Far-Eastern Art

The Buddha, we said, is renunciation, peace, mercy, and mystery. Mystery is the essence of truth which cannot be adequately conveyed through language—the vehicle of discursive thought—but which may suddenly be made plain in an illuminating flash through a symbol, such as a key word, a mystic sound, or an image whose suggestive action may be scarcely graspable. This explains the elliptical and paradoxical character of the koans in Zen—verbal symbols calculated to provoke an ontologi­cal breach in our carapace of ignorance—and also the mysterious and transparent atmosphere of Taoist and Zen landscapes; the spirit of Zen and that of Taoism meet in this unrivaled art, as well as the ethnic genius of China and Japan. On this plane of visual contemplation—or contemplative vision—the genius of the Chinese and Japanese is one and the same;1 no peoples have been more successful in visualizing the mystery of things.

In art the white man, or at any rate the Occidental, tends to detach man from nature, even to oppose him to it; the yellow man remains in nature, which he spiritualizes and never destroys, so that the buildings of the yellow people always retain something of the spirit of the forest, and this is true even of Hinduized Indo-Chinese with whom a Hindu perspective has become integrated into a Mongolian way of seeing and feeling. In general it can be said that the material civilization of the yellow race remains largely based on the plant kingdom and on an attachment to nature, being associated with wood, bamboo, and pottery rather than with stone, which the yellow man seems in general to distrust as being too dead and ponderous a material.2 On the other hand, nothing is further from the genius of the yellow race than the muscular and dramatic nudes of the Westerners;3 the yellow man sees primordial and celestial sublimity, not in the human body, but in virgin nature: the deities of the yellow race are like flowers, their faces like the full moon or the lotus; even the celestial nymphs of Buddhism combine their nudity—which still remains wholly Hindu in its marked sexuality and rhythm—with the flower-like grace lent them by the yellow genius. The serenity of Buddhas and the translucency of landscapes in the yellow man’s art denote qualities of expression not to be found anywhere else in the same degree, qualities which are the very opposite of the tormented genius of the white peoples of Europe. Far-Eastern painting has an aerial grace, the inimitable charm of a furtive and precious vision; by compensation, the terrifying presence of dragons, genii, and demons adds to the art of the Far East a dynamic and flamboyant element.
      In this art, which is much less “humanistic” than the arts of the West and of Near-Eastern antiquity, man’s work remains profoundly linked with nature to the point of forming with it a sort of organic unity; the art of China and Japan does not include “pagan” elements as do the ancient arts of the Mediterranean countries; in its essential manifestations, it is never either sentimental or hollow and crushing.

In Chinese art—setting aside Hindu influences in Buddhist art—everything seems to be derived on the one hand from the writing, which has a sacred character, and on the other hand from nature, which is also sacred and is observed lovingly as a permanent revelation of universal Principles. Certain techniques and materials—bronze, paper, Indian ink, lacquer, silk, bamboo, and porcelain—contribute to the originality of this art and determine certain of its modes. The connection between calligraphy and painting is both close and decisive, a connection also to be found in Egyptian art. Writing is a form of painting; the yellow people trace their characters with a brush and their painting holds a quality of writing; hand and eye retain the same reflexes. Of Confucianist painting it can be said that it is neither essentially sacred nor yet wholly profane; its intention is ethical in a very broad sense of that term; it tends to represent the “objective” innocence of things and not their inner reality. As for Taoist landscapes, they exteriorize a metaphysic and a contemplative state: they spring, not from space, but from the “void”; their theme is essentially “mountain and water” and with this they combine cosmological and metaphysical aims. It is one of the most powerfully original forms of sacred art; in a certain sense it stands at the antipodes of Hindu art in which the principle of expression is precision and rhythm and not the ethereal subtleties of a contemplation made up of imponderables. It is not surprising that Chan Buddhism (Zen in Japanese), whose character is at once unarticulated and rich in shades of meaning, should have found in Taoist art a congenial mode of expression.4
      In architecture the major buildings of the yellow race have the same superposed curves as the pines which surround them; the wide, horned, and in a sense vegetative shape of the Far-Eastern roof—the whole usually resting on wooden columns—even if its prototype is not the sacred conifers, nonetheless retraces their dynamic and majestic life. When a man of the yellow race enters a temple or palace he enters a “forest” rather than a “cavern”; this architecture has about it something living, something vegetative and warm; even the magical intention of the upward curved hips, which give the protecting roof a certain defensive aspect, bring us back to the connection between tree and lightning and so to virgin nature.5

