by Kakuzo Okakura
Have you heard the Taoist tale of the Taming of the Harp?
Once in the hoary ages in the Ravine of Lungmen stood a
Kiri tree, a veritable king of the forest. It reared its head to
talk to the stars; its roots struck deep into the earth,
mingling their bronzed coils with those of the silver
dragon that slept beneath. And it came to pass that a
mighty wizard made of this tree a wondrous harp, whose
stubborn spirit should be tamed but by the greatest of
musicians. For long the instrument was treasured by the
Emperor of China, but all in vain were the efforts of those
who in turn tried to draw melody from its strings. In
response to their utmost strivings there came from the harp
but harsh notes of disdain, ill-according with the songs they
fain would sing. The harp refused to recognise a master.
At last came Peiwoh, the prince of harpists. With tender
hand he caressed the harp as one might seek to soothe an
unruly horse, and softly touched the chords. He sang of
nature and the seasons, of high mountains and flowing waters,
and all the memories of the tree awoke! Once more the sweet
breath of spring played amidst its branches. The young
cataracts, as they danced down the ravine, laughed to the
budding flowers. Anon were heard the dreamy voices of
summer with its myriad insects, the gentle pattering of rain,
the wail of the cuckoo. Hark! a tiger roars, - the valley
answers again. It is autumn; in the desert night, sharp like
a sword gleams the moon upon the frosted grass. Now
winter reigns, and through the snow-filled air swirl flocks
of swans and rattling hailstones beat upon the boughs with
Then Peiwoh changed the key and sang of love. The forest
swayed like an ardent swain deep lost in thought. On high,
like a haughty maiden, swept a cloud bright and fair; but
passing, trailed long shadows on the ground, black like
despair. Again the mode was changed; Peiwoh sang of
war, of clashing steel and trampling steeds. And in the
harp arose the tempest of Lungmen, the dragon rode the
lightning, the thundering avalanche crashed through the
hills. In ecstasy the Celestial monarch asked Peiwoh wherein
lay the secret of his victory. "Sire," he replied, "others have
failed because they sang but of themselves. I left the harp to
choose its theme, and knew not truly whether the harp had
been Peiwoh or Peiwoh were the harp."
This story well illustrates the mystery of art appreciation.
The masterpiece is a symphony played upon our finest
feelings. True art is Peiwoh, and we the harp of Lungmen.
At the magic touch of the beautiful the secret chords of
our being are awakened, we vibrate and thrill in response
to its call. Mind speaks to mind. We listen to the unspoken,
we gaze upon the unseen. The master calls forth notes we
know not of. Memories long forgotten all come back to us
with a new significance. Hopes stifled by fear, yearnings
that we dare not recognise, stand forth in new glory. Our
mind is the canvas on which the artists lay their colour; their
pigments are our emotions; their chiaroscuro the light of joy,
the shadow of sadness. The masterpiece is of ourselves, as
we are of the masterpiece.
The sympathetic communion of minds necessary for art
appreciation must be based on mutual concession. The
spectator must cultivate the proper attitude for receiving
the message, as the artist must know how to impart it. The
tea-master, Kobori-Enshiu, himself a daimyo, has left to us
these memorable words: "Approach a great painting as thou
wouldst approach a great prince." In order to understand a
masterpiece, you must lay yourself low before it and await
with bated breath its least utterance. An eminent Sung critic
once made a charming confession. Said he: "In my young
days I praised the master whose pictures I liked, but as my
judgement matured I praised myself for liking what the masters
had chosen to have me like." It is to be deplored that so few of
us really take pains to study the moods of the masters. In our
stubborn ignorance we refuse to render them this simple
courtesy, and thus often miss the rich repast of beauty spread
before our very eyes. A master has always something to offer,
while we go hungry solely because of our own lack of
To the sympathetic a masterpiece becomes a living reality
towards which we feel drawn in bonds of comradeship. The
masters are immortal, for their loves and fears live in us over
and over again. It is rather the soul than the hand, the man than
the technique, which appeals to us, - the more human the call
the deeper is our response. It is because of this secret
understanding between the master and ourselves that in poetry
or romance we suffer and rejoice with the hero and heroine.
Chikamatsu, our Japanese Shakespeare, has laid down as one of
the first principles of dramatic composition the importance
of taking the audience into the confidence of the author.
Several of his pupils submitted plays for his approval, but
only one of the pieces appealed to him. It was a play
somewhat resembling the Comedy of Errors, in which
twin brethren suffer through mistaken identity. "This," said
Chikamatsu, "has the proper spirit of the drama, for it
takes the audience into consideration. The public is permitted
to know more than the actors. It knows where the mistake
lies, and pities the poor figures on the board who innocently
rush to their fate."
The great masters both of the East and the West never forgot
the value of suggestion as a means for taking the spectator into
their confidence. Who can contemplate a masterpiece without
being awed by the immense vista of thought presented to our
consideration? How familiar and sympathetic are they all;
how cold in contrast the modern commonplaces! In the former
we feel the warm outpouring of a man's heart; in the latter
only a formal salute. Engrossed in his technique, the
modern rarely rises above himself. Like the musicians who
vainly invoked the Lungmen harp, he sings only of himself.
His works may be nearer science, but are further from
humanity. We have an old saying in Japan that a woman
cannot love a man who is truly vain, for there is no crevice
in his heart for love to enter and fill up. In art vanity is equally
fatal to sympathetic feeling, whether on the part of the artist
or the public.
Nothing is more hallowing than the union of kindred spirits in
art. At the moment of meeting, the art lover transcends himself.
