Jablonski, Marek (Michael)

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(i) Early history.

The direct ancestor of the modern shakuhachi is the so-called fuke-shakuhachi, the instrument of the Fuke sect of Zen Buddhism. By the early 18th century at the latest it was clearly distinguishable from previous shakuhachi types, and it has continued to evolve up to the present. The history of the shakuhachi begins, however, much earlier. The Chinese end-blown flute chiba (see Xiao) was imported to Japan by the early 8th century as part of the orchestra for gagaku (court music); shakuhachi is the Japanese pronunciation of the ideograms for chiba. The name was derived from the length of the basic instrument: 1 chi/shaku and eight-tenths (ba/hachi) of another, i.e. 1·8 shaku. This term soon came to designate all sizes of the instrument.

Japanese scholars call this earliest version the ‘archaic’ (kodai) shakuhachi. Eight of these instruments are preserved in the Shōsōin, the 8th-century imperial repository in Nara, Japan (fig.10). They range in length from about 44 cm with a lowest pitch near f' to 34 cm with a lowest pitch near a'. The former would have been the standard 8th-century instrument, since 1·8 shaku at that time was about 44 cm; today, however, 1 shaku is 30·3 cm, so 1·8 shaku is 54·5 cm – the length of the modern standard d'-shakuhachi. The Shōsōin instruments are quite uniform in shape and scale (although among them are specimens made from bamboo, jade, stone and ivory). They differ most importantly from later shakuhachi in having five rather than four front finger-holes. When the six holes (counting also the thumb-hole) are opened in succession the result is a close approximation of a major scale – in keeping with Chinese modal practice but quite unlike the modern instrument's anhemitonic pentatonic tuning. The feature linking these specimens most closely with later shakuhachi is the bevelled mouthpiece. It is cut diagonally towards the outside of the instrument, so that the blowing-edge is on the inner rather than the outer surface of the bamboo cylinder – the opposite of the structure of modern Chinese end-blown flutes. (This distinction should be of help in evaluating the claim that the modern shakuhachi derives from a Chinese end-blown flute imported during the 14th or 15th century.) The ‘notch’ itself is wide and shallow as on modern instruments; it lacks, however, the thin inlay of horn or ivory that gives a sharp blowing-edge to the modern instrument – a feature apparently invented no earlier than the 17th century.

Other traits distinguishing these eight specimens from the fuke-shakuhachi include the absence of external flaring at the bottom and the relatively thinner walls. Both outside and inside diameters are considerably narrower than for the fuke-shakuhachi: typical outside diameters would be 2·4 cm for a Shōsōin specimen and 3·5 cm flaring to 5 cm for a similarly pitched modern instrument. Three bamboo nodes are visible on the surface (although of course they have been drilled through internally); even the stone and ivory models preserve this feature. Modern shakuhachi have three nodes in approximately corresponding locations, but they have additional nodes at either extremity (see §(iii) below).

By the 10th century the shakuhachi had been dropped from the court orchestra, and for several centuries there is virtually no trace of the instrument. No notation survives for the archaic shakuhachi, and there exist no manuscripts or specimens to help the scholar bridge the gap to the next stage. When references to the shakuhachi reappear in the 15th and 16th centuries, we seem to be dealing with the hitoyogiri(-shakuhachi), which like all subsequent instruments has only four front finger-holes (fig.11).

The hitoyogiri was shorter, straighter and rounder than the modern shakuhachi. There was only one bamboo node in the length of the instrument, hence its name: ‘one-node cutting’. Musically it had a smaller range (about an 11th) and was less susceptible to altering pitches by embouchure or half-holing. The earliest shakuhachi notation, from 1664, was for hitoyogiri.

Some of these medieval references connect the instrument with Buddhist priests of both high and low status. It seems that in addition to its use in the accompaniment of popular songs, the hitoyogiri was played by wandering beggar-priests called komosō (‘rush-mat priests’). This was an early step on the path to the fuke-shakuhachi's later exclusive role as a Zen instrument. On the other hand, the tale of the importation of the shakuhachi from China in the 15th century via a Zen priest seems to be no more than a ‘justification myth’ fabricated by the nascent Fuke sect in the 18th century to obtain monopoly concessions from the government.

The hitoyogiri and the Fuke instrument seem to be close relatives, but the greater range, richness and flexibility of the latter were surely major factors in the decline of the hitoyogiri during the late 18th century. Another related instrument, the tenpuku (lit. ‘blow heaven’), is of uncertain origin but seems unlikely to be a direct ancestor of the modern shakuhachi. First appearing among warriors of Satsuma, southern Japan, during the late 16th century, it had faded out by the late 19th century, leaving a repertory of seven short solo pieces. Extant examples vary in construction, averaging a mere 30 cm in length though all with 4+1 holes like the modern shakuhachi. The mouthpieces, however, were of both the shakuhachi type (slanting outward) and the Chinese type (slanting inward), the latter being more common. There were usually three bamboo nodes, the bottom one only partially open, and the instrument had a slight reverse conical bore. The range was about an 11th, as for the hitoyogiri.

Japan, §II, 5: Instruments and instrumental genres, Shakuhachi.

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