First Light XXVIII

Today I want to talk about hanging fish – and I don’t mean in the executioner’s sense of the term hanging. You see there is a tradition in Japan where dried bonito are suspended from the ridgepole as a talisman, to ward off evil spirits.

Well, actually I’m just kidding about that – though tiles on the ridge are in fact decorated as little ogres and used for the purpose of banishing evil spirits.

The hanging fish I am in fact referring to are termed gegyo, written with a pair of kanji:  懸魚. Right off the bat, i should say that the word gegyo is not a standard reading of the two characters and most Japanese people would have difficulty coming up with a reading of that word.

The meaning of the two characters is understood easily however, as both kanji are common, but the way they are pronounced in tandem is non-standard, and thus the difficulty. The first kanji, 懸 is quite a complex-looking little critter. It combines heart, 心, compressed at the bottom, prefecture, 県, in the upper left, and  lineage, 系, in the upper right. Actually, the upper two characters, 県 and 系 also exist combined as a character: 縣. Furthermore, 縣 is in fact the older version of 県. This character 県 is a modern substitute for 縣 and comes from a pictograph, which looks like this:

This pictograph is actually bit ghoulish, being of an upside-down severed head (see the hair hanging at the bottom?). It was once the custom, and a charming one, to suspend the severed heads of executed criminals from a high place to serve as a warning to potential criminals. Nothing like a bit of local colour, eh? How’s that for a ‘welcome’ sign into town?

In the more complex character, 縣, the element 系 is added, a kanji which means connection. Thus, combining the two elements into ‘縣’ gives the meaning of hang suspended in-between. Now, how on earth can this also mean prefecture? Well, how’s this: a prefecture is a political unit suspended between local and central government.

Adding heart, ‘心’, to the bottom of ‘縣’, gives ‘懸’, which means to have one’s emotions suspended between two poles, which in other words means to feel undecided, and by extension to hang apart/be distant. This in turn has led to the extended meanings of hang/depend upon and do at the risk of.

The second character in gegyo, ‘懸魚’, is much simpler: ‘魚’ – meaning fish. This character stems from a pictograph of a fish:

So, gegyo then is the hanging fish. What the heck is that and what does it have to do with architecture? Well, gegyo are decorative pendants that are attached to the end of the exposed ridgepole in Japanese traditional buildings – especially castle, shrine and temple roofs, but also occasionally on domestic architecture. I like ’em.

It is believed that they were originally carved in the shape of fish, and along with temples, were imported to Japan from China sometime in the 6th or 7th century. There are numerous forms of gegyo, each with specific names depending upon what they are depicting – usually not fish in the past few centuries, more often than not they are of flowers.

Gegyo are not mere decoration however – they serve to cover the end grain of an important timber from the elements. Thus they are a protective cover of sorts. This lantern I am making is meant to be outdoors and exposed to the weather, so it too ought to have gegyo.

The form of gegyo I am going to use on this lantern takes a design from a traditional gegyo form that is an irregular hexagon in shape, and is called a umebachi gegyo. gegyo, they have become avenues of decorative expression. Here’s an example from Kyoto:

This is a larger file, so clicking on the picture will yield a nice photo. The type of gegyo in the picture is the three-flowered type, or mitsubana gegyo.

For my lantern, I thought it would be a great place to use my company crest, a Chinese bellflower in a pentagon, as the gegyo. I used this to crest to line the cable ports on Client C’s step tansu, first described in an earlier post called Steps Along the Way (also see the picture in the upper right of this page). For this project, I decided to make the crest a little more interesting than my previous attempts. I was going to take the 3D carving a little further, always trying to push the envelope in my work.

First off I made the pentagon rings, for which I used some Gabon Ebony. I have a small piece of it that pretty much ought to last me for a lifetime, as I only use of for things like this, and the odd peg or wedge. I find the ebony pretty hard to saw and chisel, but it planes like a dream:

I took the strips down to close to 0.125″ then carefully reduced them to dimension. Just for fun I took the caliper to the shavings to see how much I was removing each time:

These shaving are relatively-speaking little more than thick slabs, and are unlikely to position me for a win at the next Kezurō-kai (a Japanese planing meet and contest), but that was hardly the point. It is helpful to know sometimes how much you pull off with each shaving as it gives an idea how many passes are needed to get to a given dimension. It’s not something I do all that often.

Then I cut the ebony strip into rough lengths, and set up the shooting board to trim the pentagon miters. These were pretty tiny pieces to work, so I used the C-clamp to hold the bits:

I fitted the pieces up and the pentagons were complete, with – gasp! – a little glue and clamping. I omitted to take pictures of that exciting step – sorry. Please don’t be up in arms about the use of glue my friends, because as you shall see in time it is but a placeholder. Joinery will ultimately fix the parts in place.

The next step was to trim the lower ends of the main board into the classic umebachi-gegyo form:

Finito (99%):

For the bellflower, I decided to use some of the Bloodwood. Though not exactly an ideal choice for carving, I decided to blunder ahead all the same – after all, Bloodwood holds its colour, unlike a lot of red-toned woods.

Here’s a shot of the pieces in various process steps:

The leftmost flower has entered the carving sequence, while the one on the right is still in what might be called a rough-cast phase.

A little further along, also an in-process view of different stages:

The carving blank needs to be rebated first so as to fit into the ebony pentagon, so I mark the shoulder line with a kebiki:

Then I get the chisel out and trim the rebate:

Here’s how it looks after that:

On the other side, I used my router and a core box bit to gradually hog out some material from the center, then hack and chew my way around until a rough flower shape is created:

Then it is Gouge Time (a spin off from the wildly successful Sawing for Teens show):

This one is at the 80% mark in terms of carving, and is not yet fully fitted into the pentagon:

More to come – see you next time, at post 29.

Anything to add?

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