The Arts Of China And Japan

ARISTOTLE defined art as an imitation of nature. That is obviously wrong, though many still believe it. Art has its origin within the human soul, not outside it. The Greek idea associates it with a sense of order. Such a view might lead to formalized art. Order is deadly to inspiration. Let us see what the Chinese thought about it. Rather I should have used the word felt—that gets to the root of the matter.

Some fourteen hundred years ago Hsieh Ho formulated six canons or tests of a painting. The first was—rhythmic vitality, “the spiritual rhythm expressed in the movement of life.” Next—the art of rendering anatomical structure with the brush. Third—drawing of forms corresponding to natural forms. Fourth—appropriate distribution of color. Fifth—composition and subordination, or grouping. Sixth—the transmitting of classic models. All important, however, is the first—rhythmic vitality.

Okakura speaks of it as “the life-movement of the spirit through the rhythm of things.” In other words, as Laurence Binyon puts it, the artist must break through the mere aspect of the world and grasp that great cosmic rhythm of the spirit which sets the currents of life in motion. And it is that we sense as the goal in the typical Chinese masterpieces. The Chinese painters are not, like the Persians, absorbed in the sensuous de-lights of the world. Nor do they, like the Indian artists, leave the spiritual meaning to be recognized from the subject matter. They fuse the spiritual and the material.

I take the liberty here of freely quoting from Laurence Binyon’s excellent work The Flight of the Dragon. No other writer to my knowledge shows so thorough a grasp of Chinese and Japanese art philosophy.

The Chinese idea of rhythm, according to Binyon, is the essence of graceful motion, as in the human body in games or in the dance. It is the “related, co-ordinated order of movement.” In the dance the body itself is a work of art. While paint cannot actually be set in motion it should suggest rhythmic movement. Line and color are energies capable of acting on each other. When put into proper relation the resulting design draws the imagination and becomes animated or charged with the capability of movement and life. When we discover rhythm we feel that we are in touch with the life of the entire world—”as if we moved to a music which set the stars in motion.”

Art is not a copying of actualities, but a hint of perfect rhythm and the ideal life. Subject matter need not be like anything in nature, but it has to be alive with a vitality of its own. Wu Tao-tzu when he wielded his brush was said to be possessed by a God.

The highest Chinese art had little use for reproducing the particular beauty in an object or face, but for the beauty which comes from the play of object on object, color on color and person against person—and of all as parts of the infinity of the universe. In portraying man’s relation to nature Chinese and Japanese painting reaches its highest point.

Landscape painting in both countries makes its appearance at a very early age. The spirit of these landscapes is far different from that in European painting. There is greater depth and poetry in them. Binyon thus speaks of the Chinese landscapist: “The winds of the air have become his desires, the clouds his wandering thoughts; the mountain peaks are his lonely aspirations, and the torrents his liberated energies. Flowers, opening their secret heart to the light and trembling to the breeze’s touch, seem to be unfolding the mystery of his own human heart, the mysteries of those intuitions and emotions which are too deep or too shy for speech.” Not mere beauty, not mere surroundings, but the universe, which is the artist’s spiritual home—the universe is his theme.

In the Western world we are prone to overwork the view of man as master of all creation. Turgenev writes of a man in a dream finding himself face to face with a figure which he recognizes as Dame Nature. He cries out: “What deep problem knits your forehead? Doubtless you ponder the great future of man, you scheme the steps by which he may arrive at his ultimate perfection. Unfold, then, his glorious destiny to me.” To which Nature replies: “I know not of what you speak. There is a point at which the equilibrium between attack and defense is lost, and the balance must be restored. The problem that absorbs me is how to give greater strength to the muscles on the leg of the flea.”

The Chinese philosopher-painter knew his place in nature. He approached all life with due reverence. Germany some years since recognized the weakness of the domineering attitude in our Western civilization. Hence the slogan, Ich Dien—I serve. Yet that is contrary to the meaning it intends to convey. It savors of condescension. And condescension is not humility. The humble in spirit do not so label themselves. Meekness does not advertise.

