To Ei (or Dong Yong in the Chinese tale) lost his mother as a child and lost his father soon after. When could not pay for his father’s funeral, he sold himself as an indentured servant to a wealthy man in order to pay funeral fees. As To Ei traveled to his master’s house, he encounter a beautiful woman on the road. The two were married and together began work weaving the 300 bolts of cloths required of To Ei’s servitude. Though he estimated that the task would take at least three years, the young woman completed all 300 bolts in a month. As they took their first steps of freedom, the woman revealed that she was the daughter of the Heavenly Emperor. She had been so moved by To Ei’s filial piety that she came from heaven to help him. Since To Ei was once again a free man, she returned to Heaven.
About the artist
Chikanobu Toyohara (also known as Chikanobu Yoshu) was a leading woodblock print artist of the Meiji Period. Born in Niigata prefecture as Naoyoshi Hashimoto, Chikanobu began his life as the son of samurai in the service of the Sakakibara clan. During the Meiji Restoration, he joined the shogitai, an elite samurai brigade in direct support of the waning Tokugawa Shogunate, and fought bravely in the Battle of Ueno in 1868. Though captured in the fray, he was released unharmed. As the Shogunate fell, Chikanobu focused on a career in art.
Though trained in Kano school painting from an early age, Chikanobu shifted his attention to ukiyo-e around 1852. He began his printmaking career under the tutelage of Utagawa School masters Kuniyoshi, Kunisada and Kunichika. Like many of his contemporaries, Chikanobu Toyohara worked as a newspaper illustrator as well as a print artist. By 1871, he had established himself as a leading print artist. He designed across all genres, from kabuki actors and beauties to military exploits of past and present. During the 1870s, Chikanobu captured Meiji Japan’s rapid modernization through kaika-e, or “enlightenment pictures.” Attuned to current events and public taste, he produced designs of both the 1877 Satsuma Rebellion, an ill-fated insurrection again Meiji government, and well as the 1882 Imo Incident in Korea. Chikanobu’s reflected his changing world not only through his subject matter, but also in his materials. Incorporating the purples and reds of imported aniline dyes, he achieved an element of subtlety and sophistication rarely seen in his era. By the 1880s, a wave of national nostalgia for a Japan past prompted designs exploring traditional Japanese culture, values, and heroes. Through explorations of female beauty, Chikanobu Toyohara personified moments in Japanese history through fashion, manners and customs. In 1912, he died of stomach cancer.