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Commonalities in East Asian Art and Culture
East Asia includes the present-day nations of China, North and South Korea (henceforth Korea), and Japan. These three locations are bound by varying degrees of similar cultural, political, agricultural, and social developments that trace back to the Neolithic and Bronze Age periods in what is now known as China. Indeed, the term “East Asian cultural sphere,” or “Sinosphere,” applies to regions in East Asia historically influenced by Chinese culture, including Buddhism, Confucian philosophy, the Chinese writing system, and Chinese visual arts.
Chinese influence in the Korean Peninsula intensified when the Han Dynasty (202 BCE – 220 CE) conquered the Korean kingdom of Choson in 109 BCE. The Emperor of the Han Dynasty established Chinese colonies, which then became a conduit through which Chinese culture spread throughout the Korean peninsula. Chinese control deteriorated over time, and independent Korean kingdoms arose: Koguryo, Silla, and Paekche. However, Chinese influence continued to spread throughout Korea, chiefly in the form of Buddhism and Confucianism.
The Tang dynasty (618-907) conquered Korea a second time. The Silla kingdom allied with the Tang in order to defeat the rival kingdoms of Koguryo and Paekche. Silla rulers modeled their government on the Tang system, and tribute relations with the Tang dynasty allowed those on the Korean peninsula to maintain access to Chinese learning, art, and consumable goods. During this time, Koreans often traveled to China, and many Korean scholars studied at Chinese schools and Buddhist monasteries. Chinese influence did not reach all levels of Korean society, however; rather, it remained in the realms of the elite and in urban centers.
Chinese influence on the Japanese archipelago began in earnest during the Asuka period (538-710). In 646, Emperor Kōtoku promulgated the Taika Reforms—a series of administrative reforms based on China’s political system—to centralize and increase the power of the imperial court. Chinese cultural borrowing continued to flourish during the Nara period (710-794). The principal elements adopted from China during these periods include Buddhism; a centralized, imperial state; Confucian ethical and political thought; and the Chinese writing system.
Perhaps the most critical unifying element among the three areas in East Asia is that of the Chinese writing system. Chinese ideographs date from around 3,500 years ago, making the Chinese written language one of the longest continuously used writing systems in the world. Prior to the introduction of Chinese ideographs, Japan lacked its own written language. Japanese scholars at first used Chinese to study texts that came from China, but eventually adapted Chinese characters to fit the Japanese language. Over time, Japan created their own phonetic system of writing—hiragana and katakana—derived from Chinese characters.
The continuous use of this writing system is central to Chinese cultural traditions. It is also a key link between China and other peoples of East Asia. Some scholars assert that the key defining element of East Asia is the importance of the Chinese written language, as well as classical Chinese literature. The writing system can be compared to Latin in early Europe; it allowed intellectuals from different linguistic backgrounds to communicate through a common written language. One way this is evident is in the use and spread of Chinese poetry. Poetry was originally a means of socializing among intellectuals in China. As it spread to Korea and Japan, it became a form of interaction and communication between Chinese, Koreans, and Japanese. In diplomatic relations especially, poetry proved critical as a mutual means of understanding because of the common use of Chinese ideographs and Chinese rules of composition.
The use of poetry and the Chinese written language facilitated the spread of Buddhism as well. Japanese monks who traveled to China communicated via written poetry because they lacked spoken Chinese language skills. They became so prolific in poetry that it became a new literary genre in Japan, known as the literature of the Five Mountains (a reference to Zen Buddhism). For Zen monks, poetry evoked a collective memory and a shared culture, and eventually gave rise to a new transnational Buddhist subculture among the peoples of East Asia.
Buddhism is another element that connects China, Korea, and Japan. China first encountered Buddhism when the Han Dynasty established trade and cultural ties throughout Central Asia. By the beginning of the Tang Dynasty, Buddhism had become a key element of Chinese culture, including literature, art, sculpture, architecture, and philosophy.