The Chinese artist avoids display. He prefers suggestion. He considers landscape painting the highest art; through it, by subtle means, he is ever suggesting infinity. In the eleventh century Kuo Hsi said, “Landscape is a big thing and should be viewed from a distance in order to grasp the scheme of hill and stream. Figures are small matters, which can be seen closely and taken in at a glance.” Centuries earlier Ku K’ai-chih records that he painted an eminent man against a back-ground of lofty peaks and deep ravines as kindred to his lofty spirit.

Chinese and Japanese artists felt a deep tenderness for flowers. Under the guise of flower and bird they tell allusively – of their emotions and experiences. Life’s transitoriness is an inspiration for the artist. The soul’s merging with wind and cloud and its ever-changing aspect took form in the symbolic Dragon. The Dragon is associated also with water, which is weak and soft yet strong and hard; which penetrates subtly and with-out effort, and is typical of the spirit. Through its power of fluidity the Dragon further becomes a symbol of the infinite.

The waterfall comes in for considerable attention in Chinese and Japanese painting. As a Chinese poet writes, it is “always the same, while we men and women fade away and decay.” The entire treatment of nature is on a much higher plane than that of the European artists.

Nature is not merely depicted, it is felt. In the Chinese or Japanese landscape the sublime grandeur of nature sinks into our deepest consciousness.

Chinese art at first deals largely with nature’s terror and mystery. Paintings both in China and Japan dating before the Christian Era deal with heroes and sages and subjects of history. Then comes a change to Buddhist subjects. Wu Tao-tzu in the eighth century is said to have made a painting of Purgatory so vivid, it put all its beholders in fear, and caused the butchers and fish-mongers to abandon their trades for others more in keeping with Buddhist teaching.

Creating of sublime figures was the vogue. A popular example is the image of the Kwanon, embodying mercy and loving-kindness. It is widely portrayed in sculpture as well as painting, usually in attitudes of deep meditation and compassion. Buddhist influence brought about a change from conceptions of ruthless power in nature to those of divine beauty. In portraiture, how-ever, do we find the highest Buddhist art. Exquisitely sculptured and painted are posthumous and idealized sages, heroes and saints. They are remarkable for in-tensity of expression and rhythmic vitality. As time goes on this work loses its fervor and becomes more formal. Religious inspiration is then expressed in the depth in nature, in wild animals and the flowers.

Japan during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries broke away from Chinese tradition. The martial spirit of the country expressed itself in the portrayal of action, heroism and adventure. Warlike figures of Raeion are said to “tingle with energy: their muscles are tense, their minds alert; we can hear them shout to their comrades.” Burning palaces, and bulls in mad flight drawing the chariot of courtiers, are portrayed by this artist with a vehemence which has no equal in European art. Court scenes and the everyday life of the common people all come in for representation in the art of the time.

Once again came a period of Chinese domination over Japanese art. The simple landscape, the bird and flower, returned as leading themes. Yet even in these the country’s martial spirit found outlet—in vigor and decisiveness of brush strokes. We are in the glorious Renaissance of Japan of the fifteenth century, when under Chinese influence Japanese painting was at its highest. Unfortunately, as some writers have pointed out, not one in twenty of the leading painters was in-spired by the works of nature in his own beautiful country.

During the latter part of the seventeenth century there arose as out of the heart of the people a great wave of colored woodcuts. This movement was in the hands of a horde of artisan-artists, no longer “representatives of ancient aristocratic families, but commoners who drew pictures of the life around them to suit the general taste of the public of their own kind and class.” Colored prints portrayed the life of the work-a-day people with a beauty and thoroughness greater than in the art of any other country. Dignified Samurai frowned on these popular prints as frivolous and vulgar. Artists who made them were held in disgrace. Yet the quality of the work was exceedingly high. Breaking away from all classic convention, these artists nevertheless produced real art. And though they were despised by their own aristocracy they carried the fame of Japan around the world. There was a great demand for their prints. The Japanese people awoke to a keen interest in things beautiful. Artists who undertook the task of supplying the demand for prints at home and abroad went at it with a vim. All manner of lowly scenes were depicted, as well as grotesque figures of men and women, with rare simplicity, naturalness and charm. Rhythmic vitality, the underlying principle of all Chinese and Japanese art is here adhered to. Yet of necessity it cannot equal in depth and meaning the rhythm of more serious works. Color prints continued in vogue until about the year 1850.

