Kuwanoki no genka: the Ambassador of the Silk Road

8 min readFeb 15, 2021


The Silk Road involved not only ancient trade of goods of many kinds but also, as a result, the exchange of languages, motifs, religions, technologies, and, most importantly, cultures. Japan, as often ignored but indeed a contributory stop of the Silk Road had established trade routes with other Central Asian countries during the Asuka period (AD 538–710) and later thrived to its peak during the Nara period (AD 710–794).

The precious treasure Kuwanoki no genka, also known as pipa in China, was a pear-shaped 5-string music instrument introduced to China during Tang Dynasty from Central Asia around the 1st or 2nd century C.E. and later sent to Emperor Shomu as a gift. The Shosoin repository collected Kuwanoki no genka to its Silk Road Collection. Unfortunately, the exact purpose and the manufacturing date of this musical instrument were yet not determined. But given that Tang Dynasty was a golden age of peace and wealth, it was very likely to be a popular instrument to conduct performances at court and ritual occasions.

As one of the only two 5-string Genka (Chinese pipa), the materiality and manufacturing technique were worth mentioning. It was mainly made of mulberry wood inlaid with mother of pearl. Aside from that, amber and hawksbill carapace were used as auxiliary materials. The mother of pearl was not a common material seen in Chinese artifacts since the instrument itself was originally produced in Central Asia, most likely Persia. As a result, the main material mulberry wood encouraged experimentation with form and decoration. The fact that mulberry wood had a relatively heavyweight and high elasticity had provided its rounded body shape and later the inlay technique with affordability.

Its name in Chinese, “luo dian” (螺钿), explained for its manufacturing techniques: “luo” (螺) referred to shells or mother of pearl, while “dian” (钿) referred to luxurious treasures inlaid on implements as ornaments. To account for this, craftsmen firstly cut shells into pieces or grind them into powder, followed by a series of processes including burnishing and engraving. The last step was to inlay the decorative parts onto the rounded wooden body. The intention of these steps was to make the mother of pearl shiny and hence graceful, wealthy, and extravagant in a sense to showcase how powerful and peaceful the Tang Dynasty was.

Looking into the detailed depictions of Kuwanoki no genka, the creation and later the popularization was inevitable from its composition and iconography. Known as ‘kara-hana” in Japanese, the repetitive floral motif (fig.1) was considered as an emblematical motif of Tang. It had covered the whole back of the instrument as ornamentation. Significantly, the material used for the ornamentation was the mother of pearl, most likely from Persia. In addition to the floral motif, there was a depiction of a man on a camel playing a pipa (fig.2). Because the camel was a symbol of desert and the man was obviously non-Chinese, This suggested that the instrument had embraced a mixture of various Central Asia cultures along with the Silk Road. Considering the pearl material and the imagery depiction of this piece, it was reasonable to make an association to Persian culture. Accordingly, “a painting located at the central part of this mulberry wood lute displays an image of two people playing a game of go and an onlooker at its very center”, which “conveys Chinese belief in immortality, which became ever-present in Japan during the Nara period” (Markovic, Vranes, Mariokov, The Story of the Silk Road and Nara’s Shosoin Treasure Repository of the Emperor)[1]. This iconographic detail further allowed association with Tang’s religious background at that time: Daoism, as the most common religion during Tang, believed in immortality and afterlife. By depicting these religious concepts onto the instrument, Tang citizens, and even Japanese citizens thanks to the Silk Road, were more likely to be exposed to Daoism messages and beliefs and hence achieved certain religious influence.

fig.1 floral motifs
fig.2 man on camel playing pipa

One comparative item learned in this class was the Headdress of Li Chui(fig. 3) inlaid with gold, silver, and gemstones, excavated from the Tomb of Noblewoman Li Chui. Along with the crown, there was also a Mother of Pearl Mirror with floral patterns (fig. 4). The pearl treasures in her tomb conducted a message of the way Li Chui wanted females to be seen: it was fine for women to devote themselves to Boddhisatva practices. Comparing to the Kuwanoki no genka, it was not hard to detect the visual, material, and conceptual similarities. Visually, the floral motif was utilized as a repetitive pattern for ornamentation. The patterns together formed a symmetrical whole on all three objects, which showcased probably Tang and Central Asia aesthetics during that time. Materially, the mother of pearl was the major decorative material that not only demonstrated wealth and peace but also conveyed a message of female power. Conceptually, the materiality reflected on the sociopolitical environment at that time. As a result, the thoughts and behaviors of women were given more freedom comparing to previous feudalism. Women were welcomed to show off their beauty and skills as well as participating in religious practices like Buddhism and Daoism. To conclude, art was inevitable from Politics: the visuals, the materiality, and the concept were all appreciated results of the cultural and religious exchange of the Silk Road.