At once he is and is not. He catches a glimpse of Infinity, but
words cannot voice his delight, for the eye has no tongue.
Freed from the fetters of matter, his spirit moves in the rhythm
of things. It is thus that art becomes akin to religion and
ennobles mankind. It is this which makes a masterpiece
something sacred. In the old days the veneration in which the
Japanese held the work of the great artist was intense. The
tea-masters guarded their treasures with religious secrecy,
and it was often necessary to open a whole series of boxes,
one within another, before reaching the shrine itself - the silken
wrapping within whose soft folds lay the holy of holies. Rarely
was the object exposed to view, and then only to the initiated.
At the time when Teaism was in the ascendency the Taiko's
generals would be better satisfied with the present of a
rare work of art than a large grant of territory as a reward
of victory. Many of our favourite dramas are based on the
loss and recovery of a noted masterpiece. For instance,
in one play the palace of Lord Hosokawa, in which was
preserved the celebrated painting of Dharuma by Sesson,
suddenly takes fire through the negligence of the samurai
in charge. Resolved at all hazards to rescue the precious
painting, he rushes into the burning building and seizes the
kakemono, only to find all means of exit cut off by the flames.
Thinking only of the picture, he slashes open his body with
his sword, wraps his torn sleeve about the Sesson and
plunges it into the gaping wound. The fire is at last
extinguished. Among the smoking embers is found a half-
consumed corps, within which reposes the treasure uninjured
by the fire. Horrible as such tales are, they illustrate the great
value that we set upon a masterpiece, as well as the devotion
of a trusted samurai.
We must remember, however, that art is of value only to the
extent that it speaks to us. It might be a universal language
if we ourselves were universal in our sympathies. Our
finite nature, the power of tradition and conventionality, as
well as our hereditary instincts, restrict the scope of our
capacity for artistic enjoyment. Our very individuality
establishes in one sense a limit to our understanding; and our
aesthetic personality seeks its own affinities in the creations of
the past. It is true that with cultivation our sense of art
appreciation broadens, and we become able to enjoy many
hitherto unrecognised expressions of beauty. But, after all, we
see only our own image in the universe,--our particular
idiosyncracies dictate the mode of our perceptions. The tea-
masters collected only objects which fell strictly within the
measure of their individual appreciation.
One is reminded in this connection of a story concerning
Kobori-Enshiu. Enshiu was complimented by his disciples
on the admirable taste he had displayed in the choice of his
collection. Said they, "Each piece is such that no one could
help admiring. It shows that you had better taste than had
Rikyu, for his collection could only be appreciated by one
beholder in a thousand." Sorrowfully Enshiu replied: "This
only proves how commonplace I am. The great Rikyu dared
to love only those objects which personally appealed to him,
whereas I unconsciously cater to the taste of the majority.
Verily, Rikyu was one in a thousand among tea-masters."
It is much to be regretted that so much of the apparent
enthusiasm for art at the present day has no foundation in
real feeling. In this democratic age of ours men clamour
for what is popularly considered the best, regardless of their
feelings. They want the costly, not the refined; the fashionable,
not the beautiful. To the masses, contemplation of illustrated
periodicals, the worthy product of their own industrialism,
would give more digestible food for artistic enjoyment than
the early Italians or the Ashikaga masters, whom they pretend
to admire. The name of the artist is more important to them
than the quality of the work. As a Chinese critic complained
many centuries ago, "People criticise a picture by their ear."
It is this lack of genuine appreciation that is responsible for
the pseudo-classic horrors that to-day greet us wherever we
Another common mistake is that of confusing art with
archaeology. The veneration born of antiquity is one of the
best traits in the human character, and fain would we have
it cultivated to a greater extent. The old masters are rightly
to be honoured for opening the path to future enlightenment.
The mere fact that they have passed unscathed through
centuries of criticism and come down to us still covered
with glory commands our respect. But we should be foolish
indeed if we valued their achievement simply on the score of
age. Yet we allow our historical sympathy to override our
aesthetic discrimination. We offer flowers of approbation when
the artist is safely laid in his grave. The nineteenth century,
pregnant with the theory of evolution, has moreover created
in us the habit of losing sight of the individual in the species.
A collector is anxious to acquire specimens to illustrate a period
or a school, and forgets that a single masterpiece can teach us
more than any number of the mediocre products of a given
period or school. We classify too much and enjoy too little.
The sacrifice of the aesthetic to the so-called scientific method
of exhibition has been the bane of many museums.
The claims of contemporary art cannot be ignored in any
vital scheme of life. The art of to-day is that which really
belongs to us: it is our own reflection. In condemning it we
but condemn ourselves. We say that the present age possesses
no art:--who is responsible for this? It is indeed a shame that
despite all our rhapsodies about the ancients we pay so little
attention to our own possibilities. Struggling artists, weary
souls lingering in the shadow of cold disdain! In our self-
centered century, what inspiration do we offer them? The
past may well look with pity at the poverty of our civilisation;
the future will laugh at the barrenness of our art. We are
destroying the beautiful in life. Would that some great wizard
might from the stem of society shape a mighty harp whose
strings would resound to the touch of genius.
by Kakuzo Okakura
The Book of Tea was published in 1906 and is now in the public domain.
- The Cup of Humanity
- The Schools of Tea
- Taoism and Zennism
- The Tea-Room
- Art Appreciation
The text as it appears here was originally taken from http://www.teatime.com/tea/TheBookOfTea/, but this has since disappeared.
The book can also be found at http://hjem.get2net.dk/bnielsen/teatbot.html among other places.
Hardlinks are Oolong's.