The truth about the Japanese doll festival

Looking back to the late 90’s, “Girl Power” created a great sensation in the UK pop music industry. These pop idols are grown up now and no longer proudly shout their catchphrase “Girl Power”. Their time in the 90’s has become a rather nostalgic topic to reminisce about. On the other hand, there is a long surviving tradition in Japan for girls to celebrate being girls. Nowadays, 3rd March is a day to celebrate a girl’s well-being and happiness by setting out a special dolls display with peach blossoms. This festival is called the Hina festival (雛祭りHina matsuri).

Image1Example of a modern Hina-doll display. Photo by © Y.Ohtsuka

Women, both young and old, enjoy everything related to the celebration of the Hina festival, from opening boxes, unpacking the dolls and placing them in position to offering them peach blossoms. They also prepare treats such as dainty sweets and special drinks, and hold parties while taking pleasure in viewing the dolls. Basically it is a relaxing “Girly” day.

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Sakura mochi (桜餅), a modern example of seasonal sweets for Hinamatsuri. Ashinari Photo Material

Hina (literally ʻprettyʼ or ʻlittleʼ) dolls are dressed like courtiers of the Heian period (794-1185). They are treated with great respect and are dearly loved throughout their graceful existence by all generations of women. In the display the top level is reserved for the master (男雛 Obina) and his mistress (女雛 Mebina). The next level below that is for their servants such as the Three Ladies-in-waiting (三人宮女 Sannin kannyo), the Five musicians (五人囃子Gonin bayashi), the Two ministers (随身 Zuijin), the Three guards (衛士 Eji), and beneath the mistress’s trousseau is also on display.

Image3Yōshu Nobuchika 楊洲周延 (1838-1912). ‘Hina-doll viewing’ (雛拝見 Hina haiken), which is a part of ‘The Great Interior of the Chiyoda Castle’ (千代田の大奥 Chiyoda no Ōoku), Tokyo : Fukuda Hatsujirō, 1896. Nishikie (錦絵) wood block print. Photo National Diet Library

The custom of displaying the Hina-dolls on different levels, looking as if they were placed on a kind of stand, became popular in the Edo period (1600-1867). This display format still lives on today. A number of educational books were published throughout the Edo period, which targeted girls for the purpose of teaching women’s morals, appropriate manners and accomplishments. It wasn’t however, until the later Edo period that publications dealt with the etiquette of the Hina festival on the 3rd day of the 3rd lunar month which we consider to be the foundation of the modern version of Hina matsuri.

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An example of early Edo era educational text books for girls with a page showing the 3rd day of the 3rd lunar month on the right.  Based on a publication by Namura Jōhaku (苗村常伯 1674-1748), edited and revised by Takai Ranzan (高井蘭山 1838-1912). ‘A record of collected treasures for woman’ (女重寶記 Onna chōhōki), 1847. Woodblock printed (British Library 16124.d.23)
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In the early Edo era, instead of celebrating with Hina-dolls, ceremonial poetry competitions were held on the date of Jōshi (上巳), which falls on the 3rd day of the 3rd lunar month. This traces its origins back to the Heian period when one of the absolutely essential skills for courtiers was the ability to compose elegant poetry spontaneously. There were many opportunities for poets to compete against each other. Perhaps the most challenging was the highly refined event held by the bank of a meandering river. The contestants sat along the river bank and had to complete their compositions before the cup, which was floating downstream, passed them by.  This was called the river bank poetry competition (曲水の宴Kyokusui no en).

Image5Some abstract  illustrations of Heian courtiers. The figures on the left page are represented as if they were sitting along the meandering river. ‘Practical design book’ (応用漫画 Ōyō manga), illustrated by Ogino Issui (荻野一水), 1903  (British Library ORB.30/6167)
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Hina-dolls certainly existed in the Heian period, but not as display objects. In fact, they were children’s toys for playing with.  In chapter 5 of  ‘The Tale of Genji’ (源氏物語 Genji Monogatari), the hero, Prince Genji, discovers a young girl who reminds him of Lady Fujitsubo, whom he has been secretly admiring as his true love. He is eager to approach the girl, who does not have enough family members to support her upbringing, by offering his noble guardianship. However, her ill grandmother politely rejects his offer saying her granddaughter is just a child happily playing with her Hina-dolls, therefore not of suitable age to accept his overtures.

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Chapter 5 of ‘The Tale of the Genji’ (源氏物語繪詞, Genji monogatari ekotoba), Naraehon manuscript, mid-17th century (British Library, Or.1278, f.18)
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There are no episodes describing the river bank poetry competition in the Tale of the Genji, but in chapter 12, Genji undergoes  a purification ceremony on the 3rd day of the 3rd lunar month (上巳の祓え Jōshi no harae). The dolls had a key role during the ceremony since they absorbed the supplicants’ bad fortune. Then the supplicants threw the dolls into water in order to remove all of the negative energy from their lives.  Both events were rooted in trusting in the natural power of flowing water, which was able to carry things away.

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Chapter 12 of ‘The Tale of the Genji’ (源氏物語繪詞, Genji monogatari ekotoba), Naraehon manuscript, mid-17th century (British Library, Or.1278, f.18)
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The 3rd day of the 3rd lunar month was also the time of peach blossom. In fact, peaches were believed to have divine power to protect people from evil. Most famously in Japanese legend, the god Izanagi, who formed the landmass of Japan with his partner, defeated demons by throwing peaches on his way back to earth from hell. Peaches might be part of the reason why the purification ceremony was carried out on Jōshi. People could expect extra protection from peach blossom as good spirits.

