The art of the Far East is one of the oldest artistic traditions in the world today. While the Mesopotamian, Egyptian, and Minoan Crete civilizations may have more ancient beginnings, none of these have survived into modern times. The lineage, however, of contemporary Chinese, Korean, and Japanese art is quite apparent. Only in Eastern Asia are there cultures that can trace their beginnings to a prehistoric era, and show a continuous evolution through thousands of years. Because of this, the art of the Far East is some of the most important in history, influencing cultures and inspiring artists from ancient to modern times.
In the Neolithic era, China and Japan, and later Korea, developed an impressive pottery culture. Their technical understanding for ceramics was extremely advanced at this time, much more so than that of any other recorded civilization. In fact, over the centuries, if there is one discipline in which the Far East culture has surpassed all others, it is the creation of pottery, which combines exquisite beauty and impeccable form with function and utility. This art form has never been lost. Today, as much as in prehistoric times, pottery is used as an expression of the ambitions of peoples’ lives.
The Chinese were also the first of the ancient cultures to utilize metal as an art form. The most remarkable of these creations were the bronze vessels. Used as ritual objects in worshiping both nature and the deceased, the bronze vessels played an integral role in the Far East culture. The only other material that was as significant as bronze them was jade. The Chinese regarded jade as one of the most precious stones, and often used it for small-scale carvings and ornaments.
Until this point, art forms such as painting and sculpture had been considered rather inconsequential. Now, they were emerging as significant modes of expression. From the 6th to the 3rd centuries B.C., the decorative arts—lacquer, textiles, jewelry, ornamental jade carvings—also became popular amidst Far East civilizations. Artists developed even more advanced technical skills and reached a new level of mastery in their designs.
By the end of the pre-Christian era, the Chinese metal culture had reached Japan and Korea. This can likely be attributed to the rise of the Han Dynasty, which had created a great empire in China. The first universal state of the Far East included China, northern Korea, Manchuria, regions of Central Asia, and Indo-China. With millions of people and bustling cities such as Ch’ang-an and Loyang, which had beautiful palaces and temples embellished with paintings and sculptures, the Han Empire strengthened and propagated the Chinese culture. This empire lasted for nearly 400 years, becoming the epicenter for creativity and representing the culmination of early Chinese art.
The introduction of Buddhism was the next major event in the cultural history of the Far East. This religion spread from India into Eastern Asia, transforming the cultures of China, Korea and Japan. In fact, the next chapter in the art of this region is primarily Buddhist. As each culture was influenced by the same faith, the art assumed a universal character, which united the Far East. They created magnificent temples decorated with statues and wall paintings. The imagery was typically nature-based, celebrating the surrounding world and the gifts that their environment had provided. The prevalence of Buddhist art work during this time reflected the passion of the religious faith which was so profound, it would characterize the art of the Far East for centuries.
By the 10th century, when European civilization was emerging as a more powerful force, China, Japan, and Korea had reached the height of sophistication and artistic culture. Artists had developed an aesthetic sensibility, producing some of the greatest art ever to come out of the Far East. This period is often referred to as the classical age of both pottery and porcelain. Their understanding of painting and ceramics greatly surpassed all other civilizations. Even when artists used decorations, they did so with restraint, employing stones and symbols sparingly with results that are both aesthetically beautiful and emotionally captivating. Many critics still maintain that the porcelains of this time have never been surpassed.
The most remarkable artistic achievement of this time is the landscape painting of China. Even today, critics regard this work as the most profound landscape painting in the history of art. Executed primarily in ink on silk or paper, these landscapes are truly magnificent. Artists would often form these works into scrolls, both vertically and horizontally. The landscapes themselves were largely influenced by Taoist philosophy, which embodied the mystical essence of nature. Artists sought to express the mystery of the cosmos and the nature of the Tao. They depicted lofty mountain peaks, twisted trees, and foggy atmosphere—the very spirit of nature. Man, if represented at all, is reduced in scale, showing how trivial his existence is when compared to the grandeur of the cosmos. The viewer is intended to identify himself with the figure, and strive to honor the world and become one with nature.
In Japan, the most extraordinary artistic development of this time was known as Yamato-e, a style of painting inspired by Tang Dynasty paintings. This was an important step in Japan’s artistic evolution, as up until this point, most artists worked in the Chinese style of painting. The Yamato-e combines the narrative with the decorative, telling stories of the beauty of nature—such as Japanese landmarks and seasonal changes. The paintings are often on scrolls that can be used as decoration or on hand-scrolls that could be read from right to left with accompanying text. One of the most famous Yamato-e pieces from this time was the “Genji Scroll,” which depicts Lady Murasaki’s famous novel, The Tale of Genji. This story reflects the Japanese style at its very best, with its spectacular sense of decorative design, sophisticated technique, and elegant form. Some Japanese scrolls from this period also featured religious paintings, such as the golden figure of Buddha floating in the sky over the sprawling green mountains of Japan. Images such as this show that Japan may have been deeply indebted to the culture of China, but developed certain characteristics that were distinctly their own.
During the 15th century, Zen-inspired Chinese-style ink painting became the predominant art form across the Far East. The philosophical inspiration of Zen Buddhism led to some of the greatest masterpieces, not only in painting but also in landscape gardens, architecture, crafts, and even in tea ceremonies. Many of the themes of Zen Buddhism served to give visual expression to Zen teachings. One popular subject was portraiture of the great patriarchs. Other subjects commonly depicted were the abbots of the Zen temples, the Zen-inspired friends Kanzan and Jittoku, and the monkey reaching out to the reflection of a moon at the bottom of a water well—a traditional symbol for man’s preoccupation with reflections of reality rather than reality itself.
The later dynasties in China—the Ming (1368 – 1644) and Ch’ing(1644 – 1912)—introduced a flourishing school of crafts, especially porcelains. During the Ming period, the most beautiful porcelain designs were pheraps the monochromes, particularly the imperial yellow wares made for the court. More common were the three-color wares, whose vivid colors and bold designs reflect the Ming preference for the opulent, if not gaudy, style. Durig the Ch’ing period, Chinese porcelains were characterized by their pure white forms and ornate decorations, which were typically executed in cobalt blue or bright enamel colors. It was these elegant and beautiful creations that first piqued the interest of the West, and led to a profound impact upon European ceramics.
Japanese art reached one of its highest points during the 17th century—the Edo Period. The decorative arts were particularly remarkable—their lacquers, textiles, and tea-wares were universally regarded as masterpieces. Japanese painting had also evolved into a unique style that centered on decorative scenes, and highlighted the beauty of nature. But it was the domestic architecture of this period that made the most powerful and authentic statement of Japanese art. Teahouses were designed in a simple fashion. Residential houses were produced with clean, stark lines. The honesty of their purpose and functional nature of their design give these buildings character, which is admired by modern Japanese.
This period also produced an abundance of folk art, known as mingei, which was made by artisans and common people, even in rural Japan. These were ordinary objects that are valued today for their honest beauty and simple craftsmanship among both Japanese and Western collectors.
The art of the Far East has had a profound influence on the Western world. Painters of the Impressionist and post-Impressionist movements, for example, looked to ancient Asian cultures for inspiration and guidance. By the late 19th century, however, their great traditions had exhausted themselves, and European influences began to transform the art of the Far East. Art forms of China, Korea, and Japan were modified or even replaced. Some of the work created under European influence seemed to be even more “western” than western art itself. Perhaps assimilation is the natural course of history and the evolution of art.