Why Japanese Art Is So Different! To understand the difference between Japanese and Chinese art, we must begin by looking at Buddhism, which originated in India around 500 BC when the Prince Siddhartha Gautama gave up his family and sheltered life to seek a higher, more spiritual kind of life. After seeking wisdom from others and failing to find it, Siddhartha had his own revelation of a higher life as he meditated under a tree.
Buddhism emerged from India in the first century AD and came to China with monks and merchants using the Silk Road. The Chinese particularly liked the idea that by studying to find wisdom, and living to do good, you can accumulate karma – both good and bad. Buddhists believe that you take karma with you into the next life, when it will determine your level of spirituality and existence – the aim always being, of course, to become a better person. The hope was that ultimately you would escape this never-ending cycle of life and death, and achieve enough karma to elevate yourself to Nirvana, an existence entirely free of the duality of this world, and a state of perfect peace and bliss.
A thousand years after Buddha, his teachings had split into no fewer than ten different schools of Buddhism. Today, only two remain – the most important of them is Zen Buddhism. Zen abandoned the idea of karma, reincarnation and nirvana instead relying on meditation, concentration and physical discipline – three elements absolutely vital to most Chinese and Japanese art forms. Its teaching was that enlightenment could come to anybody, no matter who they were, suddenly and intuitively – not necessarily requiring years of study. It was not a rational or methodical process: in fact it is decidedly non-rational — inexplicable and intuitive because it meant abandoning logic in order to make the leap upwards to enlightenment, which in Japanese is called satori.
Having achieved satori, the Zen Buddhist becomes aware that everything in this world – all other living beings as well as inanimate objects, whether mountains, rocks and trees – or elephants, microbes and blades of grass – all share equally in the Eternal. So Zen teaches that each one of us is a part of all other beings – and that they are a part of us. The artist who experiences this actually becomes what he is painting – because he is completely ‘At One’ with the universe. It is not possible to achieve this enlightenment by learning – and certainly not by trying – any more than it is possible to try to be natural. Obviously, to do so is unnatural. So an artist can only achieve this intense affinity with the subject he is painting by casting aside all subjective thought.
The simple act of Being automatically puts him into a state of heightened awareness – and thus in touch with the essence of his subject. Some Zen students spent a lifetime seeking enlightenment – but satori cannot be captured. It lies deep within us already.The Zen master’s task is to help the student to release it. So enlightenment might come with a sneeze – or a sharp blow of the master’s stick at precisely the right moment. This is the philosophy that is inherent in Chinese and Japanese brush painting. in Japanese Haiku poetry. in Ikebana flower arranging. in landscape gardening.in pottery and all the other oriental arts and crafts.
And just as Zen considers a human being to be a medium between heaven and earth, thus creating unity between them – so the brush, the ink and the paper create a similar trinity. The paper is absorbent. The ink is indelible. And the brush must hold precisely the correct amount and intensity of ink for each specific stroke. The slightest mistake will be there for all to see for centuries. It takes years of practice because the artist must bare his soul to the world and paint his strokes instantaneously, without the slightest hesitation – and in that moment lies the essence of Zen.
The form of Japanese brush painting, using only black ink, known as Sumi-e is regarded as the highest test of an artist’s skill. Every line and every dot is alive with meaning and even what is not visible has meaning. Omissions are obvious and their ‘not-being’ is intentional. For instance white space between reeds and stones at the edge of a lake in the foreground and distant mountains in the background suggests mist. So what is not in the painting actually represents, with no effort, what is there in reality! The beauty of sumi-e lies in its plainness of colour – just intense black and an infinite variety of greys – together with its uncluttered lines, simple grace and proportion. Whereas a western artist painting in oils or acrylics, is able to correct mistakes by covering them with new paint, the Chinese or Japanese artist cannot do so.
