Reinterpreting the Wu Liang Shrine in Modern Japan: Ancient China and the Emergence of East Asian Identity

Stephanie Su, Sainsbury Institute for the Study of Japanese Arts and Cultures


Starting in the 1910s, Nakamura Fusetsu (中村不折, 1866-1943), one of Japan’s most prominent artists and Sinologists, created several images based on the rubbings of the Wu Liang Shrine in Shandong Province, China. These images appeared in the newspapers Tokyo Asahi Shinbum (東京朝日新聞) and in his book illustrating Japanese haiku poems (俳句).  He executed his images in ink with different styles: sometimes in elaborate lines imitating the original rubbings, and sometimes in simple and playful lines evoking the Zen painting style. Constructed in the mid-second century, the Wu Liang Shrine became one of the most important archeological sites in China and attracted many Japanese intellectuals’ and artists’ attention in the early twentieth century. Among them, Fusetsu was the most enthusiastic, for he not only represented the shrine in popular media but also published several journal articles as well as a book on Chinese art history to articulate the importance of the Wu Liang Shrine and the Han dynasty art within the contexts of Chinese, East Asian and world history.Fusetsu’s reading and reinterpretation of the Wu Liang Shrine had a profound cultural significance in Japan and beyond. Centering on Fusetsu’s images and writings, this paper explores what it meant for Japanese artists to study and represent the Wu Liang Shrine in early twentieth century Japan: why did the Wu Liang Shrine become important for the Japanese? How were the images of the Wu Liang Shrine reinterpreted? How did these images relate to the Japanese cultural identity?  Combing visual and textual materials, I argue that these images engaged with and contributed to the discourse of East Asian identity (tōyō, 東洋) in modern Japan. Through the case study on the representation of the Wu Liang Shrine in Japan, this paper aims to shed lights on the current discussion on the Sino-Japanese relationship.  This paper argues that Chinese culture had been an integral part of modern Japanese art, and participated in the formulation of not only Japanese but also East Asian identity.