From Sea to Sea, by Rudyard Kipling

No. 16

The Party in the Parlour who played Games. A Complete History of All Modern Japanese Art; a Survey of the Past and a Prophecy of the Future, arranged and composed in the Kioto Factories

Oh, brave new world that has such creatures in it,

How beautiful mankind is!

HOW I got to the tea-house I cannot tell. Perhaps a pretty girl waved a bough of cherry-blossom at me, and I followed the invitation. I know that I sprawled upon the mats and watched the clouds scudding across the hills and the logs flying down the rapids, and smelt the smell of the raw peeled timber, and listened to the grunts of the boatmen as they wrestled with that and the rush of the river, and was altogether happier than it is lawful for a man to be.

The lady of the tea-house insisted upon screening us off from the other pleasure-parties who were tiffining in the same verandah. She brought beautiful blue screens with storks on them and slid them into grooves. I stood it as long as I could. There were peals of laughter in the next compartment, the pattering of soft feet, the clinking of little dishes, and at the chinks of the screens the twinkle of diamond eyes. A whole family had come in from Kioto for the day’s pleasuring. Mamma looked after grandmamma, and the young aunt looked after a guitar, and the two girls of fourteen and fifteen looked after a merry little tomboy of eight, who, when she thought of it, looked after the baby who had the air of looking after the whole party. Grandmamma was dressed in dark blue, mamma in blue and grey, the girls had gorgeous dresses of lilac, fawn, and primrose crepe with silk sashes, the colour of apple-blossom and the inside of a newly-cut melon; the tomboy was in old gold and russet brown; but the baby tumbled his fat little body across the floor among the dishes in the colours of the Japanese rainbow, which owns no crude tints. They were all pretty, all except grandmamma, who was merely good-humoured and very bald, and when they had finished their dainty dinner, and the brown lacquer stands, the blue and white crockery, and the jadegreen drinking-cups had been taken away, the aunt played a little piece on the samisen, and the girls played blindman’s-buff all round the tiny room.

Flesh and blood could not have stayed on the other side of the screens. I wanted to play too, but I was too big and too rough, and so could only sit in the verandah, watching these dainty bits of Dresden at their game. They shrieked and giggled and chattered and sat down on the floor with the innocent abandon of maidenhood, and broke off to pet the baby when he showed signs of being overlooked. They played puss-in-the-corner, their feet tied with blue and white handkerchiefs because the room did not allow unfettered freedom of limb, and when they could play no more for laughing, they fanned themselves as they lay propped up against the blue screens — each girl a picture no painter could reproduce — and I shrieked with the best of them till I rolled off the verandah and nearly dropped into the laughing street. Was I a fool? Then I fooled in good company; for an austere man from India — a person who puts his faith in race-horses and believes nothing except the Civil Code — was also at Arashima that day. I met him flushed and excited.

‘Had a lively time,’ he panted, with a hundred children at his heels. ‘There’s a sort of roulette-table here where you can gamble for cakes. I bought the owner’s stock-in-trade for three dollars and ran the Monte Carlo for the benefit of the kids — about five thousand of ’em. Never had such fun in my life. It beats the Simla lotteries hollow. They were perfectly orderly till they had cleared the tables of everything except a big sugar-tortoise. Then they rushed the bank, and I ran away.

And he was a hard man who had not played with anything so innocent as sweetmeats for many years!

When we were all weak with laughing, and the Professor’s camera was mixed up m a tangle of laughing maidens to the confusion of his pictures, we too ran away from the tea-house and wandered down the river bank till we found a boat of sewn planks which poled us across the swollen river, and landed us on a little rocky path overhanging the water where the iris and the violet ran riot together and jubilant waterfalls raced through the undergrowth of pine and maple. We were at the foot of the Arashima rapids, and all the pretty girls of Kioto were with us looking at the view. Up-stream a lonely black pine stood out from all its fellows to peer up the bend where the racing water ran deep in oily swirls. Downstream the river threshed across the rocks and troubled the fields of fresh logs on its bosom, while men in blue drove silver-white boats gunwale-deep into the foam of its onset and hooked the logs away. Underfoot the rich earth of the hillside sent up the breath of the turn of the year to the maples that had already caught the message from the fire-winds of April. Oh! it was good to be alive, to trample the stalks of the iris, to drag down the cherry-bloom spray in a wash of dew across the face, and to gather the violets for the mere pleasure of heaving them into the torrent and reaching out for fairer flowers.

‘What a nuisance it is to be a slave to the camera!’ said the Professor, upon whom the dumb influences of the season were working though he knew it not.

‘What a nuisance it is to be a slave to the pen,’ I answered, for the spring had come to the land. I had hated the spring for seven years because to me it meant discomfort.

‘Let us go straight home and see the flowers come out in the Parks.’

‘Let us enjoy what lies to our hand, you Philistine.’ And we did till a cloud darkened and a wind ruffled the river-reaches, and we returned to our ’rickshaws sighing with contentment.

‘How many people do you suppose the land supports to the square mile?’ said the Professor, at a turn in the homeward road. He had been reading statistics.