Japanese art is distinguished by its directness, facility and strength of line. All art motives have a reason behind them in legend or convention. Objects are not combined merely for pictorial effect, but because of definite allegorical or mythological association. To understand the full meaning of Japanese art one must know all of the history of Japan; its religious beliefs; its famous places and men; and its most picturesque events.

During the classic period Chinese and Japanese masters were poets, given to contemplation and meditation. Art for art’s sake did not interest them. They had ideas about life to express. They sought largeness and simplicity. Chinese landscape painting stands out above any in the world for the “suggestion of infinite horizons, for mountains beyond mountains melting away into remote sky.”

The chief medium in Chinese and Japanese painting is water-color. Perhaps because of its limitations great stress is laid on outline. Modeling and shading play a very small part. But line-drawing is made to pro-duce incomparable strength and beauty.

Framed pictures are rare. Nearly all paintings are either Kakemono—hanging-pictures, or Makimono, long scrolls. Some paintings are on folding screens and on sliding panels. Pictures are not used as part of the furniture. Each in turn is unrolled and enjoyed for an hour or a day and again put away.

In considering what we generally term the minor arts, bear in mind that in China and Japan these are of great importance. If a thing was worth doing at all it was worth doing well. Wood carving is mainly con-fined to religious subjects. Ivory birds and flowers are executed with minuteness and great skill. Many other subjects are in this medium treated with masterly precision. But the Japanese carvers excel mainly in the fine delineation of small things rather than in making great things.

Cloisonne, or enamelling on copper, brass or silver is known in Japan since the sixteenth century. Its highest development, however, was not reached until comparatively recent times. The design is usually outlined with a thin metal network soldered to a foundation of solid metal. Resulting spaces are filled in with enamel paste of various colors. A number of bakings, rubbings and polishings make the surface smooth as well as hard.

There are three centers for the making of Cloisonne, Kyoto, Tokio and Nogoya. The Kyoto school works in copper or brass, leaving the delicate arabesque designs of metal visible on the surface. At Tokio the metal out-line is concealed and the object made to resemble old Chinese porcelain. At Nogoya beaten or wired silver is used for the design; the enamel is often transparent, the silver shining through the glaze. Good Cloisonne possesses a wealth of ornament both in design and in harmony of color. In this one field the Japanese are beyond praise.

Bronze casting reached a high stage in Japan over a thousand years ago. Armor, the temple bell, the gong, mirrors, vases, lanterns, and representations of divine personages were of bronze. The Great Buddha, at Komakura, is the finest example of Japanese bronze-casting. The calm, intellectual, passionless face seems to embody all Buddhist philosophy—”the triumph of mind over sense, of eternity over fleeting time, of the enduring majesty of Nirvana over the trivial prattle, the transitory agitations of mundane existence.” (Chamberlain, Things Japanese.)

In the Japanese view of life most articles of daily use should rejoice the eye and feed the mind. This is particularly evident in porcelain. Porcelain came into Japan from Korea at the end of the sixteenth century, with the ruthless overthrow of that country by Japanese invaders. Korean captives became Japan’s teachers in this art. Of earlier days we have coarse clay vessels in the eighth century, the black or chocolate-colored tea jars of Seto in the thirteenth century, and Shonzui’s imitations of Chinese blue porcelain in the early sixteenth century. But not until after the conquest of Korea did porcelain-making in Japan become a real art. It reached its zenith between 1750 and 1830. From 1800 to 1850 dates the Golden Age of Satsuma faience. Mention may be made of Kutani porcelain from Kaga, richly decorated in red and gold; the Raku and Awata faience from Kyoto, and Seto ware from the province of Owari. In Bizen ware we have humorous figures of gods, birds, lions and other creatures. There are also the Soma pottery, the egg-shell cups of Mino; the Takatori, Isumo and Yatshueshino wares.

