The ideals of the east. With special reference to the art of Japan - Kakuzo Okakura - ebook

This treatise is a brief but very concise introduction to Asian art. Writing from a Japanese perspective and focusing on Japanese art, one of the most important themes is the relationship between spirituality, especially Buddhism, and the evolution of Asian art.

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First digital edition 2017 by Gianluca Ruffini









THE NARA PERIOD (700-800 A.D.)




ASHIKAGA PERIOD (1400-1600 A.D.)






KAKUZO OKAKURA, the author of this work on Japanese Art Ideals, and the future author, as we hope, of a longer and completely illustrated book on the same subject has been long known to his own people and to others as the foremost living authority on Oriental Archæology and Art.

Although then young, he was made a member of the Imperial Art Commission which was sent out by the Japanese Government in the year 1886, to study the art history and movements of Europe and the United States. Far from being overwhelmed by this experience, Mr. Okakura only found his appreciation of Asiatic art deepened and intensified by his travels, and since that time he has made his influence felt increasingly in the direction of a strong re-nationalising of Japanese art in opposition to that pseudo-Europeanising tendency now so fashionable throughout the East.

On his return from the West, the Government of Japan showed its appreciation of Mr. Okakura’s services and convictions by making him Director of their New Art School at Ueno, Tokyo. But political changes brought fresh waves of so-called Europeanism to bear on the school, and in the year 1897 it was insisted that European methods should become increasingly prominent. Mr. Okakura now resigned. Six months later thirty-nine of the strongest young artists in Japan had grouped themselves about him, and they had opened the Nippon Bijitsuin, or Hall of Fine Arts, at Yanaka, in the suburbs of Tokyo, to which reference is made in chapter xiv. of this book.

If we say that Mr. Okakura is in some sense the William Morris of his country, we may also be permitted to explain that the Nippon Bijitsuin is a sort of Japanese Merton Abbey. Here various decorative arts, such as lacquer and metalwork, bronze casting, and porcelain, are carried on, besides Japanese painting and sculpture. The members attempt to possess themselves of a deep sympathy and understanding of all that is best in the contemporary art movements of the West, at the same time that they aim at conserving and extending their national inspiration. They hold proudly that their work will compare favourably with any in the world. And their names include those of Hashimoto Gaho, Kanzan, Taikan, Sessei, Kozn, and others equally famous. Besides the work of the Nippon Bijitsuin, however, Mr. Okakura has found time to aid his Government in classifying the art treasures of Japan, and to visit and study the antiquities of China and India. With regard to the latter country, this is the first instance in modern times of the arrival of a traveller possessed of exhaustive Oriental culture, and Mr. Okakura’s visit to the Caves of Ajanta marks a distinct era in Indian archæology. His acquaintance with the art of the same period in Southern China enabled him to see at once that the stone figures now remaining in the caves had been intended originally merely as the bone or foundation of the statues, all the life and movement of the portrayal having been left to be worked into a deep layer of plaster with which they were afterwards covered. A closer inspection of the carvings gives ample justification of this view, though ignorance, “the unconscious vandalism of mercenary Europe,” has led to an unfortunate amount of “cleaning” and unintentional disfigurement, as was the case with our own English parish churches only too recently.

Art can only be developed by nations that are in a state of freedom. It is at once indeed the great means and fruitage of that gladness of liberty which we call the sense of nationality. It is not, therefore, very surprising that India, divorced from spontaneity by a thousand years of oppression, should have lost her place in the world of the joy and the beauty of labour. But it is very reassuring to he told by a competent authority that here also once, as in religion during the era of Asoka, she evidently led the whole East, impressing her thought and taste upon the innumerable Chinese pilgrims who visited her universities and cave-temples, and by their means influencing the development of sculpture, painting, and architecture in China itself, and through China in Japan.

