Tenjin visiting China
Sengai Gibon (1750-1837)
Scroll, ink on paper
H.: 172 cm – W.: 50 cm
Edo period, 18-19th century
A branch of a plum tree broken off at Mt. Mikasa
Its scent fills only under the heaven
(A branch of a plum tree fragrant only with Tenjin)
Tenjin is another name of Sugawara no Michizane, born in Nara, who was a scholar, poet, and politician of the Heian period of Japan. He was promoted as one of the highest politicians, but he was demoted to the countryside in Fukuoka because of a slander of a political opponent, and died at regret. Afterward he was considered as an excellent poet and revered as the god of study. There is a legend that he went to China to practice Zen meditation in the 12th century. It is just a legend of course, but this idea that the god of study Tenjin went to China for learning became popular among the Zen priests at the time. That is why there are a number of Zen-ga (Zen paintings) of Tenjin motif.
Mt. Mikasa is in Nara prefecture which is one of the utamakura, places described in classical Japanese verse. Sometimes it can be a symbol of a high-class bureaucrat to serve for the Emperor. Sengai played on words in this poem, to let the readers associate “Mikasayama (Mt. Mikasa)” and “Ten (heaven)” with Tenjin. In this context, Tenjin is a symbol of wisdom for Sengai. He likened the branch of a plum tree to the enlightenment or the great wisdom which can be achieved by study. For that, the face of Tenjin is very gentle and he looks satisfied.