Sobriety and distinction, so characteristic of other things Japanese, are particularly noticeable in their ceramic art. Ceramists were artists, not mere hired workmen. Also they were faithful clansmen of a feudal chief. By him fed, they worked for him and for the love of their art. Time was no object. They did not need to cater to a public of mediocre taste. The art was perfectly and essentially aristocratic. Hence the delicacy and subdued harmony of Satsuma ware. The painter, lacquerer or metal worker, likewise, had no thought of money-making. Each was concerned with his art. And they fulfilled the requirements of a small and highly cultivated class of the nobility.

Beginnings of Chinese minor arts are lost in antiquity. The date generally given to the opening of the legendary period is 2852 B.C. Yet in Honan and Kansu Dr. Anderson in the present decade discovered some examples of pottery which seem to go back beyond 3000 B.C. These show a fairly advanced state of development. Of finely prepared material, they are also of good shape and coloring.

The Chou Dynasty, 1122-255 B.C., is highly important in Chinese history, even though the country was but a group of small semi-independent states on the Yellow River. Confucius comes of this period, and Lao Tzu. Of this age are the Chinese classics. Its thought and philosophy have influenced the life of China to the present day. So has its art. Of Chou origin we have tomb potteries, bronzes and jades. Hieratic in design, bronzes and jades particularly are highly impressive, worthy of an age which produced so many of China’s greatest men.

Under the great Ch’in conqueror in 255 B.C., the scattered feudal states became an empire. Seeking to destroy every trace of the Chou Dynasty, Ch’in ordered all books burned. Lest their inscriptions have historical significance, he decreed that all bronze objects be melted and re-cast into statues. But these were in turn doomed to destruction, as Ch’in’s dynasty lasted only fifty-five years. It was succeeded by the Han.

Art now took on new life. Rules were relaxed, the shackles of convention eased. Artists were allowed to give free rein to their fancy. Imagination was set free. This spirit is seen in bronzes and jades. Also in the new art but lately learned from western Asia, glazing on pottery. Rich designs are painted or incised on red or black lacquered woodenware. Textiles, too, show a highly advanced technique. Little is known of the sculpture of the time, though the few examples which have come down show power and vitality.

We skip several chapters in Chinese history to the Tang Dynasty, 618-906 A.D. Here we find jades, pottery, metal work and textiles of great vitality. Pottery shows a mastery of the wheel and a genius for form. Blue, green, amber-yellow and yellowish-white colored glazes, some with incised designs, delight and astonish all their beholders. Porcelain likewise makes its appearance.

Of the porcelain and pottery produced during the Sung Dynasty, 960-1279, China still speaks with reverence. High-fired glazes and stoneware porcelain colored in monochrome brought fresh delights with new tints of ivory and cream-white, subtle greens and grays, deep browns and blacks, gorgeous crimson reds and purples. Outlines are simple, refined. Only an occasional bit of incising or carving varies the purity of rich tone of colored glaze. Here is seen the exquisite taste of China. Bronze-workers, jade-cutters and other craftsmen were doing excellent work. But they were reproducing ancient Chou and Han types to satisfy the prevailing passion for the antique. The potters, on the other hand, were forging ahead, originating. They were creating fine works with that perfect sense of line and shape which has been the wonder of the ages.

Bernard Rockham has this to say of the Sung Dynasty: “The craftsmen of this age must have been encompassed by beauty as by the air they breathed. To them purity of curve, well-ordered balance of pro-portion and fresh vigor of drawing were as easy and natural as practical good craftsmanship in their handiwork. They may have been half savages, as we reckon things in these materialistic days; their table manners doubtless left much to be desired. But spiritually they were great. Their work remains to prove it.” (Chinese Art, Macmillan 1928.)

Mongol invasions brought confusion, and left China but a wing of a greater Asiatic empire. Then followed the Ming Dynasty, 1368-1644. The Mongols, driven back beyond the Great Wall, remained a menace between China and western Asia. Chinese art was obliged to feed upon itself. Yet while painting was occupied largely with copying old models, the minor arts showed freshness and strength. Bronze vessels and statuettes, red and brown lacquer, jades, carving on wood and ivory, all display great skill.

