Asian History

Cups with Memories: Ainu Lacquer and Skeuomorphs

By guest contributor Christopher B. Lowman

If you have a smart phone handy, take a look at your phone application icon: when was the last time you saw a receiver shaped like that? Even the language associated with phones reflects physical actions no longer required: there is no dial to “dial,” and no hook on which to “hang up.” Think about this too: when taking a photograph on a phone, the sound effect is still that of a “kachunking” camera shutter, despite its absence. These are all symbols that have outlasted their original functional counterparts.

Visual or auditory symbols that retain aspects of older, defunct design are called skeuomorphs. In the last decade, the heavy use of visual metaphors in Apple’s iOS led to discussions of skeuomorphism’s definition, and its pros and cons. Listicles of skeuomorphs and other visual metaphors have been popular reading on Mental Floss and other design blogs. Skeuomorphism is not just digital: it also describes physical objects retaining material characteristics no longer functionally necessary. Horsepower describes the capabilities of vehicles long since stripped of accompanying horses. Patterns of circular holes in concrete structures, formerly imprints from the pouring process, continue to be made even when not all processes require them. Skeuomorphs can be “found in nature as well”: the orchid Ophrys apifera produces flowers shaped to attract Eucera bees, even though the bees have disappeared from much of the plant’s modern range, as illustrated by xkcd. This illustrates how skeuomorphs can occur without intention, yet still indicate an object’s origins through no longer functional physical phenomena.

Despite the popularity of the term to describe digital design, its origins have more to do with artifacts than phone applications. Dr. Dan O’Hara at London’s New College of the Humanities described skeuomorphism as “unintentional side-effects of technological evolution.” It is in this evolutionary sense that skeuomorphs become useful to anyone interested in the history of material culture: as O’Hara put it, “skeuomorphs, as a kind of ‘memory’ capacity of artifacts, can show us the processes that guide the evolution of the forms of technology.” A look at the Google Ngram Viewer, which gauges the popularity of a word over time based on publications in Google Books, reveals that “skeuomorph” was in use at the turn of the twentieth century. Henry Balfour in The Evolution of Decorative Art (1893) and Alfred Cort Haddon in Evolution in Art: As Illustrated by the Life-histories of Designs (1907), among others, used skeuomorphs as crucial evidence for studying object designs over time. For example, Balfour, the first curator of the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, described how indigenous people in the Andaman Islands had traditionally used large shells as plates, and continued to make wooden plates with decoration recalling shells (1893, 114).

Academic interest in skeuomorphs was rooted in some of the hierarchical assumptions that defined much of nineteenth century anthropology. Skeuomorphs offered evidence of change in the types and materials of objects over time; this played into what many anthropologists believed to be a universal and linear evolution of human culture. Haddon specifically uses skeuomorphs to describe supposedly universal material transitions, such as tapa giving rise to matting, and basketry giving rise to pottery (1907, 116). Both archaeology and ethnography developed as disciplines guided by the assumption of cultural evolution, that studying “primitive” people would reveal linear developments toward “civilization,” defined as Western European cultures. Balfour describes his work as the “study of the Art of the more primitive of the living races of mankind, with a view to explaining, by a process of reasoning from the known to the unknown, the first efforts of Primaeval Man to produce objects which should be pleasing to the eye” (1893, v). This conflation of past and contemporary cultures drove ethnographic interest in the collection of objects for museums, particularly from cultures believed to be on the verge of disappearing.

Are skeuomorphs still useful for the study of material culture? Doing away with the assumption that material changes imply progression toward any particular cultural zenith, the study of skeuomorphs continues to reveal chronologies of connections between objects and people. Archaeologists use them to discuss invention, innovation, and replication (Knappet 2002, Blitz 2015), especially across cultures (Howey 2011). An example of this is a type of lacquer cup called a tuki, used in religious ceremonies by the Ainu, the indigenous people of Hokkaido, Sakhalin, and the Kurile Islands north of Japan. Comparisons of different tuki over time indicate origins and meanings invisible when any one example is considered by itself.

In traditional Ainu religion, any physical being or thing that can perform in ways that humans cannot is considered a god, or kamuy. Kamuy could only be contacted through the use of specific instruments, including carved wooden prayer sticks called ikupasuy, and cups, called tuki, which held offerings of sake. Ikupasuy would be dipped into tuki and drops of sake scattered to please kamuy.


