Japanese picnic set

Step 6 of 6

A Fisherman’s Tale

Related images

View of the set with plate laid outThe plateSoga Shōhaku, Tōkaibō with a fishing basket, Hanging scroll, Japan, Edo Period, MET Museum, [2015.500.9.4](https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/78146)

One plate is also part of this sagejūbako, which perhaps in its original form also contained a whole set of individual dishes.

The plate is decorated with gold dust maki-e, just like the other components. However, on it we also see a decoration of an intriguing human figure: a lone man sitting by the shore, fishing.

The man is sitting on a wooden structure, with his back towards a small hut and bamboo branches. He is wearing soft robes and a small headdress, his skin darkened perhaps by the sun, and he is looking towards the water, where his fishing rod is waiting for a catch.

This man could be the figure of Jiang Ziya (姜子牙), also known as Taigong Wang (太公望) and as Taikōbō in Japanese (太公望), a Chinese sage from the 11th century BCE who, after having earned the reputation of being a great scholar, decided to retreat to the shores of the Wei River, and spend his days fishing. Legend has it that he did not use a hook or bait on his fishing rod, as he believed that fish would eventually go to him when they were willing and ready to do so. Eventually, Jiang Ziya was found by the King Wen Wang (周文王) of the Zhou Dynasty, who sought his counsel to defeat the last ruler of the Shang Dynasty, King Zhou.[Cf]

We can see the figure of Taigong Wang in a painting present in the collection of the MET Museum, which shares many characteristics with the depiction on the plate. For example, we recognize him in his sitting position backed by a small hut and bamboo branches, his body dressed in robes, his round face and head covered by a soft hat.

The decoration on the picnic sets was at times a topic of discussion for the participants of the picnics: could the story of Taigong Wang have been close to the minds and hearts of the partying city dwellers? When reading literature and novels from the time, it is apparent that the life of the chōnin class was divided between the obligations derived from their social status and work duties on one hand, and a desire for giving in to instincts and passions on the other.[[Cf]]https://www.worldcat.org/title/storia-del-giappone/oclc/848844226&referer=brief_results}

Perhaps the figure of Jiang Ziya represents this moral duality: on one side rejecting society and retreating to a simple, rural life, and on the other hand being found by King Wen Wang, and taking up the duty of working as a strategist and consultant to him, thereby helping to achieve the end of the Shang Dynasty.

It has been theorized that the answer to this duality in the morals of the urban merchant class seemed to be escapism through the world of fleeting pleasure, ukiyo, which is perfectly embodied in this picnic set.