Ming porcelain is world famous. Polychrome now replaced monochrome. Pictures and brocades furnished designs for enamels colored on glazed ware. Matchless three-colored glazes were produced, with such shades as dark violet-blue, turquoise, leaf-green, yellow, aubergine purple. Designs were produced in threads of clay, by incised lines or by carving or piercing. Here color reaches its full glory. It produces a wealth of harmonies unknown before. Porcelains are noted for their well-balanced shapes; but it is their exquisite coloring that distinguishes them from all other pottery and gives them undoubted world supremacy.

To produce one of these fine vases requires much patience and care. Hundreds of separate coats of paint are often needed to attain the desired color. Consider the delicacy of the brush-work. To complete the coloring may take two, three or four years. Another year or two may be required for almost microscopic carving. But that is China. Time is endless. The craftsman’s love of his art gives him an almost superhuman patience. What are years, or ages, compared to a work of art?

Porcelains of the greatest delicacy and refinement were made for the Ming emperors and nobility, especially in the fifteenth century. The more familiar ware produced for export is not of this caliber. While the latter has considerable vigor and freshness, it is far from the real Ming porcelain.

The Manchu, or Ching, Dynasty (1644-1912) is on the whole a period of decadence. Mastery of materials and technique had been achieved. But there was little or no inspiration, no spontaneity in decoration. This is especially true of ceramic art, in which only the finish reached anything like a high development. Yet even during this period the Chinese produced some exceptional monochrome glazes. K’ang Hsi red and peach-bloom are full of character. Other original effects are mirror-black, powder-blue, iron-rust, tea-dust, souffle-red, mustard-yellow, apple, sage and camellia-leaf greens, as well as opaque colors like ruby-pink and “birds-egg” glazes. An academy of applied arts, established in Peking by the Emperor Cor Hsi, flourished for more than a hundred years. Enameling, wood and ivory carving, glass-making, metal-work and jade-cutting were studied with great diligence. In all of these we see skill and fine detail, but it is over-ornamented. There is wonderful technique, but no genius. An abundance of craftsmanship, but no inspiration.

The last hundred and fifty years have seen the complete decadence of art in China. Craftsmanship is en-grossed in imitation. Nowhere will you find a higher development along either line than in China. But the divine spark which produces masterpieces seems to be extinguished. That brand of artistry which made China the most gifted nation in the world lies dead or dormant.

Yet we must not lose sight of these facts. China has contributed much to the world’s treasure house in every branch of art. It ranks very high in painting. In ceramic art it stands supreme, also in carving on stone and jade. In lacquering and wood and ivory carving it shares the highest honors with Japan. In metal-work and textiles it ranks with the best in the world.

It is interesting to note that China first became known to the Western world through its silks. Vaguely aware of the existence of this strange people the ancients along the Mediterranean daubed it with a variety of names. Most prominent among these was Seres. From that came Serica, or Seric garment. Various mouldings to fit a variety of languages developed the English word silk. From earliest historical times, then, the Chinese were known as producers of that cloth. In China two thousand-year-old silks have been found. The earliest woven and embroidered silks show the same formalism of design and pattern that’ runs through Chinese art of all times—the same dragons, animals, birds, horsemen, flower arrangement and all the rest. Designs and characters are always symbols. They have definite meaning. And in mythology the artist must not deviate from accepted tradition. Motives, even colors, interpret religion and philosophy. Ornamentations are classified into series according to their appropriate usage. Under no circumstances may these be violated. There are designs and colors reserved for royalty, others for the nobility, and so on down the line.

From the T’ang Dynasty onward we find a great quantity of silk embroidery. All manner of subjects are represented. Between the seventh and tenth centuries A.D., China had more traffic with western Asia than at any period since. Decorative themes were exchanged with Persia and its neighbors, to their mutual advantage. Fear of the Arabs checked this interchange of ideas.

When Kublai Khan took China into the great Mongol empire, which covered much of Asia and even stretched out into Europe, there was greater safety for travelers than ever before. It was then that Marco Polo and others spread the astonishing tale of the great Chinese people and their art throughout Europe. A lively demand for Chinese silks grew up in European churches.