‘Nine hundred,’ I said at a venture. ‘It’s thicker set with humans than Sarun or Behar. Say one thousand.’

‘Two thousand two hundred and fifty odd. Can you believe it?’

‘Looking at the landscape I can, but I don’t suppose India will believe it. S’pose I write fifteen hundred?’

‘They’ll say you exaggerate just the same. Better stick to the true total. Two thousand two hundred and fifty-six to the square mile, and not a sign of poverty in the houses. How do they do it?’

I should like to know the answer to that question. Japan of my limited view is inhabited almost entirely by little children whose duty is to prevent their elders from becoming too frivolous. The babies do a little work occasionally, but their parents interfere by petting them. At Yami’s hotel the attendance is in the hands of ten-year-olds because everybody else has gone out picnicking among the cherry-trees. The little imps find time to do a man’s work and to scuffle on the staircase between whiles. My special servitor, called ‘The Bishop’ on account of the gravity of his appearance, his blue apron, and garters, is the liveliest of the lot, but even his energy cannot account for the Professor’s statistics of population . . . .

I have seen one sort of work among the Japanese, but it was not the kind that makes crops. It was purely artistic. A ward of the city of Kioto is devoted to manufactures. A manufacturer in this part of the world does not hang out a sign. He may be known in Paris and New York: that is the concern of the two cities. The Englishman who wishes to find his establishment in Kioto has to hunt for him up and down slums with the aid of a guide. I have seen three manufactories. The first was of porcelain-ware, the second of cloisonnée, and the third of lacquer, inlay, and bronzes. The first was behind black wooden palings, and for external appearance might just as well have been a tripe-shop. Inside sat the manager opposite a tiny garden, four feet square, in which a papery-looking palm grew out of a coarse stoneware pot and overshadowed a dwarfed pine. The rest of the room was filled with pottery waiting to be packed — modern Satsuma for the most part, the sort of thing you buy at an auction.

‘This made send Europe — India — America,’ said the manager calmly. ‘You come to see?’

He took us along a verandah of polished wood to the kilns, to the clay vats, and the yards where the tiny ‘saggers’ were awaiting their complement of pottery. There are differences many and technical between Japanese and Burslem pottery in the making, but these are of no consequence. In the moulding house, where they were making the bodies of Satsuma vases, the wheels, all worked by hand, ran true as a hair. The potter sat on a clean mat with his tea-things at his side. When he had turned out a vase-body he saw that it was good, nodded appreciatively to himself, and poured out some tea ere starting the next one. The patters lived close to the kilns and had nothing pretty to look at. It was different in the painting rooms. Here in a cabinet-like house sat the men, women, and boys who painted the designs on the vases after the first firing. That all their arrangements were scrupulously neat is only saying that they were Japanese; that their surroundings were fair and proper is only saying that they were artists, A sprig of a cherry-blossom stood out defiantly against the black of the garden paling; a gnarled pine cut the blue of the sky with its spiky splinters as it lifted itself above the paling, and in a little pond the iris and the horsetail nodded to the wind. The workers when at fault had only to lift their eyes, and Nature herself would graciously supply the missing link of a design. Somewhere in dirty England men dream of craftsmen working under conditions which shall help and not stifle the half-formed thought. They even form guilds and write semi-rhythmical prayers to Time and Chance and all the other gods that they worship, to bring about the desired end. Would they have their dream realised, let them see how they make pottery in Japan, each man sitting on a snowy mat with loveliness of line and colour within arm’s length of him, while with downcast eyes he — splashes in the conventional diaper of a Satsuma vase as fast as he can! The Barbarians want Satsuma and they shall have it, if it has to be made in Kioto one piece per twenty minutes. So much for the baser forms of the craft.

The owner of the second establishment lived in a blackwood cabinet — it was profanation to call it a house — alone with a bronze of priceless workmanship, a set of blackwood furniture, and all the medals that his work had won for him in England, France, Germany, and America. He was a very quiet and cat-like man, and spoke almost in a whisper. Would we be pleased to inspect the manufactory? He led us through a garden — it was nothing in his eyes, but we stopped to admire long. Stone lanterns, green with moss, peeped through clumps of papery bamboos where bronze storks were pretending to feed. A dwarfed pine, its foliage trimmed to dish-like plaques, threw its arms far across a fairy pond where the fat, lazy carp grubbed and rooted, and a couple of eared grebes squawked at us from the protection of the — water-butt. So perfect was the silence of the place that we heard the cherry-blossoms falling into the water and the lisping of the fish against the stores. We were in the very heart of the Willow-Pattern Plate and loath to move for fear of breaking it. The Japanese are born bower-birds. They collect water-worn stones, quaintly-shaped rocks, and veined pebbles for the ornamentation of their homes. When they shift house they lift the garden away with them — pine trees and all — and the incoming tenant has a free hand.