Only those who are already deep in the problems peculiar to Indian archæology, however, will realise the striking value of Mr. Okakura’s suggestions regarding the alleged influence of the Greeks on Indian sculpture. Representing, as he does, the great alternative art-lineage of the world--namely, the Chinese--Mr. Okakura is able to show the absurdity of the Hellenic theory. He points out that the actual affinities of the Indian development are largely Chinese, but that the reason of this is probably to be sought in the existence of a common early Asiatic art, which has left its uttermost ripple-marks alike on the shores of Hellas, the extreme west of Ireland, Etruria, Phœnicia, Egypt, India, and China. In such a theory, a fitting truce is called to all degrading disputes about priority, and Greece falls into her proper place, as but a province of that ancient Asia to which scholars have long been looking as the Asgard background of the great Norse sagas. At the same time, a new world is opened to future scholarship, in which a more synthetic method and outlook may correct many of the errors of the past.

With regard to China, Mr. Okakura’s treatment is equally rich in suggestions. His analysis of the Northern and Southern thought has already attracted considerable attention amongst the scholars of that country, and his distinction between Laoism and Taoism stands widely accepted. But it is in its larger aspects that his work is most valuable. For be holds that the great historic spectacle with which the world is necessarily familiar, of Buddhism pouring into China across the passes of the Himalayas, and by the sea-route through the straits--that movement which probably commenced under Asoka and became tangible in China itself at the time of Nâgaruna in the second century A.D.--was no isolated event. Rather was it representative of those conditions under which alone can Asia live and flourish. The thing we call Buddhism cannot in itself have been a defined and formulated creed, with strict boundaries and clearly demarcated heresies, capable of giving birth to a Holy Office of its own. Rather must we regard it as the name given to the vast synthesis known as Hinduism, when received by a foreign consciousness. For Mr. Okakura, in dealing with the subject of Japanese art in the ninth century, makes it abundantly clear that the whole mythology of the East, and not merely the personal doctrine of the Buddha, was the subject of interchange. Not the Buddhaising but the Indianising of the Mongolian mind, was the process actually at work, much as if Christianity should receive in some strange land the name of Franciscanism, from its first missioners.

It is well known that in the case of Japan the vital element in her national activity lies always in her art. Here we find, at each period, the indication and memorial of those constituents of her consciousness which are really essential. It is an art, unlike that of ancient Greece, in which the whole nation participates; even as in India, the whole nation combines to elaborate the thought. The question, therefore, becomes profoundly interesting: what is that thing, as a whole, which expresses itself through Japanese art as a whole? Mr. Okakura answers without hesitation: It is the culture of Continental Asia that converges upon Japan, and finds free living expression in her art. And this Asiatic culture is broadly divisible, as he holds, into Chinese learning and Indian religion. To him, it is not the ornamental and industrial features of his country’s art which really form its characteristic elements, but that great life of the ideal by which it is hardly known as yet in Europe. Not a few drawings of plum blossoms, but the mighty conception of the Dragon; not birds and flowers, but the worship of Death; not a trifling realism, however beautiful, but a grand interpretation of the grandest theme within the reach of the human mind, the longing desire of Buddahood to save others and not itself--these are the true burden of Japanese art. The means and method of this expression Japan has ever owed to China; it is Mr. Okakura’s contention, however, that for the ideals themselves she has depended upon India. It is his belief that her great epochs of expression have always followed in the wake of waves of Indian spirituality. Thus, benefit of the stimulating influence of the great southern peninsula, the superb art-instincts of China and Japan must have been lowered in vigour and impoverished in scope, even as those of Northern and Western Europe would undoubtedly have been, if divorced from Italy and the message of the Church. “Bourgeois” our author holds that Asiatic art could never have been, standing in sharp contrast in this respect to that of Germany, Holland, and Norway amongst ourselves. But he would admit, we may presume, that it might have remained at the level of a great and beautiful scheme of peasant decoration.

