South, East, and Southeast Asian Art

The arts of South, East, and Southeast Asia represent some of the world’s oldest, most diverse, and most sophisticated visual traditions.

8-1a: South, East, and Southeast Asia have long traditions of art making, reaching back into prehistoric times.  The earliest known ceramic vessels were found in Asia: fired shards from Yuchanyan Cave in Chine have been dated to 18,300 and 17,500 BCE, followed by Jomon vessels from Japan with shards dating back to 10,500 BCE.  Sophisticated Neolithic and Bronze Age civilizations thrived across Asia, including the Indus Valley civilization in Pakistan and India, the Yangshao and Longshan cultures and Shang Dynasty in China, the Dongson culture in Southeast Asia, and the Yayoi and Kofun cultures in Japan.

8-1b: The people and cultures of these regions were diverse, but prehistoric and ancient societies based in key regions (e.g., the Indus River Valley, Gangetic Plain, and Yellow River) developed core social and religious beliefs that were embraced across larger cultural spheres, helping to shape the regional identities of people within Asia.

8-1c: The core cultural centers in Asia became home to many of the world’s great civilizations and ruling dynasties, including the following: Gupta India, Han Chine, Khmer Cambodia, and Heian Japan.  The shared cultural ideas in each region and civilization gave birth to visual traditions that employed related subjects, functions, materials, and artistic styles.

Many of the world’s great religious and philosophic traditions developed in this region to support the beliefs and practices of these religions.

8-2a: The ancient Indic worldview that dominated South Asia differentiated earthly and cosmic realms of existence, while recognizing certain sites or beings as sacred and understood time and life as cyclic.  The religions that developed in this region- Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism, and numerous fold religions- all worked within this worldview and sought spiritual development, spiritual release, or divine union through various religious methodologies and social practices.  The Indic world view was also grafted onto the preexisting animistic and popular beliefs in Southeast Asia during several waves of importation and Indian attempts at colonization.

8-2b: East Asian religions emphasize the interconnectedness of humans with both the natural world and the spirit world.  Chinese societies also developed a hierarchical and differentiated society that encouraged appropriate social behaviors.  Daoism, with its almost antisocial focus on living in harmony with nature and the Dao, and Confucianism, more of an ethical system of behaviors rather than a religion, both developed in China in the 5th century BCE from these foundations.  Buddhism, which arrived in China in the early centuries of the Common Era, shared clear affinities with the indigenous Chinese religions through its focus on nature, interconnectedness, and appropriate behavior.  Korean traditions were heavily influenced by China and incorporate Confucian, Buddhist, and local shamanistic beliefs and practices.  The ancient Japanese landscape was alive and inhabited by animistic nature spirits, whose vernation forms the basis of the Shinto religion.  Buddhism was actively imported to Japan from Korea and Chine in the 7th and 8th centuries, and as in China, it succeeded because of courtly patronage and similarities with local traditions.

8-2c: Religious practices associated with Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism are iconic, therefore figural imagery of divinities and revered teachers plays a prominent role of religious practice.  The wealth of Buddhist imagery in Asia alone would rival, if not surpass, the wealth of Christian imagery in medieval Europe.  Figural imagery associated with Asian religious art may be venerated in temple or shrine settings; may inhabit conceptual landscapes and palaces of ideal Buddhist worlds, or mandalas; and are depicted in paintings.  Figural subjects are common in Indian and East Asian painting.

8-2d: South, East, and Southeast Asia were also home to foreign cultures and religions, including Greco-Roman cultures, Christianity, and most notably Islamic cultures from West and Central Asia.  Islamic influence is particularly strong in India, Malaysia, and Indonesia, which were under at least partial control of Islamic sultanates during the 2nd millennia CE.  These regions have also been influenced by cultures and beliefs from West Asia and Europe.  Today South and Southeast Asia are home to the world’s largest Muslim populations.

8-2e: Architecture from these regions is frequently religious in function.  Temples intended to house deities or shrines were constructed or rock cut.  Rock-cut cave containing Buddhist imagery, shrines, stupas, and monastic spaces span across Asia from India through Central Asia to China.  Japanese architecture often uses natural materials such as wood or follows Chinese architectural models with wood structures and tile roofs.  Islamic architecture in South and Southeast Asia takes two major forms; secular (forts and palaces) and religious (mosques and tombs).  Islamic mosques are decorated with nonfigural imagery, including calligraphy and vegetal forms.  All mosques have a Qibla wall, which faces in the direction of Mecca, home of the Kaaba.  This wall is ornamented with and empty Mihrab niche, which serves as focus for prayer.

South, East, and Southeast Asia developed many artistic and architectural traditions that are deeply rooted in Asian aesthetics and cultural practices.

