The History of Oriental Art

By Dennis Hartman ; Updated September 15, 2017
The History of Oriental Art

Oriental art is one of the major branches of art classification, along with European art, art of the Americas, African art and Middle Eastern art. The development or distinct artistic styles in Japan, China and other eastern Asian nations has influenced art around the world for thousands of years, and reveals a great deal about the cultures that produced it.

Japan

Some of the first significant art to emerge from Japan dates to the seventh century. Japanese artists came to know the styles of Chinese and Korean art as the cultures shared their Buddhist beliefs, and Japanese art from this era is a fusion of Korean and Chinese. Bronze sculpture dominates Japanese art from the Asuka and Nara periods (roughly the years 550 to 780). Buddhism continued to dominate Japanese artistic subject matter until 1180, when widespread war within Japan changed the national mood from one of religious introspection to one of conflict and survival, and Samurai culture was born. In creating war-themed art, Japanese artists adopted a new realism in their work. Calligraphy also emerged as an art form during this time. By the Muromachi era (1338 to 1573), Japanese art looked back to its roots in spirituality. Japanese painting and printmaking flourished during this period, with subjects ranging from the natural world to ancient mythology.

China

Long before Japan was first settles, early cultures produced primitive art in China. Since then, Chinese art has been extremely diverse, colored by the shifting dynasties and the influence of foreign cultures. By the second century B.C., China already had a distinct artistic style in poetry, sculpture and music. One of the most well-known pieces of Chinese art today is the Terracotta Army. Dating from 210 B.C., it consists of 7,000 life-sized figures in the tomb of the first Qin emperor. The Terracotta Army points to the Chinese preoccupation with military subjects, the human figure and associating art with burial rituals. Buddhism influenced Chinese art in the first century. Through the cycles of dynastic rule, which lasted until the early twentieth century, Chinese culture remained in a state of frequent change, and a diverse national body of art was produced as a result.

Korea

Korean art, like Chinese art, dates from the early days of human civilization. Due to its geographical location, Korea has often served as a point of transit between China and Japan, and its art shows the influences of both cultures. From the first century B.C. to the seventh century A.D., some of the most notable Korean art was produced in the Baekje kingdom. Art from this region of southwestern Korea consists primarily of architecture and sculpture. Harmonious proportions, naturalism of form and the presence of Buddhist subject matter suggest the influence of nearby China as well as Japanese traditions. Beginning in the first century B.C., Korean painting became an established art form. Beginning with the decorated walls of tombs, Korean painting has been sharply divided between delicate, realistic compositions intended to be viewed as works of fine art and colorful, stylized folk art images that commemorate celebrations.

Tibet

Tibetan art is defined by its inclusion of Buddhist subject matter and principles, even more so than the art of other Oriental cultures. Elements of Buddhist influence can be found in Tibetan art dating from as far back ad 400 B.C. Geometric patterns, meant to be contemplated while the viewer meditates, are a common image in Tibetan art. Various Buddhist deities are also frequently represented both in sculpture and painting. Oftentimes these images are also intended to aid in meditation. Tibetan art is full of symbolic images, such as the Dharmacakra, which is a wheel with eight spokes, each representing one of the eight paths to enlightenment. Among Tibetan art's most well-known forms is the sand mandala. These geometric images, painstakingly constructed by Buddhist monks as a means of concentrating their energies, are ritualistically destroyed as a means of representing the impermanence of life.

Vietnam

Vietnamese art has been characterized by the various imperialistic presences in Vietnam, from the Chinese to the French. From the tenth century to the fifteenth century, Vietnam was independent and produced art that is distinct from anything brought by outside cultures. Vietnamese art from this period responds to a blending of religious traditions with elements of Taoist, Buddhist and Confucian principles. Ceramics have figured prominently in Vietnamese art both during periods of Chinese rule and Vietnamese independence. Vietnamese ceramic artists have often employed a limited color palette as a way of emphasizing form. Interest in ceramic and porcelain art dominated Vietnamese art through the Nguyen dynasty in the nineteenth century.