Exactly how these waves of Indian spirituality have worked to inspire nations, it has been his object throughout the following pages to show us. First understanding the conditions upon which they had to work, the race of Yamato in Japan, the wonderful ethical genius of Northern China, and the rich imaginativeness of the south, we watch the entrance of the stream of Buddhism, as it proceeds to overflow and unite the whole. We follow it here, as the first touch of the dream of a universal faith gives rise to cosmic conceptions in science, and the Roshana Buddha in art. We watch it again as it boils up into the intense pantheism of the Heian period, the emotionalism of the Fujiwara, the heroic manliness of the Kamakura.

It has been by a recrudescence of Shintoism, the primitive religion of Yamato, largely shorn of Buddhistic elements, that the greatness of the Meiji period seems to have been accomplished. But such greatness may leave inspiration far behind. All lovers of the East stand dismayed at this moment before the disintegration of taste and ideals which is coming about in consequence of competition with the West.

Therefore, it is worth while to make some effort to recall Asiatic peoples to the pursuit of those proper ends which have constituted their greatness in the past, and are capable of bringing about its restitution. Therefore, is it of supreme value to show Asia, as Mr. Okakura does, not as the congeries of geographical fragments that we imagined, but as a united living organism, each part dependent on all the others, the whole breathing a single complex life.

Aptly enough, within the last ten years, by the genius of a wandering monk--the Swâmi Vivekânanda, who found his way to America and made his voice heard in the Chicago Parliament of Religions in 1893, Orthodox Hinduism has again become aggressive, as in the Asokan period.

For six or seven years past, it has been sending its missionaries into Europe and America, providing for the future a religious generalisation in which the intellectual freedom of Protestantism, culminating in natural science can be combined with the spiritual and devotional wealth of Catholicism.

It would almost seem as if it were the destiny of imperial peoples to be conquered in turn by the religious ideas of their subjects. “As the creed of the down-trodden Jew has held half the earth during eighteen centuries, so,” to quote the great Indian thinker just mentioned, “it seems not unlikely that that of the despised Hindu may yet dominate the world.”

In some such event is the hope of Northern Asia. The process that took a thousand years at the beginning of our era may now, with the aid of steam and electricity, repeat itself in a few decades and the world may again witness the Indianising of the East.

If so, one of many consequences will be that we shall see in Japanese art a recrudescence of ideals parallel to that of the Mediæval Revival of the past century in England.

What would be the simultaneous developments in China? in India? For whatever influences the Eastern Island Empire must influence the others. Our author has talked in vain if he has not conclusively proved that contention with which this little handbook opens, that Asia, the Great Mother, is forever One.




ASIA is one. The Himalayas divide, only to accentuate, two mighty civilisations, the Chinese with its communism of Confucius, and the Indian with its individualism of the Vedas. But not even the snowy barriers can interrupt for one moment that broad expanse of love for the Ultimate and Universal, which is the common thought-inheritance of every Asiatic race, enabling them to produce all the great religions of the world, and distinguishing them from those maritime peoples of the Mediterranean and the Baltic, who love to dwell on the Particular, and to search out the means, not the end, of life.

Down to the days of the Mohammedan conquest went, by the ancient highways of the sea, the intrepid mariners of the Bengal coast, founding their colonies in Ceylon, Java, and Sumatra, leaving Aryan blood to mingle with that of the sea-board races of Burmah and Siam, and binding Cathay and India fast in mutual intercourse.

The long systolic centuries in which India, crippled in her power to give, shrank back upon herself, and China, self-absorbed in recovery from the shock of Mongol tyranny, lost her intellectual hospitality, succeeded the epoch of Mahmoud of Ghazni, in the eleventh century. But the old energy of communication lived yet in the great moving sea of the Tartar hordes, whose waves recoiled from the long walls of the North, to break upon and overrun the Punjab. The Hunas, the Sakas, and the Gettaes, grim ancestors of the Rajputs, had been the forerunners of that great Mongol outburst which, under Genghis Khan and Tamerlane, spread over the Celestial soil, to deluge it with Bengali Tantrikism, and flooded the Indian peninsula, to tinge its Mussulmân Imperialism with Mongolian polity and art.

