods of transition, which have become known as eras in their own right; Mingmo-Qingchu (明末清初, the End of the Ming and the Beginnings of the Qing), and the Azuchi-Momoyama (安土桃山) respectively.

  As may be expected, the exact dating of each is the subject of much historical debate; transitions are messy. What may be said of each with some confidence is that, in 1551, the period was still some way in the future, and that by 1650, it had long since ended.

We chose the year 1599 therefore as a proxy for a year which could reasonably be argued to have fallen within both these periods. Or maybe just before. Or maybe just after.

Of course, 1599 would quite clearly have been approaching the end of a century by the Gregorian reckoning, but bear in mind that this was not the convention in use in both of those countries at the time; aside from the cyclical lunar calendar, it was the 27th year of the Wanli Era (万历二十七年) in China and the fourth year of the Keicho (庆长四年) Era in Japan.

What would have been clear in both cases however was that an old older was ending, and a new one beginning. What could not have been foreseen at the time though, was that this was the last time that a Chinese Dynasty would be supplanted by another, and a new Japanese “tent government” (幕府, an old literary synonym for “military government”) appointed to replace the previous incumbent; both the Qing and the Tokugawa themselves would ultimately be swept away in a collision with the modern world.

Art, exhibition and aftermath

Needless to say, transitions are inherently paradoxical: beginnings and ends. Extending this just a little further, what use aesthetics when basic human needs such as food, shelter and safety become uncertain?

We can’t answer that. What will be observed though is that, time and time again, art does continue to be produced during such periods, and that often, that very uneasiness gets channeled into a kind of vibrant urgency with powerful results. It’s precisely when life becomes diminished that the human spirit affirms itself most forcefully.

In this exhibition, you won’t just be looking at plants paired with scrolls. Every detail, including the choice of pot and table, the style of mounting, and the relative positioning, has been carefully selected. Appreciate the details, it would be a shame to miss half the fun.

The aim has also not been to recreate an object or arrangement exactly in the manner of a museum-reproduction; even a precise replica of something is not quite the same by virtue of the fact that it was produced under different circumstances. Rather, we have respectfully inquired into the spirit of that age, and it has informed the present display.

“Revise the old and know the new (温故知新)…”

There have been many 1599s. It’s only with hindsight that latter generations can say definitively, “that was a turning point”. And you never quite know at the time that you were living in 1599, and all the things it would come to mean. But maybe even then it’s perceptible, being alive at the turn of an era, which is in itself an event, which is in the end a flicker in time; an accretion of sights and sounds, happenings large and small, a tingle in the air…

It’s almost inconceivable when you try to place yourself in that situation; pruning with exactness a small, ornamental tree, painting and deciding on a complementary poem or aphorism. Perhaps the message, timeless and un-eroding, to take away is this:

You are alive today, here and now, by choice or otherwise. But do your best, whatever that may mean to you. It may have far-reaching consequences, good ones, maybe even beautiful, that you could never have anticipated.




The bonsai featured are from Jack Lee of Bonsai Gallery (www.bonsaigallery.sg)

The calligraphy and paintings featured in the exhibition are by Stanley Chng (庄泽恩) of Water and Ink (www.waterandink.sg) who also goes the sobriquet  (号) Shede (舍得), after his studio Shede-an (舍得庵).