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Peach blossom.  Ashinari Photo Material

Peach blossom is still one of key elements in the modern day celebration of the Hina dolls Festival. In fact the day is also known as the Peach festival (桃の節句 Momo no sekku). It is not only pretty, but also quietly ensure a safe and successful happy “Girly” day.


Further reading

Takeda, Kyoko  武田京子. Hinamatsuri in home education 家庭教育からみた雛祭.  Iwate Daigaku Kyōiku gakubu nenpō 岩手大学教育学部研究年報 [The annual report of the Faculty of Education, University of Iwate] 54.2 (1994): 79-87. (in Japanese)

With special thanks to Alessandro Bianchi, Asian and African Studies and PhD student, University of Cambridge

Yasuyo Ohtsuka, Curator Japanese 

– See more at: http://britishlibrary.typepad.co.uk/asian-and-african/2015/02/the-truth-about-the-japanese-doll-festival.html?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+asian-and-african+%28Asia+and+Africa%29#sthash.sderaoFX.dpuf

Encountering Fluid Fractals in Hanoi by Ben Valentine on December 3, 2014

Encountering Fluid Fractals in Hanoi
by Ben Valentine on December 3, 2014

Encountering Fluid Fractals in Hanoi

Gallery view of Nhà Sàn Collective. All photographs by the author.
Installation view of Triệu Minh Hải’s ‘Latcarf | Fractal’ at Nhà Sàn Collective (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)
HANOI — On a recent visit, I asked everyone I met who was remotely involved in Hanoi’s contemporary art scene what the must-see experimental spaces were. Nhà Sàn Collective topped almost every list. Located in the Old Quarter near my hotel, I visited three times.

Tucked away on the second floor of a building and located next to Art Vietnam Gallery (also recommended), Nhà Sàn Collective is a small experimental space founded and run by local Vietnamese artists and curators. The gallery and current exhibition would feel right at home in Bushwick or Oakland — that is, not quite polished or professional enough to be welcome in Chelsea, Manhattan, or on Kearny Street in San Francisco, but high-quality and exciting work. My favorite kind.

Informational video of the artist’s process and inspiration.
Triệu Minh Hải video explaining his process and inspiration
The current solo show, titled Latcarf | Fractal, features an elegant and ephemeral series of pencil drawings by the artist Triệu Minh Hải. The drawings are hung touching, side by side in a nearly continuous work that floats off the gallery’s walls. There’s also a video in which the artist explains the inspiration and background of his work.

Triệu spent three years researching and experimenting with fractals to make this body of work. With a background in engineering but training at Vietnam’s University of Fine Arts too, Triệu struggled to strike a balance between the rigid — albeit beautiful — mathematics of fractals and the more fluid and interpretive qualities of art. Latcarf | Fractal is the result of that tension.

Detail of work on display.
Detail of work by Triệu Minh Hải
The work is comprised of obsessive pencil strokes, which through slight variations in contour, length, and direction create mesmerizing gray forms. The drawings pull you in as your eyes constantly spot new patterns and associations, like a child watching the clouds. The only distraction comes with occasionally awkward transitions from one panel to the next. The work recalls Tara Donovan’s untitled ballpoint pen drawings from the early 2000s, but less generative and grand in scale. It feels as though Triệu very much maintained control of the forms in his drawings; I remain undecided as to whether this is a flaw or not.

Gallery view.
Work by Triệu Minh Hải (click to enlarge)
Wanting to learn more about the space and the group, I sat down with Lê Thuận Uyên, Nhà Sàn Collective’s general manager since April. A fourth-generation Hanoier, Lê recently returned to Vietnam after receiving her MA in Cultural and Creative Industries from King’s College London. She is clearly passionate about Hanoi’s art scene.

“Artists here don’t have the support they need, and I wanted to help fill that gap,” Lê explained, speaking with a British accent. As one of the most famous locally run arts spaces in Hanoi, Nhà Sàn Collective was perfect for her.

Artists Nguyen Manh Duc and Tran Luong founded the organization in 1998 as Nhà Sàn Studio; it was soon heralded as Hanoi’s first experimental art space. The studio was located in Nguyen’s home, a traditional Muong house on stilts, and served as a hub and breeding ground for Hanoi contemporary art for many years.

In 2010 Nhà Sàn Studio was forced to shut down by officials who were unhappy with its programs. But a few years later a new generation of artists slyly revived it by changing the name to Nhà Sàn Collective, a means of circumventing government pressure as well as continuing the spirit and mission of the original space. Nguyễn Quốc Thành, Nguyễn Phương Linh, and Nguyễn Anh Tuấn Mami launched this second incarnation in 2013, with the original founders acting as advisors.

Entrance of the gallery.
Entrance to Nhà Sàn Collective
Their new name also represents the devaluing of the physical space, celebrating instead the people, ideas, and spirit behind Nhà Sàn. “I wanted to help maintain Nhà Sàn Collective as a hub for art that is open for all and where everyone feels they belong,” Lê said. “Hanoi needs that kind of community to strengthen the arts scene.”

Latcarf | Fractal continues at Nhà Sàn Collective (24 Lý Quốc Sư, Hanoi, Vietnam) through December 14.

Tagged as: Hanoi, Lê Thuận Uyên, Nhà Sàn Collective, Triệu Minh Hải, Vietnam