Aesthetics: Asia

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Aesthetics: Asia

Culturally, Asia encompasses an enormous range of cultural diversity, with philosophical traditions going back 2,500 years. And aesthetics is the philosophical study of art and the elaboration of criteria of value in arts and in nature, as well as how these two notions overlap with the study of nature and being human. In many Asian traditions value focuses on human well-being. In Daoism and Shintoismand arguably Buddhism and Confucianismdivinity is not transcendent but immanent. Here human beings are at one with divinity and/or the natural world. The division of the various intellectual disciplines is the product of human histories; they developed differently in Asia. For example, throughout Asia there is little dichotomization of mind and body, of spiritual and material. As a result, aesthetic ideas and practices operate very differently, overlapping with the religious in India, helping to constitute the ethical and sociopolitical in East Asia.

Philosophy in the West is thinking, and thinking is done in language. Not so in Asia, where in every tradition the arts are as important as language in grasping ideas. The Japanese Buddhist priest Kukai (774835) summed up the teachings of his Chinese master Huiguo thus:

The abbot informed me that the Esoteric scriptures are so abstruse that their meaning cannot be conveyed except through art. For this reason he ordered the court artist Li Chen and about a dozen other painters to execute ten scrolls of the Womb and Diamond Mandalas. He also ordered the bronzesmith Chao Wu to cast fifteen ritual implements." (Tsunoda, p. 141)

Understanding Asian aesthetics thus presupposes bodily experience. For this reason, direct experience with aesthetic valueswhether through Japanese tea ceremony or in a Japanese gardenis as crucial to wisdom in the Asian sense as intellectual mastery. This means that for any discussion to do full justice to Asian aesthetics, it must take into consideration the contributions of the arts.

Asian aesthetics has begun to influence European-American philosophy, and both have begun to recognize the importance of situating aesthetics historically and within the contexts of colonialism, cultural hegemony, "race" studies, economics, power, gender politics, and the diasporas.


Early Theravada Buddhism records the importance of aesthetic (Pali, Samvega ) and distinguishes different kinds of reactions to beauty analogous to reactions to diversity. The Lotus Sutra of Mahayana Buddhism introduced the idea of paradise and encouraged the production of visuals and sounds in honor of the Buddha as meritorious; this later developed into the ideas that art could clarify reality and could make such abstract concepts more concrete. It also provides the earliest example of taking children's art seriously. Thus began the interest of Mahayana Buddhism in art.

The Japanese priest Kukai (774835) brought the Shingon Sect of esoteric Buddhism to Japan. Shingon recognized four main categories of art: (1) painting and sculpture, including mandala painting; (2) music and literature; (3) gestures and acts, including hand positions called mudras, ritual, and dance (much of which was ritual); and (4) the implements of civilization and religion.

Kukai was the first Japanese to develop the theoretical dimensions of the visual arts. "For Kukai whatever was beautiful partook of the nature of Buddha. Nature, art and religion were one" (De Bary, 1958, p. 138). This was true of other Japanese Buddhists as well. Summarizing the Shingon view of art, Kukai wrote, "In truth, the esoteric doctrines are so profound as to defy their enunciation in writing. With the help of painting, however, their obscurities may be understood" (Tsunoda, pp. 137138).

Pure Land Buddhism (10th13th century) brought enlightenment to the masses through chanting, dancing and singing, and paintings of paradise and hellpractices reflecting new views on enlightenment and who could attain it. The priest Ippen (12391289) insisted that the grace of Amida was not confined to the Pure Land Sect or even to Buddhist temples but was everywhere, even in Shinto shrines. Along with this popularization of religion occurred a concurrent popularization of Buddhist art.

The Zen Sect has the most influential aesthetic tradition of all the Buddhist sects. Zen arts attest to the central values of "simplicity, the spirituality of the ordinary, and genuineness of heart," focusing on the maker's mind and the process rather than a final product (Kasulis, 1998, pp. 357371; Suzuki). Painters with a few rough brush strokes convey the mind of the monk and enlightenment itself. In flower arrangement, oddly shaped twigs (only odd numbers are used) convey the simple beauty of the uniquely ordinary. The haiku poet uses a few words to evoke an idea that the reader completes. The gardener helps the rocks find where they want to be and where they fit naturally. In calligraphy, misshapen, oddly arranged characters convey with apparently childlike simplicity a renewed childlike view of the world. In cooking, the Abbot Dogen (12001253) insisted monks present the freshest foods beautifully to make meatless menus enticing. Zen arts set up relationships among artist(s), audience, materials, and the environment, as well as express and provoke enlightened mind (Bullen; Kasulis). Zen also countered any distinction between "fine" and "applied" arts and aesthetics, and strengthened, especially for Samurai warriors, the intimate relationship between the arts and martial training.


China has a diverse and ancient tradition in aesthetics. Early in the tradition, art was integrally related with metaphysics, social and political philosophy, and ethics. At this stage in the tradition, aesthetics had primacy over rational discourse (Hall and Ames, 1987).

For Confucius (551479 b.c.e.), ceremony and music, "conducted with style like an artistic performance," define the behavior of the Confucian gentleman (Graham, p. 11). Music (yue ) comprises instrumental music, song, and dance, primarily those of the sacred rites and ceremony (li ). They both arise from and produce harmony, and, by transforming the heart, transform human relationsand therefore government. For Confucius, "all government can be reduced to ceremony" (Graham, p. 13). The Mohists, in contrast, "condemned music (re-construing morality) as a set of abstract principles" (Graham, p. 259). Xunzi (300237 b.c.e.) and his followers developed Confucius's idea that music was beneficial (or harmful if the wrong kind) into a general theory of the moral efficacy of music. Xunzi was the first to elaborate on the relation between music and ceremony. His "Discourse on Music" begins, "Music is joy, what the authentic man inevitably refuses to do without" (Graham, p. 260). Training in music, therefore, was crucial to education and government. On this view, the sovereign could use music and ritual to enlighten his people and thereby govern well. Yet by 530 c.e. poet-critic Xiao Tong liberated aesthetics from ethics, writing that his selection for his literary anthology had been guided only by aesthetic merit, not moral considerations.

From the fifth century to the present aesthetics was dominated by the arts of the literati classcalligraphy, painting, and poetry, set in the context of natural landscapes or gardensappreciated in the setting of natural landscapes and gardens. Three characteristics define literati arts: its amateur status as the product of scholar-officials, its function as an expressive outlet, and its style (Bush, 1971, p. 1).

The transition from political-ceremonial aesthetics to literati aesthetics of personal expression is seen in an essay attributed to the scholar Wang Wei (c. 415443), who situated landscape painting in relation to ceremony and the cosmos:

[According to Wang Wei,] Paintings must correspond to the ba gua [the eight trigrams of geomancy], meaning that just as the ba gua are a symbolic diagram of the workings of the universe, so must landscape painting be a symbolic language through which the painter may express not a relative, particularized aspect of nature seen at a given moment from a given view point, but a general truth, beyond time and place. Though Wang Wei is full of wonder at the artist's mysterious power of pictorial compression, he insists that painting is more than the exercise of skill; "the spirit must also exercise control over it; for this is the essence of painting." (Sullivan, p. 97)

Slightly later, Xie He (fl. 479501) outlined six principles for judging paintings and painters that have never been superceded: (1) animation through spirit consonance (qi yun ), (2) structural method (literally bone means ) in the use of the brush, (3) fidelity to the object in portraying forms, (4) conformity to kind in applying colors, (5) proper planning in placing elements, (6) in copying, perpetuating the ancient models (Soper; Sakanishi; Sullivan, p. 95; Wen). Although Chinese interpretations of principles 3 to 6 diverge, they are roughly equivalent to naturalism, coloring, composition, and training.

Michael Sullivan (p. 96) explains principle 1 as follows:

Qi is that cosmic spirit (literally, breath or vapor) that vitalizes all things, that gives life and growth to the trees, movement to the water, energy to human beings, and that is exhaled by the mountains as clouds and mist. The artist must attune himself to this cosmic spirit and let it infuse him with energy so that in a moment of inspirationand no word could be more appropriatehe may become the vehicle for its expression. Qi infuses all things, [with] no distinction between animate and inanimate. Seen in this light, the third, fourth and fifth principles involve more than mere visual accuracy; for, as the living forms of nature are the visible manifestations of the workings of the qi, only by representing them faithfully can the artist express his awareness of the cosmic principle in action. (Sullivan, 1999, p. 96; Wen, 1963)

During the Southern Song Dynasty (11271279), philosophers undertook an intellectual defense of Confucianism against the challenges of Buddhism and Daoism in the Song Synthesis. In the field of aesthetics, this culminated in a synthesis integrating literati arts with ethics, mysticism, and education in the classics that continued till the end of the Qing Dynasty in 1911 (Chan; De Bary, 1960, chaps. 1719; Koller and Koller, chaps. 2122; Black).

Mao Zedong (18931976) overturned the elitist literati emphasis on the classics and the value of the past. During the Republican Period (19121949), Lu Xun (18811936)writer, activist, and founder of the Creative Print Movementhad urged artists to use art in the service of revolution (based on European ideologies). In his 1942 Talks at the Yan'an Conference on Literature and Art (the foundation for Communist Chinese aesthetics until 1979), Mao adapted Lu's thinking to his revolution, acknowledging Lu as a source. Mao argued that the history of art was a product of political-economic structures that must be rejected: Bronze Age art was the product of a slave-based society, while from Han (140 b.c.e.220 c.e.) to the twentieth century China was feudally unified under an emperor, from whom all value stemmed (McDougall). Yet Mao Zedong adapted aspects of literati aesthetics to revolutionary Communist purposes, including the use of images and texts to teach virtues and a belief in the power of art to transform the human heart and thereby political reality. In 1958 a print by Niu Wen integrated poetry into visual arta literati concept dating from at least the Songand peasants were adding poetry to their village murals. By the early 1960s even landscape painting in traditional media (guo hua ) was adapted to Communist purposes: Huang Peimo's landscape print A Distant Source and a Long Stream (1973) incorporates the deliberate literati archaism and treatment of "empty" space literati aesthetics.

But Mao focused on the massesboth as audience and as agents of their own transformation. This required the masses to be "the sole and inexhaustible source" of subject matter, and it required a new style depicting the masses as inspiring heroes, not as agonized victims (as in Lu Xun's writings). During this time, setting the framework for aesthetic understanding and debate were praise and criticism in government-published reviews of artworks that the government established as models of art; deviation was dangerous. The impact of Jiang Qing(1914?1991), Mao's wife and deputy director of the Cultural Revolution (19661976), is seen in her principles for "model operas" (19611965), codified to reform opera and all the visual arts, and in the feminist content of visual art during the Cultural Revolution (19661976).

In 1953 Zhou Yang iterated Mao's advocacy of socialist realism, but declared the enrichment of Chinese tradition to be the objective of using foreign art and aesthetics. He concluded by advocating "free competition of various artistic forms" (Soviet and Chinese) and stated that Mao Zedong's guiding principle was "Let a hundred flowers bloom and a hundred schools contend."

The debates over retention of traditional aesthetics and the inclusion of foreign components within Chinese arts continue in the early twenty-first century. Debates focus on the Chinese appropriation and critique of universalizing Euro-American paradigms and meta-narratives, "culture as leisure," and the resurgence of Mao fever and neo-nationalism.


Despite the philosophical diversity within India, there is a surprising degree of consensus about the nature and importance of aesthetics and aesthetic pleasure (rasa ). Like truth and goodness, rasa belongs to reason (buddhi ); its relation to truth remains a major vein of speculation. Although the specific role that rasa plays in the human psyche depends on the metaphysical premises of a given philosophywhether dualistic or nondualistic, etc.rasa is a highly valued, central part of human experience. It encompasses sexuality, but also takes its place among the spiritual disciplines.

The second basic concept of Indian aesthetics is kama, the pursuit of love and enjoyment. Kama includes refined aesthetic pleasure, sexual pleasure, and love of the divine (the human search for transcendence). The epitome of kama is found in the love of the divine Krishna and Radha, his consort, and in their dance, called the rasa-lila (the "playful dance of the god")a recurring theme in painting, poetry, and drama. The most famous text of the science of kama, Vatsyayana's Kama Sutra (Aphorisms of love) lists sixty-four arts and sciences in which a cultured person or courtesan was educated (Embree, p. 256).

Bharata Muni's Natya Sastra (Treatise on dramaturgy) (written sometime between the 2nd century b.c.e. and the 2nd century c.e.), the first written theory of drama, claims that when humanity began to suffer from pride and the joyful life became full of suffering, the god Brahma created dramawith its attendants music, poetry, and danceto uplift humanity morally and spiritually by means of aesthetics (rasa ) (Bharata, 2003).

From Bharata on, emotion (rasa, meaning "flavor" or "relish") is recognized as the heart of drama and all art. Rasa thus came to mean the feeling that a poet conveys to a sympathetic reader, aesthetic taste, or aesthetic rapture (Gupta). Rasa, the aesthetic rapture accompanying the appreciation of dance and drama, is mentioned in the Upanishads, and some claim that it is even comparable to "the realization of ultimate reality" (Tripurari, p. 10). The differences between aesthetic rasa and Brahman realization of the form of the Absolute became important philosophical issues. Krishna's rasa-lila (his love dance with Radha) provides one answer to these problems and leads to philosophical development of kinds of love (Tipurari, p. 37). This dance, first described in the Bhagavata Purana (tenth century?) and set in verse in the twelfth century, inspires poetry and paintings (together called ragamala ); it forms the kernal for the devotional aesthetic called bhakti rasa popular in Vedanti [Tripurari].

Dating from the thirteenth century, the ragamala (garland of ragas ) are painting albums, often with poems, based on ragas, the secular musical modes associated with particular feelings/flavors (rasa ). The paintings depict male or female human heroes or divinities, identified by name and an emblem, in love scenes coordinated with time of day, season, and aesthetic mode, and sometimes a color, deity, planet, or animal. Although conceived within the framework of Hinduism, the rasa-lila reaches well beyond it: the Moghuls, who were Muslim, also commissioned pictures of the rasa-lila.

Music in India has a similarly long aesthetic tradition. The Samaveda treats it as a divine art. Indian philosophers have been particularly interested in the aesthetics of sound (Malik), music and dance (Mittal; Iravati), and chant and storytelling (Kaushal).


Japanese aesthetics is unique among non-Western traditions in the degree to which it has permeated international awareness. It did this not only through the arts but also by introducing its extensive aesthetic vocabularywabi (a taste for the simple), sabi (quiet simplicity), shibui (subdued), iki (stylish, elegant), yugen (rich or deep beauty), etc. (for explanations, see Miner et al., pt. 4). Saito has reinterpreted sabi and wabi in terms of an "aesthetics of insufficiency." This vocabulary has often been interpreted as referring to an "eternal" Japanese spirit, but in fact it has undergone continuous expansion and reinterpretation since medieval times. The political uses served by both the aesthetics and their mythologizing interpretations comprises an important part of Japanese aesthetics in the early twenty-first century. Saito, for instance, reinterprets sabi and wabi in terms of an "aesthetics of insufficiency." Perhaps the most important area of current Japanese aesthetics develops the implications of the experience of being bombed and its aftermath(s), which seems to demand utterly new ways of "understanding."

Several dichotomies are used to organize thinking about the arts in Japan, including the polarities between feminine and masculine, and between native and foreign (originally Chinese; since 1868, American or Western). The earliest Japanese writing on aesthetics, by Kukai (774835), was deliberately permeated by Chinese Buddhist philosophy. But a native Shinto aesthetic was evident a century earlier in the Manyoshu (Collection of ten thousand leaves), an anthology of folk songs and poems. Within the anthology, poems by Kakinomoto no Hitomaro (c. 658c. 708) exemplify a Shinto aesthetic in which there is a "total unity of world and people, time and nature, public and private motivations" (Miner et al., p. 176). Concern over what constitutes as Shinto or native aesthetic, often phrased in terms of what is "uniquely Japanese," continues through Kamo no Mabuchi (16971769) and Motoori Norinaga (17301801) to the novelists Tanizaki Jun'ichiro and Kawabata Kasunari in the twentieth century, and Emiko Ohunki-Tierney in the twenty-first.

The single most influential figure in the history of Japanese aesthetics (according to Japanese specialists from the twelfth century on) was undoubtedly the Heian poet and diarist Murasaki Shikibu (c. 973c. 1014). Her explications of the philosophy of literature and painting in her novel The Tale of Genji became famous (Tsunoda, vol. 1, pp. 176179). Genji discusses the aesthetics of gardens, calligraphy, nature (especially the moon and the seasons), paper and wrapping, incense, color, fashion, and music; it presents the aesthetic concepts miyabi (courtly elegance) and mono no aware (awareness of the pathos of things). It exemplifies quintessential Japanese values including the "aesthetics of indirection," ambiguity, elusiveness, allusion and it developed Buddhist impermanence into an aesthetic virtue.