1 Their differences are affirmed on other planes. Compared to the sumptuousness and gaiety of colors used by the Chinese, Japanese art—in the broadest sense— is in general striking through a kind of sobriety and genial simplification, and also by a more accentuated naturism. But these differences are on the whole rather relative. The Tibetan style is midway between that of the Chinese and the Hindus and is heavy, somber, at times rough, and often flamboyant; the Burmese and Siamese style is delicate, lively, and precious.
2 The great stone temples of Angkor Wat and Borobudur are Indian monuments executed by yellow men Indianized. Here the pre-Columbian civilizations of America might also be mentioned, though in this case there was, alongside the Mongol element, an Atlantean element perhaps anterior to the great differentiation of races, or connected to the white people by an affinity with the ancient Egyptians and the primitive Berbers. America shows, both racially and culturally, a sort of mixture of Mongolian Siberia and ancient Egypt; hence the Shamanism, the conical tents, the leather robes adorned with fringes, the magical drums, the long hair, the feathers and, in the South, the pyramids, the colossal temples with their static form, the hieroglyphs, and the mummies. Between the three great races of humanity there are doubtless not only types due to admixtures but also, it would seem, types which remained more or less undifferentiated; it can also be supposed that, while primordial humanity did not as yet know different races, it sporadically included highly differentiated types which as it were prefigured the races of today.
3 There is a narrow-minded classicism which, because it has no objectively valid criterion and is as lacking in imagination as in intelligence and taste, sees in Chinese civilization only pettiness and routine: the Chinese are deemed inferior because they never produced a Michelangelo or a Shakespeare, or because they did not create the Ninth Symphony and so on; now, if there is nothing Promethean in the greatness of the Chinese civilization, that is because it takes its stand on points where the classical prejudice cannot understand it; on the purely artistic level there are ancient bronzes which show more greatness and profundity than the whole of European nineteenth century painting. The first thing to be understood is that there is no true greatness apart from truth, and that truth certainly has no need of grandiloquent expressions. In these days we see a new reaction against classicism in the wider sense, but this reaction, far from being wholesome, on the contrary comes from below, according to the usual rhythm of a certain kind of “evolution.”
4 In speaking of Chinese art we include also that of Japan which is a highly original branch of that art with its own particular spirit combining sobriety, boldness, elegance, and contemplative intuition. The Japanese house combines the natural nobility of materials and simplicity of forms with extreme artistic refinement and this makes it one of the most original manifestations of art as a whole. The Zen arts—like the Tea Ceremony—crystallize certain manners of acting of the Buddha, or let us say: of Primordial Man; now the Buddha never handled a sword, but if he had, he would have done so like a Zen Master. Acting like the Buddha—even at such a level as preparing tea—means: to assimilate something of the Buddha-Nature; it is an open door to Enlightenment.
5 There is a story that the Chinese roof represents a boat upside down: according to a Sino-Malayan myth the sun comes from the East in a boat and the boat is wrecked in the West and, turning over, covers the sun, thus producing night; a connection is made, not only between the overturned boat and the darkness of night, but also, as a consequence, between a roof and the sleep it protects. Another source of Far-Eastern architecture, so far as the wooden columns are concerned, may be the primitive Sino-Malayan lake-dwellings