Different schools of Buddhism arose as more and more people translated Buddhist texts, with each sect concentrating on certain texts. The Tian-tai School, for instance, based its teaching on the Lotus Sutra. Two of the most prominent sects include the Chan (Zen) School and the Pure Land School. Chan Buddhism, considered to have reached China by the 6thcentury CE, focused on the act of meditation to attain enlightenment. The True Pure Land School, on the other hand, centered around the practice of reciting the name of Amida Buddha to ensure rebirth in Paradise (Pure Land). Because virtually anyone could recite the name of Amida Buddha, and because it did not require its adherents to read and understand esoteric texts, Pure Land Buddhism spread quickly among the commoner population.
Buddhism reached the Korean Peninsula in the 4thCentury CE, at the time of the Three Kingdoms Period. It was introduced first to the Koguryo Kingdom in 372, followed by the Paekche Kingdom in 385, and finally to Silla between 527 and 535. Inhabitants of both the Koguryo and Paekche kingdoms received Buddhism favorably, but it was initially met with a relative degree of hostility in the kingdom of Silla, whose inhabitants saw it as a threat to their traditions of shamanism, animism, and ancestor worship. It wasn’t until the martyrdom of Buddhist monk Ichadon in 527 that Buddhism was finally accepted by the Silla royal court.
Korean rulers found the promotion of Buddhism to be an important tool in maintaining good relations with China. Further, because most monks were from aristocratic families, Buddhism became a way to preserve the status quo and to lend rulers a certain degree of prestige. On the opposite end of the class spectrum, the poor found solace in Buddhism’s concept of reincarnation and the message that any suffering faced in this life could be averted in the next.
Buddhist teachings traveled to Japan from the Paekche kingdom in 522. There was little understanding of the principles of Buddhism when it was first introduced to the imperial court; it was presented as a magic amulet to solve problems that Shinto and/or kami (gods) could not. Curiously, during the Nara (710-794) period, Buddhism developed as an institutionalized religion that ran counter to what the Buddha himself taught. Rather than the universal truths articulated by the Buddha, Japan adopted a monastic form and the belief that Buddhism could only be understood by ordained priests. Most who became monks were sons of aristocratic families. Thus, Buddhism in Japan developed as a narrowly practiced religion of the elite. Later, during the Kamakura period (1185-1333), the rise of widespread warfare and the need to find solace in an increasingly chaotic world led to forms of Buddhism that were available to a wider portion of the commoner population, such as the Pure Land, True Pure Land, and Nichiren Buddhist sects.
Japanese Buddhists of the Kamakura period sought ways to cope with the age of mappō, or the age of the degeneration of Buddha’s law. This age is the last of three stages of cosmic history that follow the death of Buddhism, after the first age of “true law” (shōbō) and the second age of “copied law” (zōbō). Pure Land, True Pure Land, and Nichiren Buddhism centered on finding salvation in the precarious times of mappō, in addition to providing people with a sense of security and stability in a particularly turbulent time. It was also during this time that Japanese monks traveling to China encountered Zen Buddhism, a Buddhist sect that appealed to monks because of its direct approach to the possibility of immediate enlightenment through meditation.
Buddhist art in China dates to the 2ndand 3rdcenturies CE, but it didn’t proliferate until the 4thcentury. Unlike South Asian Buddhist sculpture that emphasized soft curves, Chinese sculpture featured sharp linear detail that produced an overall stiffer appearance. Buddhist sculpture in Korea followed the styles and iconography of Chinese-style sculpture. Korean Buddhist sculptures often fused indigenous styles with techniques from multiple areas of China. Sculpture from the 7thto 10thcenturies especially reflects many international influences from China, as well as Central and South Asia.
In Japan, Buddhist monks brought back depictions of the Kings of Brightness, or Myōō in the early 9thcentury. These Buddhist deities, often painted with fierce expressions, are protectors of the Buddhist Law. Because Esoteric Buddhism in Japan incorporated iconography from powerful beings such as the Kings of Brightness, it was considered to offer benefits that went beyond other forms of Buddhism. This, in turn, led Esoteric Buddhism to have a particularly strong effect on the arts and rituals of Japanese Buddhism.
Even though Japan adopted Buddhism, the Japanese held to the indigenous beliefs of what is known today as Shinto, “the way of the kami” or “the way of the gods.” The concept of kami is slightly different than the Western notion of “god;” kami can be spirits or phenomena, forces of nature, elements of the landscape, spirits of the dead, or even qualities that a being possesses. Kami are not inherently good, but rather possess good and evil, positive and negative characteristics.
