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Compare and Contrast Chinese and Japanese Art

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    Arts all over the world are appreciated not only in their beauty but also in their significance to history since most arts, if not all, tells the story of a nation in the period by which they were made. Through these arts historians can compare the civilization of nations, they can tell which of them developed first and they can tell which nations interacted with each other.

    The purpose of this paper is to compare and contrast Chinese and Japanese art in the period of 1650 A.D.-1900.


    Chinese art had a 4000 years history. It is acknowledged to be superior in comparison to some other cultures especially with regards to technical perfection. For centuries it continued to flourish under the patronage of Chinese dynasty rulers (Crofton 326). Their subject is primarily about the mysteries of nature developed out of their love for meditation. Arts were made with reverence to Buddha. Their paintings were governed with the accepted traditional patterns of the brushstroke. (Gombrich104). By the year 1644-1911 China was ruled by the Manchu’s of Mongolia. This reign was called Qing (“pure”) dynasty. At this period, China enjoyed peace and prosperity.  The Manchu rulers admired the Chinese culture and supported the advancement of its arts (Fiero 93).

    Japanese Art was copied from China. The Buddhist monks were responsible in introducing Chinese art to Japan in the 6th to 7th centuries. However, the Japanese added their own unique artistic ideas. Examples are the translucent many-sided screens from which they draw pictures and also they painted animals or trees using a gold background (Shapiro 2791). In the year 1603-1868 Japan was ruled by Tokugawa shogunate (shogunate means a “rule of military commanders).

    This was also acknowledged to be a year of peace and prosperity for the Japanese. The shogunate also sponsored the advancement of Japanese arts in this period (Gardner 387). Fearing foreign influence, both Japan and China isolated themselves from the western world. However, both countries were not successful in totally blocking out the influence of western culture to their arts. In fact, by 18th century Japan embraced some art techniques and ideas of the west (Gombrich105). China’s Manchu rulers were also interested with the arts of the west, which was introduced to them by the Jesuit missionaries (Fiero 88).



    Chinese painters at this time may be called traditionalists, individualists and court painters. The traditionalists are elite artists who used old models of the past dynasties in enhancing Qing art. They recreate old landscape paintings by studying the old system of Chinese art especially those advocated by the Song (descriptive style) and Yuan dynasty (calligraphic brushwork). The individualists are the artists who did not limit their painting style to the Old school.

    Their paintings were characteristically less controlled. The court artists and the professional artists were those employed by the Manchu rulers. Popular artists of this nature were Zhu Da and Shitao. Zhu Da’s paintings was still influenced by Zen painters (who advocated simplicity) of the Song era but his paintings look more indistinct while Shitao was more concern with motion and use his technical ability of using areas of blue or pink wash (“Chinese Art and Architecture”).

    The Japanese arts of this period were largely secular and were  a product of the demands of the warlords and the middle class (Crofton 327).


    Both China and Japan continued to paint using their traditional art forms of landscapes and figures however, due to the western influence, Japan had added a new subject to their art which included scenes of everyday life of the people living, especially, in the Japanese capital Kyoto. This form of art   was called Ukiyo-e or simply means “pictures of the floating world”.  The scenes were not only limited to the fashionable rich but also to the poor such as the peasants and the popular actors of the Kabuki theaters (Benton 513). Examples of such scenes are people walking in countryside, people crossing a street and people going to the market (Shapiro 2791).


    The Japanese employed the use of woodblock prints by 17th century. Printing was made using woodcuts (blocks of wood with designs made into it). With the aid of this technique prints were mass-produced. These prints were cheap which made the price affordable for the masses. In the beginning, the only colors used were black and white but in the 18th century polychromatic (different colors) prints was discovered to the delight of the artists (Gardner 393-394). Popular woodblock print artists of that time were Utamaro (1753-1806), Hokusai (1760-1849) and Hiroshige (1797-1858). Utamaro’s subjects were mostly women while Hokusai and Hiroshige took delight in landscape paintings (Benton 513-514). Due to western influence, the Chinese began to copy the art of shading in their painting.

    This style of painting was called chiaroscuro (dramatic use of light and shade), which was studied, by both the individualist and the court artists (Crofton 333). The Chinese and Japanese were involved in both linear perspective (distance, sizes and relative positions are drawn to correspond to actual ones) and oil-painting styles, still an influenced by the west (Fiero 92).  But the Japanese were much admired with their ‘visual drama” in painting. The Japanese do not always show the whole part of a figure in their painting but instead draw the unconventional and the unexpected which had influenced the impressionist of Europe. For example in drawing Mount Fujiyama, Hokusai (1760-1849) would “represent the mountain scene as by chance behind a scaffolding” (Gardner 417).