For if Asia be one, it is also true that the Asiatic races form a single mighty web. We forget, in an age of classification, that types are after all but shining points of distinctness in an ocean of approximations, false gods deliberately set up to be worshipped, for the sake of mental convenience, but having no more ultimate or mutually exclusive validity than the separate existence of two interchangeable sciences. If the history of Delhi represents the Tartar’s imposition of himself upon a Mohammedan world, it must also be remembered that the story of Baghdad and her great Saracenic culture is equally significant of the power of Semitic peoples to demonstrate Chinese, as well as Persian, civilisation and art, in face of the Frankish nations of the Mediterranean coast. Arab chivalry, Persian poetry, Chinese ethics, and Indian thought, all speak of a single ancient Asiatic peace, in which there grew up a common life, bearing in different regions different characteristic blossoms, but nowhere capable of a hard and fast dividing-line. Islam itself may be described as Confucianism on horseback, sword in hand. For it is quite possible to distinguish, in the hoary communism of the Yellow Valley, traces of a purely pastoral element, such as we see abstracted and self-realised in the Mussulmân races.

Or, to turn again to Eastern Asia from the West, Buddhism, that great ocean of idealism, in which merge all the river-systems of Eastern Asiatic thought, is not coloured only with the pure water of the Ganges, for the Tartaric nations that joined it made their genius also tributary, bringing new symbolism, new organisation, new powers of devotion, to add to the treasures of the Faith.

It has been, however, the great privilege of Japan to realise this unity-in-complexity with a special clearness. The Indo-Tartaric blood of this race was in itself a heritage which qualified it to imbibe from the two sources, and so mirror the whole of Asiatic consciousness. The unique blessing of unbroken sovereignty, the proud self-reliance of an unconquered race, and the insular isolation which protected ancestral ideas and instincts at the cost of expansion, made Japan the real repository of the trust of Asiatic thought and culture. Dynastic upheavals, the inroads of Tartar horsemen, the carnage and devastation of infuriated mobs, all these things, sweeping over her again and again, have left to China no landmarks, save her literature and her ruins, to recall the glory of the Tâng emperors or the refinement of Sung society.

The grandeur of Asoka, ideal type of Asiatic monarchs, whose edicts dictated terms to the sovereigns of Antioch and Alexandria, is almost forgotten among the crumbling stones of Bharhut and Buddha Gaya. The jewelled court of Vikramaditya is but a lost dream, which even the poetry of Kalidasa fails to evoke. The sublime attainments of Indian art, almost effaced as they have been by the rough-handedness of the Hunas, the fanatical iconoclasm of the Mussulmân, and the unconscious vandalism of mercenary Europe, leave us to seek only a past glory in the mouldy walls of Ajanta, the tortured sculptures of Ellora, the silent protests of rock-cut Orissa, and finally in the domestic utensils of the present day, where beauty clings sadly to religion in the midst of an exquisite home-life.

It is in Japan alone that the historic wealth of Asiatic culture can be consecutively studied through its treasured specimens. The Imperial collection, the Shinto temples, and the opened dolmens, reveal the subtle curves of Hang workmanship. The temples of Nara are rich in representations of Tâng culture, and of that Indian art, then in its splendour, which so much influenced the creations of this classic period, natural heirlooms of a nation which has preserved the music, pronunciation, ceremony, and costumes, not to speak of the religious rites and philosophy, of so remarkable an age, intact.

The treasure-stores of the daimyos, again, abound in works of art and manuscripts belonging to the Sung and Mongol dynasties, and as in China itself the former were lost during the Mongol conquest, and the latter in the age of the reactionary Ming, this fact animates some Chinese scholars of the present day to seek in Japan the fountain-head of their own ancient knowledge.

