Mew Lingjun Jiang, November 15

Mew Lingjun Jiang, MAPH-TLO’20 Art History

“The Fluidity of Image and Symbol in Karuta Japanese Playing Cards, 1573-Today”

Respondent: Robert Burgos, PhD student, Department of History

Friday, November 15, 2019

4:30-6:30 pm, CWAC 156

A Pre-circulated paper is available at this link with a password: karuta.

Abstract: The visual and material developments of ephemera, such as karuta (かるた・カルタ・歌留多・骨牌) the Europe-originated Japanese playing cards, have involved more than what can be observed. Although karuta are meant to be expendable objects, their material varieties include gold-leafed, hand-painted, woodblock-printed, and color-stenciled cards, made by detailed outlining and careful coloring, sometimes with abstractive designs and a calligraphic touch in bold contrast, leaving traces of illustrative depictions in artworks and artifacts. However, most of the research on karuta, especially of the regional patterns, is rule-oriented through a lens of gaming and gambling studies, and the variations in the abstractive and expressive design of these playing cards have long been a mystery.

The visual and material study of the continuously changing message carried by karuta takes us back to the everyday life in the past and connects us to the future discussion of art, games, and the relationship between humans, images, and things. Based on current studies of the cultural history of karuta written in Japanese, and adding to the limited research written in English, this paper describes and explains the fluidity of images and symbols of karuta as cultural icons, as well as the visual history of their artistic depictions, curious designs, and regional patterns from the Tenshō era (1573-92) to the present day.

Persons with concerns regarding accessibility please contact Zhenru Zhou ( and Yin Wu (


“Mew” Lingjun Jiang is a second-year MAPH-TLO student studying Japanese art history. With a background in studio art, Mew wrote a master’s thesis last year to examine the visuality and materiality of contemporary nihonga painter Matsui Fuyuko’s works, which inspired Mew’s own art practice. The thesis discussed how Matsui’s subject of anatomy, the process of painting, and the artist’s stylistic choice and narrative alter the meaning of the body and challenge the way of seeing the female body in art. Mew is interested in exploring the concept of seeing and the process of recognizing and transmitting pictorial information in varied visual and material forms under the influence of factors such as regional and intercultural communications.

Robert Burgos is a PhD student at the Department of History studying modern urban history in Japan. His research interests include: Twentieth-century community formation in Japanese cities among marginalized and minority groups; relationship of these processes to the broader development of shōsū minzoku (minority) identity and “Japanese” identity in Japan. Robert received his B.A. degree from Political Science & Asian Studies at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor in 2012. He was a University of Chicago Urban Doctoral Fellow in 2018-2019 and an Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Curatorial Intern at the Smart Museum of Art in 2016-2017.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *