Asian Art, Religion & Philosophy

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Asia is noted for its distinct historic worldview and cultural traditions. In this lesson, we will focus on East Asia as a case study for examining some of these traditions in art, religion, and philosophy to see how all of these ideas are interconnected.

East Asian Traditions

When we think of the great cultural centers animating world history, we tend to imagine civilizations of ancient Europe, the Middle East, Mesoamerica, and, of course, Asia. Asian cultures developed worldviews, artistic traditions, and social values that were sometimes similar--and sometimes very different--from other parts of the world. Now, Asia is a really, really big place, so for this lesson we'll be focusing on East Asia.

East Asia includes China, Japan, North and South Korea, Taiwan, and Mongolia, all of which are often treated as the epicenter of Asian traditions. Still, it's important to remember that this is only a very general overview of major trends. Each East Asian population developed its own unique interpretation of its place in the world, expressed through its own unique artistic traditions. Let's take a look at some of these traditions in order to gain a better understanding of East Asian religious, philosophical, and artistic heritage.

Philosophy and Religion

Let's start by looking at trends in philosophy and religion in East Asian history. From a European perspective, religion and philosophy are generally treated as separate things. However, this distinction is not so clear in East Asian traditions. Both East Asian religions and philosophies focused on the place of people within greater cosmic environments, and were particularly interested in exploring how people and events were connected within those webs. Still, there are some differences. While religions are generally more focused on a supernatural other-worldliness, philosophies are more concerned with what scholars call this-worldliness.

So, what does this mean?

East Asian philosophies tend to express reality in concrete terms. Yes, metaphors are famously a large part of East Asian philosophies, but they do have very real-world implications and directly translate to behavior in daily lives. The two big schools of thought that dominate East Asian philosophy are Confucianism and Taoism. Confucianism focuses on the place of the individual within the infinite relationships of this world: the family, the community, the nation, the universe, etc. It stresses reciprocal obligations and standards of behavior that promote a healthy society over individual pursuits. Taoism also deals with the place of the individual within greater forces of spiritual and social harmony, often expressed through the perfect balance of opposites known as yin and yang. So, East Asian philosophies can generally be characterized by a naturalist focus on the real world combined with a humanist focus on the place of the individual within wider contexts.

East Asian religions, on the other hand, embrace a cosmic other-worldliness. However, they too tend to emphasize real daily actions and the place of the individual within greater spiritual networks. However, various religions did this in a multitude of ways. The Japanese religion of Shinto is centered on the relationship between humans and the spirits of the natural world, expressed through constant ritual in daily life. Perhaps the most influential religion of East Asia, though, is Buddhism, which was originally developed in India and spread east. In East Asia, Buddhism blended with Confucianism and Taoism to create a synthetic blend of philosophy and religion, focused on the nature of suffering and the cycles of cosmic existence.

Confucius, Lao Tzu, and Buddha
Asian philosophers

East Asian Art

Now that we have a basic understanding of East Asian philosophies and religions, we can begin to talk about art. Again, artistic traditions of Asia, even of East Asia, varied widely by region and time, but there are some striking characteristics. For one, let's look at why East Asian artists created art. The paintings, sculptures, and even buildings created by East Asian artists represented real events, historical figures, or features of nature. However, they did not always represent these things in the way we might expect.

East Asian art did not stress the representation of things exactly as they appeared, but rather strove to capture their inner truth. This is an example of how we can see the influence of East Asian philosophies in art. All things were seen as existing in a cosmological sense, so even if they weren't really alive, they still has spiritual purpose in relation to the rest of the cosmos. Also, because Asian philosophies embraced cycles of being, the nature of people and things was perceived as fluid, or always in motion.

East Asian paintings focus more on inner truth than complete visual representation
Chinese painting

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