Thus, Japan is a museum of Asiatic civilisation; and yet more than a museum, because the singular genius of the race leads it to dwell on all phases of the ideals of the past, in that spirit of living Advaitism which welcomes the new without losing the old. The Shinto still adheres to his pre-Buddhistic rites of ancestor-worship; and the Buddhists themselves cling to each various school of religious development which has come in its natural order to enrich the soil.

The Yamato poetry, and Bugaku music, which reflect the Tâng ideal under the régime of the Fujiwara aristocracy, are a source of inspiration and delight to the present day, like the sombre Zennism and No-dances, which were the product of Sung illumination. It is this tenacity that keeps Japan true to the Asiatic soul even while it raises her to the rank of a modern power.

The history of Japanese art becomes thus the history of Asiatic ideals--the beach where each successive wave of Eastern thought has left its sand-ripple as it beat against the national consciousness. Yet I linger with dismay on the threshold of an attempt to make an intelligible summary of those art-ideals. For art, like the diamond net of Indra, reflects the whole chain in every link. It exists at no period in any final mould. It is always a growth, defying the dissecting knife of the chronologist. To discourse on a particular phase of its development means to deal with infinite causes and effects throughout its past and present. Art with us, as elsewhere, is the expression of the highest and noblest of our national culture, so that, in order to understand it, we must pass in review the various phases of Confucian philosophy; the different ideals which the Buddhist mind has from time to time revealed; those mighty political cycles which have one after another unfurled the banner of nationality; the reflection in patriotic thought of the lights of poetry and the shadows of heroic characters; and the echoes, alike of the wailing of a multitude, and of the mad-seeming merriment of the laughter of a race.

Any history of Japanese art-ideals is, then, almost an impossibility, as long as the Western world remains so unaware of the varied environment and interrelated social phenomena into which that art is set, as it were a jewel. Definition is limitation. The beauty of a cloud or a flower lies in its unconscious unfolding of itself, and the silent eloquence of the masterpieces of each epoch must tell their story better than any epitome of necessary half-truths. My poor attempts are merely an indication, not a narrative.


Bengali Tantrikism. The Tantras are works written for the most part in Northern Bengal after the thirteenth century. Their subjects consist, very largely, of psychic phenomena and kindred matters, but they include some of the noblest flights of pure Hinduism. Their chief purpose seems to have been the formulation of a religion which could reach and redeem the lowest of the low.

Hâng Workmanship - Tâng Culture - Sung and Mongol Dynasties. A brief abstract of the periods of Chinese history might run as follows:

The Shu Dynasty (1122 to 221 B.C.). This was the culmination of the process of early Chinese consolidation preceded by the dynasties of Kha and In. The capitals of these powers, though already situated in the valley of the Yellow River, were not yet advanced so far east as the present centre. They were placed westward of the Dokwan Pass, where the river makes a right angle in striking the plains, at that point where it was later to be touched by the Great Wall.

The Shin Dynasty (221 to 202 B.C.). The tendency of this power to suppress communism brought about its downfall. The brevity of its duration, coupled with its importance, is only paralleled in modern times by the Empire of the first Napoleon.

The Hâng Dynasty (902 B.C. to 220 A.D.). This empire was created by a popular rising. The headman of a village became Emperor of China. But the whole trend and development of the Hângs grew to be imperialistic.

The Three Kingdoms (220 to 268 A.D.). A territorial division.

The Six Dynasties (268 to 618 A.D.). The Three Kingdoms were now consolidated under a single native dynasty, which had lasted about two centuries, when an influx of Hunnish and Mongolian tribes of the northern border drove them to take refuge in the valley of the Yang-tse. The scene of Chinese succession and culture is thus shifted at this period to the South, while the North becomes the means of the introduction of Buddhism and the establishment of Taoism.

The Tâng Dynasty (618 to 907 A.D.)