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Writing box with lid decorated with a duck and reeds

Writing box with lid decorated with a duck and reeds

Writing box with lid decorated with a duck and reeds (1700-1900). Japan; Edo period (1615–1868). Lacquered wood. The Avery Brundage Collection, B69M29.

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What is this object?
The writing box was an essential accessory of an educated man or woman in traditional Japan. It contained all the instruments necessary for writing: inkstone on which to grind down the compressed ink, water dropper, and a brush. They were not only functional but were highly valued for their beauty. They became central objects of display at poetry parties where guests created long poems of linked verses that were collaborative efforts—guests took turns writing a stanza that connected to the one before it, so the verses created one long, cohesive poem.

The outer surface of the lid is decorated with a duck swimming among reeds, the inside of the lid continues the reed decor. The inkstone base is covered with gold cloud-like forms. The round metal object above the inkstone is a water dropper that lifts out. To transform the pressed block of black ink into liquid form, the water dropper is used to moisten the stone on which the ink is gently ground.

What is lacquer?
Lacquer is a hard covering that is made from the sap of the lacquer tree. A wooden core is carefully prepared, and is then covered with several thin layers of the lacquer coating, each allowed to dry and is polished before the next is applied. Decorations of gold and pigment are often applied while the lacquer is still wet. The final layer of lacquer is polished to achieve a smooth shiny finish.

Writing boxes were usually decorated with themes relating to nature or literary traditions. The duck and reed motif refers to the season of autumn or winter.

Activity:
Create a renga (linked verse) in the class. The poet Socho (1448–1532) provided the following first stanza of a linked verse in response to his visit to tea house:

After last night’s storm—
Picking up the first maple leaves.

Start with this phrase, a phrase selected by the class, or use one of these poems. Have each student/or group of students contribute a word or phrase to the poem and record the final result.

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