Heishi, a pair of ritual sake​ bottles


DATE Early Edo period, 17th century
MEDIUM Maki-e lacquered turned wood
HEIGHT 40 cm
PROVENANCE Matsūra family


A pair of antique lacquered ritual sake vessel with urushi-e design of pine trees, turtles, cranes and bamboo, bearing the kamon of the Matsūra family.

From the ancient times up until the Heian Period, sake was brewed mainly as an offering to the gods and served in Shinto shrines in unglazed earthenware vessels. During the Kamakura period, large size wooden vessels (heishi) became popular and banquets were held for ceremonies and festivals, where people took turns drinking sake from the same bottle. The shape of these vessels was inspired by the Chinese ceramic wine bottles from the Song dynasty and the surface was generally lacquered in Negoro style cinnabar-red (see cat. XX), while maki-e decorations, which flourished from the Momoyama period, are extremely rare. In this case, as traditional for ceremonial items, the motif is a landscape with four auspicious symbols of longevity: pine, bamboo, turtle and crane.
The vessels are decorated also with two family crests (kamon) of the Matsūra clan, the three circles (mitsuboshi) and the paper mulberry leaf (kajinoha). The Matsūra clan, who ruled the Hirado domain, were involved into maritime traffics and prior to the Edo period, and its closed door policy, they were one of the few families that ruled through foreign diplomacy, by having the Dutch and the English Trading Posts established in their domain. This pair of heishi might be related to Hirado Matsūra Takashi (1646-1713), who was appointed by the shogunate as national commissioner for shrines and temples. He was the first tozama daimyō (lords who submitted to the Tokugawa shogunate only after the battle of Sekigahara) to be promoted to this important position.
  • The pine tree is one of the most common symbols of longevity in East Asia. Because it remains green even in the harshest winters, it stands for resilience, endurance, and strength against adversity. 
  • Cranes live a long time, some species as long as eighty years. In some Asian folktales, they are said to live as long as five hundred years. Cranes mate for life, and therefore symbolize harmony, a wish for a long marriage, and respect for one’s parents and ancestors. 
  • Turtles are noted for their long lifespan. In addition, with their dome-shaped upper shell, flat lower shell, and legs in the four corners of their bodies, they were early emblems of the universe and the cardinal directions. 
  • Bamboo is one of the most versatile and abundant materials in East Asia, eaten by both humans and animals and used to make everything from houses to paper. It remains green throughout the four seasons and therefore symbolizes long life. Because it bends rather than breaks, bamboo also represents resilience, and its simple shape, humility. According to Confucian ideology, bamboo possesses the qualities of a great scholar: humility, uprightness, flexibility of mind, and grace.


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