The Warrior at the Top of the Stairs
Just in time for Halloween, Project Curator Laura Bauld tells the story of Shoki, a fearsome Demon Queller!
'In my parents’ house, at the top of the stairs, lives an ancient, fearsome warrior. His name is Shoki. He stands tense, poised, and ready for battle. His sword is drawn, pointing downwards towards anyone that dare climb the steps. His white robe billows around him – big, black stomping boots on his feet. His long black hair and beard bristle around his head like a lion’s mane. His face grim, mouth wired tight, with intense eyes, glowering out from under a furrowed brow of bushy eyebrows.
And there, look! Held tight and fast under his arm, a wriggling, squirming demon, trying to scratch Shoki with his long, pointed claws, desperate not to be dumped deep down into hell. For that is Shoki’s job, you know – to capture pesky demons that break free from the underworld and send them back from whence they came.
This Shoki, you’ll be relieved to know, is not a real-life person. They would be an exceptionally strange lodger for my parents to have – dragging demons all over the carpet and brandishing swords by the bathroom door. This Shoki is in fact an illustration from a photographic copy of a 19th century print, framed and proudly hung by my parents in their home.
The original woodblock print of Shoki can be found in The Burrell Collection. Made around 1849-1853, it is one of 37 Japanese woodblock prints collected by Sir William Burrell. In Chinese legend, Shoki was a gifted scholar destined for government office. However, the emperor rejected him on account of his ugly face. In despair, Shoki ended his life on the steps of the emperor’s palace. Condemned to hell for taking his own life but aware of Shoki’s great intelligence, the King of Hell made Shoki a Demon Queller, forever charged with the hunting and ruling of the demons of hell. Not your average day job.
Despite this somewhat tragic back story, Shoki is my favourite from the museum for various reasons. The main one being is that he is interwoven with memories of my family. When I first joined The Burrell Project, there was a lot of excitement in my household – family members sharing different stories of their visits to The Burrell. And it was then my parents first starting talking about Shoki. When The Burrell first opened in 1983, my parents were dating and went along to check out the new museum. My Dad bought my Mum a poster of Shoki from the museum shop as a keepsake. But over the years, the poster – although loved – became tattered, dog-eared, rolled up and eventually thrown away.
Then last year, as a gift for Mother’s Day, my Mum asked if I would order her a copy of the Shoki print from the Glasgow Museums Photolibrary. Some mothers are just content with flowers but my brilliant, history-loving mother, of course, wanted the King of Ghosts. Once framed, Shoki immediately went on display in prime position at the top of the stairs. It’s now common to hear people call ‘Hello, Shoki’ as they wander up and down the steps.
Now, I ask my Mum, what is it you love about Shoki so much?
She thinks for a moment: “Well, he’s fierce, and a protector – he protects children, you know.” She looks at him, pauses, thinking, brows furrowed. “He just looks like he shouldn’t be messed with!” And then in her best Glaswegian accent, she says, with a hint of laughter, “Come and have a go if ye’ think yer hard enough!”
And so, at the top of my parents’ stairs, Shoki stands, alert, proud, and ever-ready to guard my sleeping parents against wandering demons that may venture upwards to disturb their slumber.
Come and have a go if you’re brave enough.'
Burrell Renaissance Project
Black and white print of Shoki, a Chinese 'demon queller', based on a 19th century Japanese woodblock print