Two Ainu men using prayer sticks (ikupasuy) and lacquer cups (tuki) in prayer. Photography by Burton Holmes from Ewing Galloway, 1917.

Nineteenth century visitors to the Ainu mistakenly called ikupasuy “moustache sticks” because the Ainu prayer ceremony involved lifting both cup and stick together toward the mouth, leading observers to assume the purpose of the stick was to lift the moustache when drinking. The uniqueness of ikupasuy led to them becoming prized by collectors. When Romyn Hitchcock conducted his collecting trip for the Smithsonian Institution in 1888, his pursuit of ikupasuy earned him the name “Mr. Moustache Stick” while in Hokkadio (Houchins 1999, 149-150). Anthropologist Frederick Starr, who helped to organize the Ainu exhibit at the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis, also stated that ikupasuy “had a great attraction for us and we secured scores of them” (Starr 1904, 65). While museum collections contain dozens of ikupasuy, tuki were rarely collected: fewer than a dozen were collected for United States museums prior to 1920.


Romyn Hitchcock’s illustration of ikupasuy and tuki, from “The Ainos of Yezo” in Annual Report of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution, 1890, 459.

The reason for the cups’ absence from collections is connected to the same theories that drew nineteenth century anthropologists to study skeuomorphs. Anthropologists lacked interest in tuki because they were trade goods rather than Ainu-made. Ainu lacquerware, including tuki, was acquired through trade with the Japanese, particularly the Matsumae clan. Exchange ceremonies appear in Japanese paintings, such as this one by Hirasawa Byōzan from 1876. However, anthropologists seeking only “pure” Ainu culture systematically ignored trade items. Anthropologist Stewart Culin dismissed lacquer and swords among the Ainu, believing that “not one of them have any artistic or pecuniary value” (75). Why was this? Recall that according to cultural evolution theory, so-called “primitive” cultures were understood as keys to the collective human past. Trade items like the tuki were corruptions: they clouded the anthropologists’ ability to observe supposedly preserved past practices. Ikupasuy were fascinating because they seemed to stem from Ainu material culture alone. Since trade items did not fit within a pure progression, but seemed wholly introduced from another culture, items like tuki were believed to lack research value.


AMNH Anthropology catalog # 70/4223

Tuki made of brass and ornamented with the mon of the Matsumae clan. Catalog No. 70/4223, Courtesy of the Division of Anthropology, American Museum of Natural History.

However, tuki do possess skeuomorphic properties that are clues to their changing significance as they passed from a Japanese to an Ainu context. Japanese crests, called mon, adorned possessions belonging to noble houses (for example, the diamond motifs on the banner in this 1867 image of an Ainu ritual welcoming Matsumae merchants). While some tuki have none, or only single mon, others are decorated with multiple mon from different noble houses. Why would this be? One explanation is that Ainu interest in acquiring highly decorated lacquer may have outweighed the Japanese social meaning of the mon. Linguistic evidence of the importance of shining things and metallic surfaces is preserved in Ainu words such as “treasure,” ikor, literally “shining things,” or “metal,” kane, a word used as a synonym for “magnificent,” and used to describe tuki specifically in Ainu epic poetry (Phillipi [1979] 2015). The shining decorations, that in a Japanese context represented noble ownership, were appreciated for aesthetic reasons once in Ainu hands, which in turn changed the way Japanese artisans applied the mon during production.


Wooden tuki and ikupasuy on display in the Ainu Cultural Center, Sapporo. Photograph by the author, August 2016.

In addition to decoration, the shape of tuki influenced Ainu woodcarvers, who produced their own skeuomorphic versions out of new materials. In one example, a carver created a tuki and stand from wood, which were subsequently lacquered by a Japanese artist. Others, like the one pictured above from the Ainu Cultural Center in Sapporo, are decorated wood without any lacquer but still retain the same vessel form. While the Ainu possessed other styles of cups, tuki specifically were made in the shape of Japanese lacquer cups and stands.