Unlike other religious belief systems, Shinto lacks a founding leader, sacred texts or scripture, a pantheon of gods, a concept of life after death, and teachers or leaders who guide a congregation of believers. The practice of Shinto itself has evolved greatly over time; however, it can be said that Shinto as a belief system generally revolves around life and nature. The oldest forms of Shinto rites and rituals centered on agriculture and emphasized ritual purity.
Some of the most notable kami include Amaterasu, the sun goddess; Fūjin, the god of wind; Hachiman, the god of war; Tenjin, the god of poetry; and Izanagi and Izanami, the male and female deities who gave birth to the Japanese islands as well as other kami. The Japanese built shrines to honor Shinto gods, usually in rural or mountainous areas. Today, however, shrines are a natural part of the urban landscape as well. They can be found tucked away in Buddhist temple complexes, in urban parks and neighborhoods, and even sandwiched in impossibly narrow spaces between buildings.
Nature is a fundamental component not only in the practice of Shinto, but in many aspects of East Asian culture and visual arts. Nature has been an integral part of Chinese culture for millennia. Both real and imagined creatures, among them serpents, cicadas, dragons, and tigers, as well as geographical features such as mountains, possess sacred power and are typically depicted as manifestations of nature’s energy (qi). Traditional Chinese thought perceives the natural world as a complex arrangement of disparate elements that constantly change and interact with one another. Dao, or the Way, while not a governing force, connects these disparate elements. Thus, a central teaching of Daoism encourages people to maintain a close relationship with nature. Under Daoism’s conception of nature, everything exists in a yin (passive, dark, secretive, negative, weak, feminine, cool) and yang (active, bright, revealed, positive, masculine, and hot) binary. Yin and yang constantly interact with one another to produce the rhythms of nature.
Nature and seasonal references proliferate in Japanese literature and visual arts as well. Often, seasonal references are tied with human emotions, especially melancholy sentiments aroused by loss or the passing of time. Cherry trees, chrysanthemums, and persimmons all relate to seasons, as well as the idea of impermanence or the ephemeral nature of time. Depicting all four seasons in a single painting is a common, and distinct, element of Japanese art. This allows artists to depict natural cycles of life, while also expressing the fundamental Buddhist concept of impermanence.
Nature takes a prominent place in Korean landscape painting, dating back to the murals of the Koguryo kingdom and reaching a golden age during the Choson dynasty (1392-1910). An Gyeon’s (c. 1440-70) idyllic landscapes became the model for subsequent generations: typical scenes included a prominent mountain range in the background that towers over serene vistas of trees, hills, and bodies of water. Inspired by Guo Xi (c. 1000-1090) of China’s Northern Song dynasty, An Gyeon in turn inspired numerous ink painters of Japan’s Muromachi period (1392-1573), again illustrating the close connection between China, Korea, and Japan’s historical and cultural development.
For more on the topics touched on here, see the following:
“Buddhism and Early East Asian Buddhist Art,” https://eaa.fas.harvard.edu/buddhism-and-early-east-asian-buddhist-art
“Classical Japan: An Introduction,” http://afe.easia.columbia.edu/at/cl_japan/cj01.html
Gall, Robert S. (January 1999). “Kami and Daimon: A Cross-Cultural Reflection on What Is Divine”. Philosophy East and West. 49 (1): 63–74.
The Genesis of East Asia, 221 B.C.– A.D. 907 (University of Hawai’i Press, 2001)
Murai, Shosuke, trans. by Haruko Wakabayashi. Poems trans. by Andrew Goble. “Poetry in Chinese as a Diplomatic Art in Premodern East Asia.” In Tools of Culture: 100s-1500s: Japan’s Cultural, Intellectual, Medical, and Technological Contacts in East Asia. Ann Arbor, Mich: Association for Asian Studies, 2009.
“Nature in Chinese Culture,” https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/cnat/hd_cnat.htm
“Seasonal Imagery in Japanese Art,” https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/seim/hd_seim.htm
“What is East Asia?” http://afe.easia.columbia.edu/geography/geo_eastasia.html