Comparative Guts

Shiba Zenkō, Jūshi keisei hara no uchi

(十四傾城腹の内, “Inside the bellies of fourteen courtesans”; 1793)

The economic society of early modern Japan not only shaped ways of seeing (fig.1) and touching (fig.2) the guts, but also transformed the imagination of their contents. The title of this work of popular fiction parodies the Jūshi kei hakki  (十四経発揮), a famous Chinese treatise on acupuncture. Its main characters are the wuzang liufu, but these viscera are no longer nodes in the cosmic schemes of yin and yang and the five phases; nor are they associated with Daoist divinities. They have, instead, become personified as merchants. Here, the liver, gallbladder, and stomach cluster around the defining activity of commercial life: the inspection of the ledger. Meanwhile, the black and white figures seated on the left represent the one notable echo of Chinese religious beliefs: they are mushi  虫, insect-spirits, whom contemporary Japanese blamed for sudden pains and unruly passions.