    Ceramic wares, craved jade and lacquer wares were greatly improved in this era for both China and Japan. But the Chinese were particularly known for its ability to design minute details on blown glass. Wooden furniture was also made for the rich people of China (“Chinese Art and Architecture”). They experimented in many shapes but still Japan has bolder designs.

    They use both use bright colors for their landscape, flower and animal drawings in ceramic wares (“Chinese Art and Architecture” and “Japanese Art and Architecture”). They also often used five colors as new shades for their porcelains, which range from orange to green and gold. The Japanese also used blue and white in their porcelains and uses special range of colors in overglaze enamels. For underglazed they used mostly blue which made their work different from the Chinese (Fiero 91,93). At this time China and Japan also made improvements with their enameling (Crofton 327 and “Chinese Art and Architecture”).


    Architectural styles of both China and Japan in this era still retained the concept of harmony with nature. Gardens decorated with rocks, bamboos and ferns contributed a sense of serenity and an ideal place for meditation. Covered walks lined the garden for walking. For both countries roofing with projecting eaves was still popular. They also prefer spacious interiors with minimal details. The Chinese at this time used stones, glass and bricks for their structures.

    The Japanese however, used wooden materials for building their houses. Japanese use of stone was limited such as that use for Castles of Defense. Because of this, fires and earthquakes easily destroy Japanese houses. It was only in 1868 that Japanese people copied the west in using steel and concrete. One thing that is also unique to the Japanese was their use of thin walls. Since their roofs were supported by post and beams the walls may mainly serve as partitions to the interior rather than a support to the roof The Japanese also use sliding panel doors, which they often removed or contracted so that there was no division left for the exterior (veranda) with the interior. Both China and Japan utilized screens to divide the rooms inside the house.

    However, the Japanese use bold designs to these screens with brightly printed pictures of landscape, flowers and animals. They also use multipanel screens. Due to western influence, mainly France, Qing architect experimented with various designs in Buddhist buildings. Examples are the Yonghegong and Chengde structures of Beijing. The most popular example of Japanese architecture for this time is the Katsura Imperial Villa near Kyoto that illustrates simplistic Japanese architecture (Fiero 89-93) and (Rutherford 114-119).


    Both countries of China and Japan have theatrical arts that employ only male actors. For female roles, the male will dress themselves as female (Onnagata). Kabuki is the name of this theatrical art that had arisen in Japan in mid-seventeenth century. In order to correspond to the domestic, historical and literary themes of their show the Japanese used elaborate costumes and scenery. They have fixed rotating stages that have trapdoors for actors to use as an act of appearing or disappearing.

    They also have footbridge .The performance is accompanied by traditional Japanese instruments. Chinese performers on the other hand use minimal costumes and scenery since they conduct their show from one city to another. Their performances include mimes, dance and also use of traditional instruments. (Fiero 92-94).


    Both arts of China and Japan were influenced by the western world during the 1650-1900AD. Both countries incorporate both their traditional art style to those introduced by foreigners of the west. As can be observed, until this period Japan art was still an adaptation of China arts but they also add their own styles, techniques and ideas.


    • Benton, Janetta Rebold and Robert Diyanni. Arts and Culture: An Introduction to Humanities. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, Inc., 1999.
    • “Chinese Art and Architecture,” Microsoft® Encarta® Online Encyclopedia 2007.                                       7July2007< 2007>.
    • Gardner, Helen. Art Through the Ages, 3rd ed. USA: Harcourt Brace and Company, Inc., 1948.
    • Gombrich, E.H. The Story of Art. Singapore: Phaidon Press Limited, 1989.
    • Fiero, Gloria K. The Humanistic Tradition, 3rd ed. Hong Kong: McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc., 1998.
    • “Japanese Art and Architecture,”. Microsoft® Encarta® Online 2007.7 July                                2007<>.
    • Rutherford, Scott and Brian Bell. Japan. Singapore: APA Publications GmbH and Co., 2004.
    • Shapiro, William. The New Arthur Mee’s Childrens’ Encyclopedia. Canada: Grolier Limited, 1978.


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