SGRA Kawaraban (Essay) in English

LI Zhaoxue “Understanding by things”

I am writing this essay in flight back to Tokyo after all these years.


In 2019, I went to National Taiwan University from Japan, where I had been studying, as an exchange student to research Chinese art history. I could not imagine at that time it would be my two years’ farewell from Japan. I could not return to Japan after March 2020 by pandemic of COVID-19 and kept waiting at Tianjin, my parents’ home, writing my Doctoral dissertation. In March, immigration to Japan was deregulated and I was allowed to return to Japan. However, in Beijing, they fell into a predicament of lockdown by public housing basis as soon as they find infected persons. I came back to Tokyo feeling uneasiness for future of the world.


Since it was not easy to get air ticket, I thought it was sold out. But there were only tens of passengers in Boeing 777-300, and I was surprised. Before COVOD-19, flights to Japan were always full. I remember a funny story where a return flight from Japan could not take off due to heavy cargos with too many souvenirs. The “shopping spree” times have passed already and seems to be the past.


When I met people from my home country who made shopping at Ginza or Odaiba in the “shopping spree” times, I had a feeling of embarrassment. Recently I became comprehensible   for their behavior and mood. It may be reasonable to consider their fondness for the way of thinking or design of people who made things. There is an admire for their wisdom behind things. Through distribution of things which are called as commodities, Chinese people consider Japanese as people who made tools which are easy to use and designed beautiful package of commodities.   


I had a similar experience. A designer taught me a few years ago that aluminum can like “Hyo-ketsu” (cocktail in a can) use a technology called “Miura-fold”. It is a way of folding paper devised by Mr. MIURA Koryou, aerospace engineer. It can fold big sized paper in an instant. Using this technology, folded solar panels can be opened smoothly in universe. It is also used in forming technology of reinforce structures by giving regular crease. By these reasons, “Miura-fold” technology is important in NASA’s space exploitation. Once I know a history of “Miura-fold” technology, it became my habit to observe cans in convenient shops. It can be said that it is a power of researchers or designers. “Miura-fold” is used widely now from beverage cans to space exploitation. I understood now that an idea by Japanese people is very simple and useful. 


By the way, old Japan experienced long National isolation and they understood China through things. Understanding through things is a research theme in Japan-China long history and in art history which is my research theme too.   


When Chinese dynasty changed, survivors who could not serve to new dynasties (of Ming or Qing Dynasty) evacuated to Japan. And it was “things” of art such as calligraphy, paintings, sculptures and handicraft that contributed to survivors’ understanding. They could understand each other in writing because they had common perception of Confucianism and Chinese writing culture. But there is a limit to popularity of Chinese characters and Confucianism. It is not that everybody understood. Commoners in the Edo period imagined China through UKIYO-E in, Sangokusi -Engi or Suiko-Den.


It is obvious that not only theme, but expression style of UKIYO-E also came from wood engraving printing culture of Suzhou civilian. At that era, Ukiyo-e artists who produced Ukiyo-e after a model of Suzhou civilian printing might be a connoisseur of China.    


Since for a long time, Japanese people have admired the things from China and called them as “Kara-mono” (things from China). They were chinaware called “ten-moku chawan” and textile called “kin-ran” in Kamakura and Muro-machi Era. A sense of beauty for “Kara-mono” has spread together with a culture which enjoyed tea-ceremony. Japan has a long history of National isolation. But they have never stopped exchange of things.


What human being make and exchange commodities to each other is the most simple and important trade. By this reason, the West use a word “china” as Chinese wares and “japan” as lacquerwares using small letter ‘c’ and ‘j’. Such relations are not limited between things and country names. We can see very often such relations between things and company names or store names also. It is an expression of identity by things.


However, main measures for understanding changed to imaginary information exchange in mass-media or online due to the influence of COVID-19 in these two years. As a result, public opinion poll in Japan shows Chinese popularity toward Japan decreased much. I think main reason of such change came from one-dimensional understanding by words or data from quadratic understanding by things and words.  What we lost in this change is the things which we actually see, touch and use. We can understand the other country through daily necessities, article of taste and works of art despite we cannot understand language of other countries. I think quadratic understanding through things, not through discourse is ideal.



SGRA Kawaraban 703 in Japanese (Original)



LI Zhaoxue /2021 Raccoon



Translated by Kazuo Kawamura

English checked by Sabina Koirala