Subsequent critics extolled Genji. An ability to comment intelligently on it became necessary for establishing cultural credentials, although as a woman Murasaki also provoked anxiety. The literary and national-learning scholar Motoori Norinaga (17301801) developed the political and social dimensions of the expression frequently found in Genji of "the pathos of things" (mono no aware ) and identified it as fundamental to Japanese culture and national identity (Miner, pp. 9596; Nishimura). Heian women writers possessed a distinctive sensibility because they wrote in the vernacular rather than Chinese as men did; this allowed them to create their work within a native aesthetic distinct from that of male writers writing in Chinese (Keene).

Murasaki's contemporary Sei Shonagon (b. c. 967) presented an aesthetics of everyday life (as well as discoursing on more standard topics) in her Pillow Book, one of the three great "prose miscellanies" (zuihitsu ). Her format was used by other medieval aesthetic recluses, notably Kamo no Chomei (11531216), waka poet and man of letters. His Hojoki (Account of my hut) displays an aesthetic distance that typifies this genre.

Fujiwara Shunzei (11141204) and Fujiwara Teika (11621241)father and son poets, critics, and anthologistsdevised new conceptions of literature and were the first to discern a history of poetry in Japan (Miner et al.). They assessed such matters as the temporalities of The Tale of Genji and ways of handling allusion. Shunzei advocated the aesthetic concepts yugen and sabi, relating them to Buddhist and Shinto values, and outlined a theory of effect in poetry that utilizes the poem's general configuration (sugata ), diction (kotoba ), and spirit (kokoro ). Teika also wrote instructions to inspire poets.

Saigyo (11181190), a poet from a warrior family who became a Shingon priest, wrote a travel diary, a collection with poems on war, and another with poems on Yoshino's cherry blossoms that "assisted in the gradual shift from the plum to the cherry as the ideal Japanese flower" (Miner et al., p. 223). He helped popularize the aesthetic recluse's ideal of seclusion from the world, poetry, and travel. Matsuo Basho (16441695)poet, critic, diarist, and travelerbrought the lowly and the commonplace into the subject matter and vocabulary for poetry and introduced new elements of humor (Tsunoda).

In theater, Zeami (13631443), playwright and theater critic, established a critical vocabulary and aesthetics for No: yugen, monomane (imitation), ka or hana (flower)an allusion both to the transmission of his father's art and to the traditional aesthetics of Japanese poetry. Chikamatsu Monzaemon (16531725), a puppet-theater playwright whose works were adapted for the Kabuki stage, addressed the problem of realism in theater (Tsunoda). Kabuki (like most Asian theater) aims at presentation of an explicitly theatrical reality, unlike Western theater, which aims at representation of everyday life.

Tea ceremony aesthetics of simplicity and austerity creates an appreciation of the ordinary and alternative modes of sociality. Based on Zen, it introduces mindfulness into everyday life.

Several genres of gardens developed distinct aesthetics, specializing in allusion and reference (katsura ); Zen-like mindfulness, simplicity and austerity, and/or relationships to nature, especially to the seasons, to natural landscape.

By the early twentieth century novelists such as Natsume Soseki, Tanizaki Junichiro, and Kawabata Yasunari explored through fiction ideas from Western aesthetics, such as Kant's disinterest. Akutagawa's famous short story "The Hell Screen" (1973) is an instantiationand an exploration of the ramifications for human lifeof the view that realism must be based on experience; the artist can only paint what he or she knows.


Korea's contributions to aesthetics and the arts have often been misascribed to China and Japan. The best known are the Choson-Dynasty (13921910) debates based on Confucian literati aesthetics (and ethics) that led to the abandonment of elaborate Koryo-period (9181392) incised and inlaid ceramics in favor of simpler forms. Current studies attend especially to the distinctive aesthetics of the many native and folk traditions.

See also Aesthetics: Africa ; Aesthetics: Europe and the Americas ; Architecture: Asia ; Arts .


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Mara Miller