Tuki are an example of an object transformed through cultural context—a decorative cup that became integral to religious practice once in Ainu possession. Viewed over time, the transformation is a physical one as well, as they accumulated decorations that transformed in meaning because of an Ainu, rather than a Japanese, aesthetic. The shape of the lacquer vessels was preserved even as the Ainu produced tuki out of new materials. Tuki as skeuomorphs show how objects simultaneously influence and are influenced by their cultural context, and how their form and material act, as Dan O’Hara said, with a capacity for memory.

Christopher B. Lowman is a graduate student in the Anthropology Department at the University of California, Berkeley. His research focuses on intersections between historical archaeology and museum anthropology, with a focus on immigration, colonialism, and the history of museums.

Miscarriage, Auspicious Birth, and the Concept of Tulkuhood in Tibet

By guest contributor Kristin Buhrow

The selection of successors to political and religious leadership roles is determined by different criteria around the world. In the Himalayas, a unique form of determining succession is used: the concept of Tulkuhood. Based in Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhism, Himalayan communities, especially in Tibet, operate with the understanding that gifted leaders with a deep and accurate understanding of Buddhist cosmology and philosophy will, after death, return to their communities and continue as leaders in their next life. Upon the death of a spiritual or community leader, his or her assistants and close followers will go in search of the next incarnation—a child born shortly after the previous leader’s death. When satisfied that they have found the new incarnation, the committee of assistants or followers will officially recognize the child, usually under five years old, as a reincarnation, and the child will receive a rigorous education to prepare for their future duties as a community leader. These people are given the title “Tulku.”

This system of succession by reincarnation is occasionally mentioned in Western literature, and is always lent a sense of orientalist mysticism, but it is important to note that in the Tibetan cultural sphere, Tulku succession is the normal, working model of the present day. While Tibetan religious and political leadership structures have undergone great changes in recent years, the system of Tulku succession has been maintained in the religious sector, and for some top political positions was only replaced by democratic election in 2001. Large monasteries or convents in the Himalayas, which often serve as centers of religion, education, and local governance, are commonly associated with a Tulku who guides religious practice and political decision making at the monastery and in the surrounding area. In this way, Tulkus serve a life-long (or multi-life-long) appointment to community leadership.

Like any other modern system of succession, Tulku succession is the subject of much emic literature detailing the definition of Tulkuhood, discussing the powers of a Tulku, and otherwise outlining the concept and process. And, like any other functioning system of succession, some details of the definition of true Tulkuhood are hotly debated. One indication given special attention is that Tulkus go through birth and death under auspicious conditions. These conditions include but are not limited to: occurring on special days of the Tibetan calendar, occurring according to a prophecy that the Tulku himself made previously, unexplainable sweet smells, music issuing from an unknown source, colored lights appearing in the sky, dissolving or disappearance of the mind or body at death, flight, or Buddha images visible upon cremation. While these auspicious conditions of birth or death may go excused or unnoticed, it is thought that all Tulkus are born and die in such circumstances, whether or not the people around them notice. Considering this common understanding, we now turn to one particular Tulku, who makes a controversial and easily politicized assertion: that one of his previous incarnations is that of a miscarried fetus buried beneath his monastery.



A map showing the Pemako region (now called Mêdog) within Tibet

In the mountainous region of Pemako, to the east of Lhasa, there is a small town called Powo. According to Tibetan oral history, it was here, in 641 C.E., that the Chinese Princess Wencheng buried her stillborn child. After being engaged to marry the King of Tibet, Princess Wencheng was escorted from the Tang capital of Chang ‘An (present day Xi’an), to the Tibetan capital, Lhasa, by the illustrious Tibetan minister Gar. Along the way, Princess Wencheng became pregnant with Minister Gar’s child—a union oral history remembers fondly as the result of a loving relationship that had developed over the course of the journey. Some versions of the history assert that Minister Gar intentionally took Wencheng on the longest route to Lhasa so that she could have the baby along the way, but she suffered a miscarriage in Powo. While there was no monastery in Powo at the time, Wencheng, who was an expert Chinese geomancer, recognized the spiritual power of the location. After carefully selecting the gravesite, Wencheng buried her stillborn child, then left to meet her intended in Lhasa.

He Liyi Illustration

Aiqing Pan and Zhao Li, “Wencheng and the Tibetan Envoy,” from He Liyi, The Spring of Butterflies and Other Folk Tales of China’s Minority Peoples.