8-3a: Distinctive art forms from South, East, and Southeast Asia include the following: the construction of Buddhist reliquary stupas; the practice of monochromatic ink painting on silk and paper, which developed in China; the development of the Pagoda, an architectural form based upon a Chinese watchtower; the use of rock gardens, tea houses, and related ceremonies; and Japanese woodblock printing.

8-3b: The arts of South, East, and Southeast Asia include important forms developed in a wide range of media.  Stone and wood carving was a prominent art form used in architectural construction, decoration, and sculpture.  Ceramic arts have flourished in Asia since the prehistoric era, and much technical and stylistic advancement in this media, such as the use of high-fire porcelain, developed here.  Metal was used to create sculpture, arms, and armor, ritual vessels, and decorative objects of all kinds.  Shang Dynasty bronze vessels from China employed a unique piece-molding technique that has never been successfully replicated.  Important textile forms from this region include silk and wool tapestry weaving, cotton weaving, printing, paintings, and carpet weaving.  Painting in Asia usually took two forms: wall painting and manuscript or album painting.  The painting styles that developed in India and East Asia favor contour drawing of forms over modeling.  Calligraphy was important art forms in these regions.  In China, calligraphy was considered the highest art form, even above painting.  Calligraphy was also prominent in Islamic art in Asia, and is found on architecture, decorative arts objects, and ceramic tiles, and in manuscripts written on paper, cloth, or vellum.

8-3c: The practice of the indigenous Asian religions necessitated the development of novel art and architectural forms to support them.  Uniquely Asian art forms include the following: iconic images used in Buddhist and Hindu traditions; elaborate narrative and iconographic compositions created in sculptures, textiles, and wall paintings used to ornament shrines, temples, and caves; the Buddhist stupa and monastic complex; the Hindu temple; Raigo scenes associated with Pure Land Buddhism; the Zen rock garden; and Zen ink painting.

8-3d: South, East, and Southeast Asia have rich traditions of courtly and secular art forms that employ local subjects and styles. In India, regional painting styles developed to illustrate mythical and historical subjects, and poetic texts documented court life. In China and Japan, a new genre of literati painting developed among the educated elite. Literati paintings often reveal the nonprofessional artist’s exploration of landscape subjects, which are frequently juxtaposed with poetry. The term secular is a bit misleading when describing Asian art, as religious ideas or content frequently is carried over into secular art forms (e.g., Hindu deities depicted in Ragamala painting in India, or Zen Buddhist sensibilities applied to ceramic production and lower arranging in Japan). Elegant and elaborate decorative programs featuring floral and animal designs are commonly found on decorative arts from East Asia.

Asian art was and is global. The cultures of South, East, and Southeast Asia were interconnected through trade and politics and were also in contact with West Asia and Europe throughout history.

8-4a: Trade greatly affected the development of Asian cultures and Asian art.  Two major methods for international trade connected Asia: the Silk Route that linked Europe and Asia, connecting the Indian subcontinent to overland trade routes through Central Asia, terminating in X’ian, China, and the vast maritime networks that utilized seasonal monsoon winds to move trade between North Africa, West Asia, South and Southeast Asia, and south China.  These routes were the vital mechanism for the transmission of cultural ideas and practices, such as Buddhism, and of artistic forms, media, and styles across mainland and maritime Asia.

8-4b: Asian arts and architecture reveal exchanges of knowledge in visual style, form, and technology with traditions farther west.  Early connections with the Greco-Roman world are evident in Hellenistic-influenced artistic style and subjects found in artwork associated with ancient Gandharan culture in Afghanistan and Pakistan (Gandhara bridges what is categorized as West and East Asian content in AP Art History; influence of Gandharan art is objected in the Buddha of Bamiyan).  Early Buddha sculptures in north India, Chine, and Japan wear a two-shouldered robe based upon.

8-4c: Asian Art forms had great influence upon the arts of West Asia and Europe.  Art and ideas were exchanged through trade routes.  The impact of Asian art is especially evident during times of free exchange, such as the Silk Route during the Han and Tang Dynasties and Mongol Empire, the colonial era, and the opening of Japan for trade in the 19th century.  In West Asia and Europe, collectors acquired Asian art works through gift or trade.  Ceramics created in China, from Tang slip wares to high-fire porcelains, have been coveted internationally for over one thousand years.  The popularity of Chinese blue-and-white porcelain was so high that ceramic centers in Iran, Turkey, and across Europe developed local version of blue-and-white ceramics to meet market demand.  Textiles are also a very important Asian art form and dominated much of the international trade between Europe and Asia.  Silk and silk weaving originated in China, where it flourished for thousands of years.  Cotton was first spun and woven in the Indus Valley region of Pakistan and was, like silk, important for international trade.  Cross-cultural comparisons may be made most readily between the arts of South, East, and Southeast Asia and arts of the ancient Mediterranean, medieval Europe, and West Asia.

South East and Southeast Asia Notes Packet
South East and Southeast Asia Presentation


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