Visual arts play an important role in identifying people’s way of life, culture, and beliefs. In particular, paintings and sculptures represent the views of the people during the time they are produced. In the same way, architecture represents human perception of order, space and structure during the period of its construction. Particularly, Asian society in the earlier times (centuries before Christ and after) have traces of the early religions such as Taoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism, and Hinduism.
Taoism (also Daoism) is a philosophy developed by Lao-tse (also Lao-zi), a great Chinese philosopher. Challenged by the chaos and feudal warfare during his time, Lao-tse wrote his book titled, Tao Te Ching to provide his countrymen a moral creed that later emerged as one of the greatest religions in China. For Lao-tse, the Tao or the Way is the force or power present in all living and non-living things. It regulates natural processes and nourishes balance in the universe, and it also embodies the harmony of opposites such as the Yin and Yang or the male and female forces, which Lao-tse believed should unite instead of repelling against each other. Through the years, Taoism has taken many forms, “coexisting with [the two other great Chinese religions,] Confucianism and Buddhism” (Berling 2005).
The early Taoists conformed with nature and its elements, and not with the values of human society as opposed to Confucianism. Weary of social activism, they retired from the world and turned to the beauty found in nature where they can find the immortality of the soul. Such theme is found in the work of Ma Yuan (1190-1225).
This painting from the Southern Sung titled, On a Mountain Path in Spring by Ma Yuan is an album leaf ink and color on silk. In this ink painting, the painter expresses the themes of communing with nature, and solitude. The scene reflects a man on top of a mountain, viewing the vast nature below. The fine brush strokes the artist employed elucidate the fineness and mystery of the place.
In this landscape painting titled, Hermit Dwelling in the Ch’ing-pien Mountains dated 1366, the artist Wang Meng (1308-1385) shows “intense verticality” possibly to show the greatness of the spirit of the hermit as its subject. The hermit, a typical Taoist image, exudes vitality and oneness with nature as seen in the painting.
This sculpture called the Taoist Shrine was created in the late 14th Century to early 15th Century during the Ming Dynasty. It is made of porcelaneous stoneware (ceramic) with green glaze and trace of lacquer and it stands 10 15/16 inches (27.8 cm) in height. Even though it was produced at a later time, it still reflects the theory and philosophy of Taoism. This sculpture called the Taoist Shrine represents Lao-tse’s approval of the Yin (female – top level) and Yang (male – bottom level) forces. The two images are depicted to be under one roof, signifying Taoist conventions. The figure of the dragons help in bringing out the Chinese origin of the work, and symbolizes greatness and abundance.
Aside from Taoist philosophies embedded in Asian Art, Buddhism also plays a significant influence in art. Buddhism originated in India where Siddhartha Gautama (the Enlightened One) promulgated his virtues of humility, selflessness, self-consciousness, and unconformity to materialism in the world as the right path to happiness. Thus, the works of the earlier artists adhere to these ideologies.
Zemmui, Teacher of Patriarch of Tendai Buddhism (color on silk; 12th century)
This 12th century painting of the Indian Buddhist monk, Zemmui, teacher of Tendai Buddhism, reveals virtues of humility and piety as depicted in the facial expression and overall pose of the priest. The monk is painted “holding a sutra scroll and at his side is Tamon-ten (in Sanskrit, Vaisravana), the guardian god of Buddhism. Tamon-ten holds a diamond sword and shows a fierce expression depicting his responsibility “to protect believers from evildoers.” (Hooker 1996). Based on this painting, we can see how the Buddhist monk embraces a life of faith and wisdom. In the same way, Buddhists are taught to seek the right path led by Gautama.
This 12th century painting of Shaka Nyorai is the Japanese version of the Enlightened Buddha. In this painting, the Buddha is pictured alone and without attendants, and is not wearing elaborate clothing or ornaments, but just a simple drapery to cover his body. Through this, we are given the idea of how one should live his life—in simplicity and virtue.
Confucianism is another tenet that served as a major influence in Asian art. It originated from the teachings of Confucius, who emphasized “benevolence, charity, humanity, [and] love” (Analects XII:22). Unlike the other two beliefs, Confucianism is concerned about moral attitude and social ethics.
This 17th century wall painting from the late Ming dynasty depicts a young benevolent man dominating the tiger. Basically, the virtues of benevolence and courage represent Confucius’s moral code on filial piety. By dominating the tiger, the man was able to fulfill his duty of protecting his family from serious danger.