While some sources assert that Princess Wencheng constructed the Bhakha Monastery on top of the grave with her own hands, another origin story exists. Over one thousand years after Wencheng and Minister Gar passed through, a Buddhist teacher who had risen to prominence came to Powo near the time of his death. This teacher was recognized as a reincarnation of the powerful practitioner Dorje Lingpa, who was himself a reincarnation of Vairotsana, a Buddhist intellectual and influential translator. When this teacher came to Powo, he found the same spot where Wencheng had buried her baby, and he planted his walking stick in the ground, which miraculously grew into a pine tree. It was then that the Bhakha Monastery was built in the same vicinity. Regardless of the accuracy of these oral histories, it is clear that the presence of the infant grave was a known factor when the monastery was named, as Bhakha (རྦ་ཁ་ or སྦ་ཁ་) means “burial place”. The teacher whose walking stick demonstrated the miracle became known as the first Bhakha Tulku. We are now, as of 2017, in the time of the tenth Bhakha Tulku, who still has influence over the same monastery, as well as related monasteries in Bhutan and the United States.


The Tenth Bhakha Tulku (photo credit: Shambhala Center of New York)

In addition to the list of renowned former lives mentioned previously, the Bhakha Tulku has also claimed Wencheng and Minister Gar’s child as one of his past lives. While this claim to such a short and seemingly inauspicious life is unusual for a Tulku, it is not an impossibility according to the standards of Tulkuhood in the Nyingma sect, to which the Bhakha Tulku belongs. In the Nyingma tradition, and all other Vajrayana sects, life is considered to begin at conception. By this principle, a stillborn fetus constitutes a life, making it possible that that life could have been part of a Tulku lineage. According to a description by Tulku Thondup, a translator and researcher for the Buddhayana Foundation and contemporary Tulku associated with the Dodrupchen Monastery, in Incarnation: The History and Mysticism of the Tulku Tradition of Tibet, the primary role of a “Birth Manifested Body Tulku” is “to serve others […] in any form that leads a being or beings toward happiness, peace, and enlightenment, either directly or indirectly” (13). With this perception of Tulku leadership, the controversy surrounding the idea that a life culminating in miscarriage could be worthy of the title of Tulku is easily understood.

Some individuals participating in this debate assert that a miscarried fetus could not fulfill the requirement of compassionate servitude. Cameron David Warner goes so far as to argue that the emotional pain that miscarriage necessarily brings to the mother renders the life of that child devoid of any positive outcome—its only effect being a mother’s grief. However, one key idea posited by Tulku Thondup is that a Tulku’s life can help the spread of Buddhism and compassion, not only directly, but also indirectly. When viewed in the context of history, it is possible that the death of this child, for this life to go no further, was a course of events that allowed Buddhism to spread further into Tibet.

At the time of Wencheng’s arrival in Tibet, Buddhism was fairly uncommon in the area, the most common religion being a form of animistic shamanism called Bon. Both Tibetan and Chinese historiography cite Wencheng among the first foreigners to bring Buddhist artifacts into Tibet (see Blondeau and Buffetrille, Slobodnik, Kapstein). It is possible that if Wencheng were to arrive in Lhasa with a child that the Tibetan king, Songstan Gampo, would have reacted negatively, potentially harming Wencheng herself or the larger relationship between the Tibetan Empire and Tang China. While this is merely conjecture, it does present an argument in which a Tulku could have demonstrated compassionate servitude in this unusual form.

Interestingly, while the Bhakha Tulku’s claimed past life has inspired controversy, this particular assertion is not mentioned in official profiles or other monastic materials. This decision to avoid such a sensitive topic in public texts could be an attempt to smooth over controversy within the religious community (where the debate continues). Alternatively, this choice could be motivated by a desire to avoid politicization by Chinese government officials, who have been altering the historical narrative surrounding Wencheng’s life in Tibet to model a positive relationship between the generous paternal state of China and Tibet, its vassal. While the Bhakha Tulku currently devotes his energies to other issues, this unusual past life serves not only to symbolically connect China and Tibet, but also challenges the traditional notion of what it means to be a benevolent public servant.

Kristin Buhrow is a graduate student at the University of Oxford pursuing a Master’s degree in Tibetan & Himalayan Studies.