Once a brush stroke has been made, Japanese Art need any attempt to change it or paint over it would become obvious. No Japanese painter would ever do it because it would be to proclaim to the world that he had made a mess of things. And because the Sumi artist is dealing only with black and its variants, he must possess enormous confidence and be a master of his techniques in order for his brush work to be decisive and his tones absolutely true. Consequently, the ink must be mixed with precisely the correct amount of water in order to achieve the exact shade of grey required because there can be no deceiving, no faking -poor brush work is there for all to see. It cannot be hidden or fudged. How then does one achieve the simplicity required in this kind of painting?
Japanese Art, The answer is total immersion in the subject. When a Sumi artist sets out to paint a camellia, for example, he first inspects the flower from all possible aspects. Front, back, above. below. He touches it to acquaint his finger tips with the petals and the leaves and the stem. He sniffs it to enjoy its fragrance. Then, when he feels an emotional and physical familiarity with the flower, he is ready to decide what it is that makes a camellia uniquely a camellia – and nothing else. What is the essence of this flower?
Only then does he sit down and without any hesitation whatsoever, he paints that insight onto the rice paper with as few brush strokes as possible. This emotional impressionism is perhaps the defining quality that makes Japanese sum-ei painting different from any other kind of painting anywhere else in the world.
Although Japanese painting had its beginnings in China, Chinese painting began and continued in strict realism. Japanese paintings have a much greater imaginative freedom -a result, I believe, of the sensual character of the Japanese people. The Japanese artist paints what his senses and his mind receive from the subject. It is a part of an inherited attitude of seeing and having an emotional affinity with small, apparently insignificant things that others usually would pass over as being a commonplace. But in Zen, nothing is commonplace. Not even nothing! Everything – on any scale – is of equal importance.
The difference between Chinese and Japanese brush painting is best illustrated by these two poems. The first is the Chinese poet Li Tai Po describing a waterfall:
“The sun shines upon the peak of Koro, making the mist purple. The Cascade seen in the distance looks like a long river rushing straight down three thousand feet. Is it not the Milky Way falling from the Ninth Heaven?”
This is an all-encompassing approach. It is about grandeur — the mountain, the huge waterfall and even a reference to the heavens. Compare that to the waterfall described by the Japanese poet, Bash.
“Petals of the mountain rose
Fall now and then
To the sound of the waterfall.”
This is the essential difference Japanese Art between the Chinese and Japanese character. Basho did not describe the entire scene within his scope of perception. He focused on a couple of small details – and through them he expressed, in the simplest possible way, the whole emotional content of what he experienced.
This form of poetry is called Haiku. It is a highly disciplined form of verse in which the first part is a five-line poem – often written by two people as a literary game. The first person writes the first three lines, the second responds with the last two lines. And it must be done immediately. Thought must not be allowed to get in the way. To succeed, the mind must be emptied of all thought. What makes it interesting is that there are only seventeen syllables in the haiku – five in the first line, seven in the second and five in the third. And then seven and five in the last two lines. Moreover, the poet should always allude to the season or the time of day – and the verse should preferably describe a specific instant. Here are a few examples:
By the waterfall
I see I am watched by my
Old friend, the lizard.
Here again, we can imagine the wider picture. Where there is a waterfall there is inevitably higher ground, and a stream. So we know we are in a garden, or on a mountainside perhaps. We can almost hear the water tumbling down and rushing away — and we can imagine the poet sitting close to it. the lizard sitting alert a short distance away, perhaps on a stone or in the dust. In any event, we know that it is hot because that is mostly when we see lizards. So it is probably summer.
A shimmering stream
And cries of a long-billed bird.
A leaf floats away.
A verse written almost certainly on an autumn day! And once again:
Over a quiet lake,
Midges fly in tight circles
Plop! Old frog jumps in!
Here, you have the immediacy – almost like a verbal photograph that captures what the French photographer, Henri Cartier-Bresson, called “The Decisive Moment”. “Plop! Old frog jumps in”. It’s wonderful.
A yellow lantern
flicks on, attracting insects
to the jaundiced porch.
It’s the same with Japanese gardening, flower arranging, the Tea Ceremony, pottery, and the art of Bonsai, or creating miniature trees. Indeed with all the Oriental Arts.