yuugen 幽玄
KEY WORD : art history / general terms
Lit. profound mystery. A multivalent and influential medieval aesthetic ideal expressing darkness, depth, mystery, transience, ambiguity, calm, sadness, and elegance. The term originated in China as youxuan and meant Daoist or Buddhist truth beyond intellectual comprehension. In the Chinese preface to the KOKINSHUU 古今集, Ki no Yoshimochi 紀淑望 (d.919) used yuugen to denote profundity in ancient poetry. By the 12c yuugen was used as a critical term in poetry contests (see *utaawase-e 歌合絵), again referring to a profound meaning. Fujiwara Shunzei 藤原俊成 (1114-1204), however, considerably broadened yuugen to embrace the complete effect of a poem, including both style and concept. Shunzei integrated yuugen with aspects of yojou 余情 or overtones, evoking associations not overtly expressed in word or form, that reflect a subtleness of thought and emotion. Yuugen is also linked to the Tendai 天台 Buddhist idea of shikan 止観 which paradoxically interrelates form and formlessness, surface and depth, suggesting the interpenetration of all things.
Shunzei's son, Fujiwara Teika 藤原定家 (1162-1241) generally subscribed to this ideal, but added an aspect of youen 妖艶 or ethereal charm that held great appeal in later generations. Kamo no Choumei 鴨長明 (1155-1216) emphasized yuugen as an uncertainty of heart and words expressed in that which is colorless, indistinct, and emotionally restrained. For later writers such as Yoshida Kenkou 吉田兼好 (1283-1350) and Shoutetsu 正徹 (1381-1459), yuugen was a feeling that could not be put into words, a stifling of chromatic intensity, and an elegant emotion. Choumei's yuugen, with its emphasis on the incomplete, the old, and the faded, saw an evolution in the surface appeal of the term but weakened its intellectual or spiritual element.
The *nou 能 dramatist and theoretician Zeami 世阿弥 (1363-1443) applied yuugen to the sublime level of acting that expressed a vivid yet tranquil beauty, describing the term metaphorically as a white bird that holds a flower in its beak. The renga 連歌 master Shinkei 心敬 (1406-75) reemphasized the spiritual essence of yuugen, associating the creation of elegantly beautiful poetry with a pure state of mind born of Buddhist acceptance of the world. Shinkei's austere conception of yuugen, linked with hiesabi ひえさび (chill melancholy) was further refined in the stark, withered beauty advocated by the nou dramatist Konparu Zenchiku 金春禅竹 (1405-68). Yuugen played a formative role in the aesthetic ideals of *sabi さび and *wabi わび and was thus expressed indirectly in the whole range of arts associated with *chanoyu 茶湯 as manifest in wabicha わび茶. The conception of beauty derived from the imperfect aspect of nature that could suggest spiritual depth below the surface is the ideological essence of wabi. Moreover, Shinkei's yuugen or a specifically "withered" and "cold" beauty, seems to have directly influenced the early developers of wabicha, Murata Jukou (d.1502) 村田珠光 and Takeno Jouou 武野紹鴎 (1502-55). Yuugen was brought to bear directly on tea in the mid-17c *kireisabi 綺麗さび aesthetic of Kobori Enshuu 小堀遠州 (1579-1647) who took Teika as his model. Even the name "Tan'yuu" 探幽 given to the Kanou 狩野 artist previously called Morinobu 守信 (1602-74) by the Daitokuji 大徳寺 priest Kougetsu Sougan 江月宗玩 (1570-1643) is likely related to the taste for yuugen as both men studied tea under Enshuu.


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