fig.3 headdress of Li Chui
fig. 4 Mother of Pearl Mirror

There was no clear statement of who made the Kuwanoki no genka, but associations with the Persians were educible according to certain pieces of evidence. Firstly, the geographical origin of the Kuwanoki no genka was Central Asia where Persia was the crucial step of the Silk Road at that location. Secondly, the concept behind these artifacts all involved immortality and the afterlife. Most importantly, the visual and material similarities between Kuwanoki no genka and treasures excavated from the Tomb of Li Chui were apparent. Also, the depiction of a foreign male riding camel reminded us of typical Persian. These pearl products, especially the Kuwanoki no genka, might be produced by professional Persian craftsmen and later selected as goods for trades as well as cultural exchanges. Finally, the Kuwanoki no genka was sent to Japan as a gift after years in China, which explained how it was collected by Emperor Shomu in the Shosoin Repository. Since the receiver was the Japanese Emperor, the sender was most likely to be a member of Tang imperial family in order to match the hierarchy and etiquette. The importance of the transfer routine of the Kuwanoki no genka was related to religious contexts. It was popularized in Tang China as Tang adored Daoism and the Kuwanoki no genka depicted ideas of immortality on it. Later since Daoism was popularized in Japan and Emperor Shomu also adored the Daoist ideas of immortality and afterlife, the Kuwanoki no genka was one of his favorites in his collections.

The cultural and historical significance of Kuwanoki no genka was illustrated by Dr. Mariachiara Gasparini in his article The Shosoin Repository and Its Treasure, says: “This particular 8th-century example from the Shōsōin very much recalls the type of pipa depicted on murals of the 3rd-4th century Buddhist cave complexes of Dunhuang and Yulin in what is now Gansu Province, China — vestiges of a chain of major monastic centers that once spread Buddhism and served as junctions for the interchange of ideas, goods and peoples along the northern Silk Roads” (Gasparini, The Shosoin Repository and Its Treasure)[2].

Although Kuwanoki no genka was eventually collected by Japan, it had remained a decent artistic, cultural, and religious influence in China. Traded from Central Asia during the 1st or 2nd century C.E., this particular instrument was popularized in various informal occasions like rituals and performances. As mentioned before, the sender of Kuwanoki no genka to Emperor Shomu was very likely someone from the imperial family. Thus, it could be implied that Kuwanoki no genka was more than a common artifact but an implement of cultural and religious ambassador from the Silk Roads. It was, accordingly, “depicted on murals of the 3rd-4th century Buddhist cave complexes of Dunhuang and Yulin in what is now Gansu Province, China”, which later helped “spread Buddhism and served as junctions for the interchange of ideas, goods, and peoples along the northern Silk Roads.” This suggested that Kuwanoki no genka had first been remembered and celebrated by artists and painters for its artistic value. Many Buddhist cave complexes in Gansu Province, like the Mogao cave, for instance, contained imageries of this particular instrument. Later, because of the “interchange of ideas, goods, and people along the northern Silk Roads”, objects, as well as ideologies and religious beliefs, were exchanged. Central Asia’s Buddhism and Daoism practices were therefore spread to neighbors like Japan and Korea.

Consequently, as an ambassador along the Silk Roads, after Kuwanoki no genka was sent to Japan, it had made significant influences to artistic techniques and cultural practices of its neighbor Japan. A Japanese music instrument named Raden Shitan no Gogen Biwa was believed to have a certain connection with Kuwanoki no genka: “these two musical instruments obviously have a common conceptual design and have resulted from a similar artistic craftsmanship”, accordingly, “and this comparative analysis indicates the great level of connectivity that was achieved between Japanese and Chinese music along the Silk Road, while at the same time incorporating Persian artistic motifs as well” (Markovic, Vranes, and Mariokov).

In conclusion, no matter where the origins of the Silk Road treasures were, whether from China, Japan, Persia, India, or another particular Silk Road country, the value of analyzing and understanding these past hybrids of transcultural and trans-religious means, that was now deeply penetrated into places along the Silk Road, was nonnegligible. There was an abundant number of implements and artifacts that acted in the same role as Kuwanoki no genka. Being transcultural ambassadors along the Silk Roads, future studies and researches should be conducted to explore this particular area.

[1] Markovic, Ljiljana, Aleksandra Vranes, and Milica Jelic Mariokov. “The Story of the Silk Road and Nara’s Shosoin Treasure Repository of the Emperor.” The International Academic Forum, 2017.

[2] Dasparini, Mariachiara. “The Shosoin Repository and Its Treasure.” Khan Academy. Accessed December 15th, 2020. https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/art-asia/art-japan/nara-period/a/the-shsin-repository-and-its-treasure.

[3] Li, Bo, and Kexin Wang, eds. “【典藏知识】正仓院: 唐代嵌螺钿紫檀五弦琵琶 (Shosoin Repository: Tang Kuwanoki No Genka).” Sohu. Chengdu Qingyuan Art Centre, June 23, 2017. https://www.sohu.com/a/151542695_804291.




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