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Brushed by Tokai Okon in "grass script,"
Chinese poet Su Shih's (1037-1101) first essay on the Red Cliff
Tokai Okon
Magical Calligraphy of Tokai Okon (1816-1888)
As a child, Tokai Okon became famous for her beautiful Japanese calligraphy, and with ink and brush she would rapidly write out from memory long poems or stories from ancient texts. She loved the calligraphy of a Chinese monk named Huai-su (735-800) and she wrote the following poem about him at the age of 14.

Where did this screen come from?
It is unmistakably the brushwork of Huai-su.
Although covered with dust,
One can still see the saturated ink traces
Running like a river in autumn over strange rocks.
Or like winter vines suspended from ancient pines.
If placed next to the water-filled paddies,
You might be afraid the characters will join
    to become a dragon.

The following is excerpted from Japanese Women Artists by Patricia Fister (Spencer Museum of Art, University of Kansas, 1988) (for a translation of the Red Cliff essay, see Cyril Birch, Anthology of Chinese Literature, Grove Press, 1965)

"Tokai Okon (1816-1888) was a child prodigy who reached the height of her fame around the age of nine. She was born in a small mountain village in the Iwafune district of Niigata prefecture. Her father was a physician and seems to have been the major figure in promoting Okon's studies. She was introduced to Chinese literature when she was just a few years old, and it is said that she did not play like ordinary children, instead spending her days and nights memorizing Chinese poetry and practicing calligraphy. When Okon was five years old, she wrote out the name of a Shinto deity in large characters: this calligraphy was presented to a shrine on Mount Takao. In 1822 Okon was taken by her parents to Edo, where she further refined her brushwork by becoming a pupil of the monk Dokuhon (died 1857).

"Okon moved to Kyoto in 1825 with her parents, and her precocious brushwork quickly captured the attention of several leading poets and scholars. A year later she was honored by an invitation to appear at the imperial court. After writing out several examples of calligraphy before an audience in the palace, Okon was personally presented with gifts by the emperor -- one of the highest honors in Japan. Rai San'yo took a special interest in the unusually gifted girl, and in 1826 composed the following poem extolling Okon's brushwork and commemorating her visit to the imperial palace."

    Okon is a genius at grass script;
    Raising and waving her youthful hand she creates billowing ocean waves.
    In her previous life she learned the secrets of a drunken priest;
    She derived her style of flying ink from Huai-su.

    Who named this lovely girl "Kon"?
    As expected, she grows wings and ascends to the gates of the immortals.
    The energy in her brushwork is like that of wild horses.
    The ink that she grinds in her inkstone leaves heavenly traces.

    She was surrounded by rows of court ladies,
    Struggling to see her jadelike wrist as it swept thousands of troops away.
    When she started to write she won the smile of the emperor --
    Among the billowing clouds of colorful robes, a special being had appeared.

    After her five fingers moved delicately like serpents,
    A perfect jade cup was given to her by the emperor.
    Inside the cup were painted sixteen yellow chrysanthemums;
    This divine gift, white like frost, was her worthy reward.

    When her young hand grasped the brush, she was filled with ecstacy;
    The movement of her writing astonished everyone who was present.
    After she finished she called out gently for more paper --
    She completed her calligraphy with hands as fresh as springtime.
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