This photo shows a part of the temple of Confucius in the Jaiding County Museum in China. The architectural structure depicts how Confucians value scholarly attitude as an evidence of social responsibility. In this photo, we can see the cubicles allotted for students when taking examinations. Taking from Confucian doctrine, Chinese state officials and bureaucrats undergo a lengthy and rigid system of examinations. Furthermore, the structure, from the use of space, roof design, to color coordination, presents Confucians’ value of logical order, simplicity, and organization.
Hinduism (also Vaidika Dharma or religion of the Vedas) is known as the world’s third largest religion. The origin of Hinduism is attributed to the Indus valley civilization around circa 4000 to 2200 BCE. Its development, however, was influenced by various invasions over thousands of years initiated by light-skinned, nomadic “Aryan” Indo-European tribes who came to Northern India (circa 1500 BCE). Hinduism adopts the worship of multiple deities, among them are Brahma, the Creator, Vishnu (Krishna) the Preserver, and Shiva, the destroyer. This summoning of the deities is likewise evident in the works of artists in the earlier periods.
Some Hindu beliefs such as karma and reincarnation have become controversial due to their connection with suicide. Hindus regard present life as a karmic effect of the past, thus a person’s actions are basically governed by retributions of an earlier life. Also, most Hindu artworks depict the ways of their deities.
This sculpture from South India, Tamil Nadu is a representation of Brahma, the Creator for the Hindus. The sculpture, which is made up of granite with traces of gesso and combination of red pigment, has its roots from the Chola dynasty, during the 10th century.
This mudstone sculpture from India or Bangladesh, represents the Goddess Durga, killing the Buffalo Demon, Mahisha (Mahishasuramardini). Its origin dates back to the Pala period (c. 750-1200). The worship of women deities is one characteristic of Hinduism that differentiates it from other religions of the world.
Although Asian art has evolved later with other subjects depicting reality, themes like communing with nature, religious motifs, and social order are still relevantly employed up to now.
Berling, Judith A. Background Essay: Dao/Taoism. Ark Asia.org. 2005. 19 December 2007 <http://www.askasia.org/teachers/essays/essay.php?no=40/>.
Brahma. 10th Century. Worcester Art Museum, MA. Artlex. 2007. 19 December 2007 <http://www.artlex.com/ArtLex/h/hindu.html>.
Forman, Werner. Photo of a Wall Painting Depicting the Zodiac Sign of Tiger. 17th A.D. Musees Royaux d’Art et d’Histoire. Brussels, Belgium. Art Resource, NY. 2003. 19 December 2007 <http://www.artres.com/c/htm/CSearchZ.aspx?Total=29&FP=31104151&E=22SIJMY561ZKE&SID=JMGEJNDW9JADQ&Pic=1>.
The Goddess Durga Killing the Buffalo Demon, Mahisha (Mahishasuramardini). 12th Century. Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY. Artlex. 2007. 20 December 2007 <http://www.artlex.com/ArtLex/h/hindu.html>.
Hooker, Richard. Ancient Japan Gallery. 1999. 19 December 2007
Meng, Wang. Hermit Dwelling in the Ch’ing-pien Mountains. 1366. Dao House Resources.
Robinson, B.A. Buddhism, Based on the Teachings of Siddhartha Gautama. Religious Tolerance.org. 22 August 2007. 20 December 2007 <http://www.religioustolerance.org/buddhism.htm>.
Shaka Nyorai. 12th Century. Corel Corporation. 19 December 2007
Taoist Shrine. 14th – 15th B.C. Cincinnati Art Museum. 19 December 2007 <http://www.cincinnatiartmuseum.org/Search/collectionresultsitemdetail.aspx?OID=104614>.
Vanni. Photo of Temple of Confucius (Kong Miao). Jiading County Museum. Jiading, China. Art Resource, NY. 2003. 19 December 2007 <http://www.artres.com/c/htm/CSearchZ.aspx?Total=29&FP=31104151&E=22SIJMY561ZKE&SID=JMGEJNDW9JADQ&Pic=4>.
Yuan, Ma. On a Mountain Path in Spring. Dao House Resources. 19 December 2007 <http://www.albany.edu/faculty/hartman/eac280/25.html>.
Zemmui, Teacher of Patriarch of Tendai Buddhism. 12th Century. 19 December 2007