Half a dozen steps took us over the path of mossy stones to a house where the whole manufactory was at work. One room held the enamel powders all neatly arranged in jars of scrupulous cleanliness, a few blank copper vases ready to be operated on, an invisible bird who whistled and whooped in his cage, and a case of gaily painted butterflies ready for reference when patterns were wanted. In the next room sat the manufactory — three men, five women, and two boys — all as silent as sleep. It is one thing to read of cloisonnée making, but quite another to watch it being made. I began to understand the cost of the ware when I saw a man working out a pattern of sprigs and butterflies on a plate about ten inches in diameter. With finest silver ribbon wire, set on edge, less than the sixteenth of an inch high, he followed the curves of the drawing at his side, pinching the wire into tendrils and the serrated outlines of leaves with infinite patience. A rough touch on the raw copper-plate would have sent the pattern flying into a thousand disconnected threads. When all was put down on the copper, the plate would be warmed just sufficiently to allow the wires to stick firmly to the copper, the pattern then showing in raised lines. Followed the colouring, which was done by little boys in spectacles. With a pair of tiniest steel chopsticks they filled from bowls at their sides each compartment of the pattern with its proper hue of paste. There is not much room allowed for error in filling the spots on a butterfly’s wing with avanturine enamel when the said wings are less than an inch across. I watched the delicate play of wrist and hand till I was wearied, and the manager showed me his patterns — terrible dragons, clustered chrysanthemums, butterflies, and diapers as fine as frost on a window-pane — all drawn in unerring line. ‘Those things are our subjects. I compile from them, and when I want some new colours I go and look at those dead butterflies,’ said he. After the enamel has been filled in, the pot or plate goes to be fired, and the enamel bubbles all over the boundary lines of wires, and the whole comes from the furnace looking like delicate majolica. It may take a month to put a pattern on the plate in outline, another month to fill in the enamel, but the real expenditure of time does not commence till the polishing. A man sits down with the rough article, all his tea-things, a tub of water, a flannel, and two or three saucers full of assorted pebbles from the brook. He does not get a wheel with tripoli, or emery, or buff. He sits down and rubs. He rubs for a month, three months, or a year. He rubs lovingly, with his soul in his finger-ends, and little by little the efflorescence of the fired enamel gives way, and he comes down to the lines of silver, and the pattern in all its glory is there waiting for him. I saw a man who had only been a month over the polishing of one little vase five inches high. He would go on for two months. When I am in America he will be rubbing still, and the ruby-coloured dragon that romped on a field of lazuli, each tiny scale and whisker a separate compartment of enamel, will be growing more lovely.

‘There is also cheap cloisonnée to be bought,’ said the manager, with a smile. ‘We cannot make that. The vase will be seventy dollars.’

I respected him for saying ‘cannot’ instead of ‘do not.’ There spoke the artist.

Our last visit was paid to the largest establishment in Kioto, where boys made gold inlay on iron, sitting in camphor-wood verandahs overlooking a garden lovelier than any that had gone before. They had been caught young, even as is the custom in. India. A real grown-up man was employed on the horrible story, in iron, gold, and silver, of two priests who waked up a Rain-dragon and had to run for it, all round the edge of a big shield; but the liveliest worker of the batch was a small fat baby who had been given a tenpenny nail, a hammer, and a block of metal to play with, that he might soak in the art by which he would live, through the pores of his skin. He crowed and chuckled as he whacked. There are not many five-year-olds in England who could hammer anything without pulping their little pink fingers. The baby had learned how to hit straight. On the wall of the room hung a Japanese painting of the Apotheosis of Art. It represented with fidelity all the processes of pottery from the digging of the clay to the last firing. But all the pencilled scorn of the artist was reserved for the closing scene, where an Englishman, his arm round his wife’s waist, was inspecting a shop full of curios. The Japanese are not impressed with the grace of our clothing or the beauty of our countenances. Later we beheld the manufacture of gold lacquer, which is laid on speck by speck from an agate palette fitted on the artist’s thumb; and the carving of ivory, which is exciting until you begin to realise that the graver never slips.

‘A lot of their art is purely mechanical,’ said the Professor, when he was safe back in the hotel.

‘So’s a lot of ours —’specially our pictures. Only we can’t be spiritedly mechanical,’ I answered. ‘Fancy a people like the Japanese solemnly going in for a constitution! Observe. The only two nations with constitution worth having are the English and the Americans. The English can only be artistic in spots and by way of the art of other nations — Sicilian tapestries, Persian saddlebags, Khoten carpets, and the sweepings of pawnbrokers’ shops. The Americans are artistic so long as a few of ’em can buy their Art to keep abreast of the times with. Spain is artistic, but she is also disturbed at intervals; France is artistic, but she must have her revolution every twenty years for the sake of fresh material; Russia is artistic, but she occasionally wishes to kill her Czar, and has no sort of Government; Germany is not artistic, because she experienced religion; and Italy is artistic, because she did very badly. India ——’

‘When you have finished your verdict on the world, perhaps you’ll go to bed.’

‘Consequently,’ I continued, with scorn, ‘I am of opinion that a constitution is the worst thing in the world for a people who are blessed with souls above the average. Now the first demand of the artistic temperament is mundane uncertainty. The second is ——’

‘Sleep,’ said the Professor, and left the room.

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38