This Mother’s Day, Ronin Gallery celebrates the mothers in our lives with Chikanobu’s interpretation of the classic Twenty-four Paragons of Filial Piety. Dating to the Yuan dynasty China (1260-1368), these twenty-four tales of devoted children and honored parents inspired artists and audiences over the centuries. Though some of the parables may seem grim to today’s reader, the stories’ core value – honor thy parents – resounds with contemporary values. This collection of stories is attributed to the Chinese poet Guo Jujing, who is said to have penned the work following the death of his beloved father. These didactic stories celebrated Confucian values and became wildly popular not only in China, but in Japan as well.
During the Momoyama period (1573-1615), the Chinese tales of filial piety became a popular artistic theme in Japan. Though a collection of twenty-four Japanese exemplars of filial piety emerged, the Chinese tales continued to take precedent in paintings, prints, and illustrations. At the hands of ukiyo-e artists, the Twenty-four Paragons became a popular theme that evolved with the woodblock print medium. For the Meiji-period (1868-1912) artist Chikanobu, the familiar tales were ripe for mitate-e, a genre of ukiyo-e defined by punning, allusion to classical sources, and, at times, veiled social commentary.
In his 1890s series Twenty-four Paragons of Filial Piety, Chikanobu juxtaposes each canonical story with a scene of 19th century life. As the original parable unfolds towards at the top of the image, a modern comparison plays out below, enacted through beautiful women and children. Chikanobu worked during an era of rapid change – both for Japan and the woodblock medium. As the Meiji government pushed Japan’s modernization along a Western Imperial model, some, like Chikanobu, worried that aspects of traditional Japan culture were slipping away. Turning to the theme of the Twenty-four Paragons, Chikanobu promoted the Confucian value of filial piety with the wit, style, and vivid color of his time. This spirit can be seen in the story of Yoko (Yang Xiang).
Yoko (or Yang Xiang in the Chinese tale) was known for saving his father from a tiger. The story goes that one day, as the 14-year-old Yoko accompanied his father to the fields, a tiger interrupted their harvest. The beast leapt towards Yoko’s father and clenched the man in his jaws. Desperate to save his father, Yoko jumped onto the tiger’s back and wrapped his hands around its neck, squeezing the throat until the tiger dropped Yoko’s father and fled into the woods. In the top of Chikanobu’s composition, the tiger’s tail crosses through red and green Chinese-style banner and into the margin. The beast growls at the young Yoko, who stands firm, as the father flees from danger. In the scene below, we find a different kind of feline. As books and papers spill from the table in the adjacent room, the young boy rests his hand on the back of a house cat. As the boy looks up at the woman beside him, perhaps he is explaining a recent vicious “attack” on the reading materials.
In each design, Chikanobu offers brings together parable and present to capture the changing world and enduring values. To explore the other tales of filial devotion, be sure to visit our online exhibition, Twenty-four Paragons of Filial Piety by Chikanobu. Each of these fine impressions is paired with its corresponding story.