Changing Times, Enduring Values: Chikanobu's 24 Paragons of Filial Piety

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.

Chikanobu, "Soshin (Zeng Can)" from the series Twenty-four Paragons of Filial Piety, 1890, Woodblock print, Ronin Gallery.

Soshin (known as Zeng Can in the Chinese tale) was born to a poor family. Following his father’s death, the young Soshin was devoted to caring for his mother. One day, while Soshin was in the mountains cutting firewood, a guest arrived at his mother’s door. His mother was flustered, having little to offer the guest, and she hoped her son would return soon. In her anxiety, she bit down on her finger so hard that she drew blood. At this moment, Soshin felt his mother’s pain and rushed back home. Chikanobu illustrates Shoshin's return at the top of the print. (Chikanobu, "Soshin (Zeng Can)" from the series Twenty-four Paragons of Filial Piety, 1890, Woodblock print, Ronin Gallery.)

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).

Chikanobu, "Yoko (Yang Xiang)"from the series Twenty-four Paragons of Filial Piety, 1890, Woodblock print, Ronin Gallery.
Chikanobu, "Yoko (Yang Xiang)" from the series Twenty-four Paragons of Filial Piety, 1890, Woodblock print, Ronin Gallery.

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.

Chikanobu, "Oshu (Wang Xiang)" from the series Twenty-four Paragons of Filial Piety, 1890, Woodblock print, Ronin Gallery.
Osho (or Wang Xiang in the Chinese tale) lost his mother at a young age. Though his father took a new wife, the woman despised the boy and she turned Osho’s father against him. Despite this cruelty, the young Osho remained devoted to them both. One cold winter his stepmother fell ill and had a craving for fresh fish. Osho went to the frozen river, removed his clothes, and thawed the ice with his body heat. He was able to catch two carp for his stepmother. When he presented the fish, she changed her behavior towards Osho. In the top panel, Osho rests on the ice as he glimpses the fish below. (Chikanobu, "Oshu (Wang Xiang)" from the series Twenty-four Paragons of Filial Piety, 1890, Woodblock print, Ronin Gallery.)

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 ChikanobuEach of these fine impressions is paired with its corresponding story.

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