Gold and silver brocades follow the same general lines as the other arts. Tapestry weaving in silk and gold is carried to the highest degree of technical perfection. A great quantity of textiles were made to the order of foreign patrons. To designs ordered the Chinese added curious embellishments of their own. Thus we see Christian saints surrounded by phoenixes and spotted deer among Chinese floral motives and fantastic rocks.

Rug weaving in silk and gold or in wool is of very early origin. Exceptional work in this field was done in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Since then the tendency has been downward. In recent years rug weavers have been turning out for the European and American markets a brand of Chinese rug far different from earlier types. The weaving is loose and coarse. Dyes are inferior. Designs are clumsy imitations of earlier ones. These weavers have also been helping to supply the great demand for Persian rugs. Master imitators, they blithely grind out inferior duplicates of Persian originals and add their bit to the flood of cheap imitations for the American and English markets.

In architecture China has much to offer. Of outstanding interest are the Buddhist temples. Likewise quaintly picturesque bridges. Temple roofs, and roofs of the better-class homes as well, leave a lasting impression on the traveler. At every turn of a road one is fascinated by bright colored tiles, mostly in yellows and blues, dazzling in the sun. Fascinating are native clothes, with all their colors and embroideries. One is impressed like-wise by the fine taste of better-class Chinese.

Japanese architecture does not come up to that of the Chinese. The Japanese excel in the making of small things. They are therefore more successful in the other arts. At ivory-carving and pencil drawing they are masters. None may surpass or even equal them in making a cup, a dish or a pot a work of art. But in architecture they fall far short of European standards. A sky-line view of their cities is flat and monotonous. No grandeur is there, no inspiring structures, no heaven-soaring towers or spires. Their homes possess delightful bits of ornamentation; pretty metal fastenings, tiles, sliding and folding screens, dwarfed trees in dainty gardens. Temples like Nikko and Shiba are pleasing in detail decoration of geometrical figures and birds, beasts and flowers; but not so much in architectural line.

The Japanese house is generally of light framework. A roof quite heavy in proportion to the main structure is supported on stone. There is no foundation. The house stands on top of the ground instead of partly in it. For walls there are portable sliding doors called amado. These are removed in the daytime…. Thus in summer everything is open. In winter semi-transparent paper slides, called soji, replace the sliding doors during the day. Rooms are separated by opaque paper sliding screens, which can be removed to make larger space. All floors are covered with thick mats.

The best rooms are toward the back, close to the garden. They face south—away from winter’s northern blasts and towards cool summer breezes. There is generally an alcove where a scroll painting, or kakimono, is displayed together with a vase of flowers. Little or no furniture is in the home. No beds are required; quilts are placed on the floors for sleeping. No table, as each member of the family is served on a separate tray. For cup-boards there are openings in the walls screened in by paper slides. Family treasures are stored away in a separate fire-proof structure of mud or clay.

Far different is this Japanese home from yours. There is nothing to sit on. There is no adequate heating system. There are constant drafts. There is not much privacy. There is danger from fire. When rain necessitates shutting in the house there is insufficient light. But the houses are cheap. And Japan is a poor country. Then, too, the Japanese are not used to comfort in our sense. They are accustomed to drafts. They are accustomed to much else that you might not stand for.

But the Japanese home shows taste. And the taste of this people is one of sobriety. There is no bluster, no ostentatious vulgarity. The one picture in the alcove is of the best, and is changed frequently. Possessions are not sown broadcast to proclaim one’s wealth. Nor is money lavished on transitory pleasures for display. And this moderation makes for happiness and a real spirit of equality. The rich are not blatant. There are no paupers.

In simplicity, sobriety, balance and a sense of fitness we have much to learn from Japan. This energetic country might teach us the wisdom of discarding frivolity and bombastic luxury.

Unfortunately Japan has in recent years been making a strenuous but ludicrous attempt at adopting Western customs. From misfit clothing to misfit Europeanized homes the attempt is as unsuccessful as it is unworthy. If people would only learn to appreciate and perfect the beautiful things that are theirs!