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Year of the Fire Rooster

Updated: Aug 30, 2019


On January 28th the Asian Year of the Fire Rooster started. The ancient Chinese calendar, now used only for some festivals, 250 years ago gave impulse to an important development in Japanese ukiyoe prints, an artistic genre popular until today.

According to Japanese tradition, in 604 CE Empress Suiko ordered the adoption of the Chinese lunisolar calendar system in Japan. Traditional Chinese calendar, known as gānzhī (干支), was a complicated system, based partially on astronomical observations of Moon and Sun (hence “lunisolar”), and partially on predictions and calculations. It used sexagenary cycle, with 60-years periods divided into 10 “trunks” and 12 “branches”. “Trunks” were arranged in pairs and aligned with 5 alchemical elements, while “branches” were represented by 12 animals. The months, days and hours system was even more complicated.

The months begin with new moon and have always either 29 or 30 days. But since a lunar month is shorter than a solar month (i.e. the actual “days” as we see them), the lunar calendar is just under a day per month slower than the solar calendar. To correct the difference and to keep the lunar calendar synchronized with the solar year an intercalary (leap) month has been added, but instead of simply putting it in the end of the year, the ancient Chinese decided to insert it in the middle of other months, its precise dates harmonized in coordination with major solar year points and with the cyclic dates, related to the main, 60-years cycle. To make it even more confusing, the length of hours was also a calendar matter, since it differed between winter and summer months.

Ill. Suzuki Harunobu, Parody of Minamoto no Tametomo

Calendar Print for the Second Year of Meiwa Era (1965),

woodblock print; ink and color on japanese paper,

Metropolitan Museum of Art (public domain)

For the Japanese (as for the Chinese and the Koreans), the calendar was far more than a tool to measure time. It organized the farming, marked the festivals and celebrations, determined the dates of feudal obligations, was indispensable for fortune telling, and even provided lexicons of obligatory terms for poetry and arts.

To keep track of all that, an actual calendar was needed, and printing calendars was an important part of any publisher’s job. Harsh competition between publishing houses led to the development of new techniques, and in Japan somewhere between 1760 and 1765, a new technique of printing was used for that purpose - a multicolor print. Even though, in China, already during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), separate blocks for different colors has been used to achieve full-color woodblock prints, and even though the Japanese ukiyo-e genre started after the Ming Dynasty, the Japanese woodblock artists limited themselves to the production of mostly monochrome prints, rarely duo chrome, sometimes hand-colored. It was only in 1764 that Suzuki Harunobu(1724?-1770), working on commission from a group of samurai-literati, designed a set of multicolor ukiyo-e style calendar illustrations, printed with separate wood blocks.

Suzuki Harunobu's creativeness marked the beginning of the Golden Age of ukiyo-e prints. He himself ranked among the most eminent of masters. Harunobu's compositions facilitated appreciation of intellectual elements in ukiyoe, often ignored or even negated. In his woodblock prints the natural complement of verse and picture form a closed uniform structure of poetical painting, successfully uniting the two different worlds already present in Edo culture, the world of entertainment districts and its workers, and that of refined literature and poetry.

Above, Harunobu’s calendar print represents a parody of Chūzan Seikan by Shō Shōken (1650), the history of the Ryūkyū Kingdom, specifically one of the historical figures from the book, samurai Minamoto no Tametomo (1139 – 1170). Hidden within the design are several allusions for the year 1965: the characters Kinoto tori (Year of the Wooden Rooster), “Meiwa 2” (Second year of Emperor’s Meiwa era), and the month numerals.

For more information on Japanese lunisolar calendar and its cultural importance see:

Jessica Kennett Cork , The Lunisolar Calendar: A Sociology of Japanese Time, Universal-Publishers, 2011.

#ChineseCalendar #YearoftheRooster #SuzukiHarunobu

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