Spencer Museum of Art The University of Kansas
detail: 迦諾迦伐蹉 Seated Nahan Ganakgabeolcha (Sanskrit: Kanakavatsa),

Nature/Natural

South Balcony Gallery

人生到處知何似
應似飛鴻踏雪泥

To what can our life on earth be likened?
To a flock of geese,
Alighting on the snow,
Sometimes leaving a trace of their passage.

Su Shi 蘇軾 (1037-1101)

One pervasive characteristic of East Asian art is its enduring pursuit to illuminate the relationship between natural phenomena—such as the connection between humans and the landscape, the change of seasons, or even the cracks in an old bowl—and a totalizing concept of Nature.

In the Euro-American tradition, the term “Nature” is derived from the Latin natura, and refers both to the innate disposition of something and the intrinsic characteristics of plants, animals and other natural phenomenon. As in English, “Nature” in its broadest sense holds a rich spectrum of meaning in Chinese:

tian
the omniscient force of “heaven”
yin and yang 阴阳
literally “light and shadow”; a concept of balanced contrasts
qi
the vital life force inhabiting all things
dao
the ineffable “way” which is everything in Daoism

However, it was in the concept of ziran自然, literally “being so of itself” also translated as “spontaneity,” that Chinese thinkers merged the totality of actions that constitute the universe with the direct perception and expression of the natural world found in poetry and painting. Artists looked at the landscape, found insight into the universe, and took up brush and ink as an attempt to convey this understanding. The 5th-century poem “Quaffing Wine” by Tao Yuanming 陶淵明 (365-427) speaks of the “authentic intent” or “timeless, unmoving, conception” that nature reveals:

I built my hut beside a traveled road Yet hear no noise of passing carts and horses. “And how is this possible?” you ask, With the mind detached, one’s place becomes remote.

Having picked chrysanthemums from beneath the eastern hedge, I gaze wistfully at the southern hills, distant and changeless forever. The ethers rising from the mountains reach a perfect balance at sunset, And, as they wing back toward their homes, the birds keep each other company.

A timeless, unmoving conception lies hidden in these phenomena, But just as one seeks to express it, the words are already forgotten.

Rather than a mere “background for human action,” Nature is an integrated concept that includes humans as part of a seamless continuum.

Encountering these concepts, Korean and Japanese artists appropriated, imbued and even departed from this view of the natural world, adding their own cultural perspectives. In the Korean Peninsula, shamanic traditions, a rich visual culture of Buddhism, and an austere Confucian simplicity were synchronized in new ways that expressed an abiding delight in the natural world. And in Japan, ideas from continental Asia merged with local animistic beliefs that stress balance between nature and humans. Through poetry and painting, the changing, yearly cycle of seasons became a predominate theme in Japanese art, embodied in this 9th-century poem:

The hue of the cherry
fades too quickly from sight
all for nothing
this body of mine grows old—
spring rain ceaselessly falling.
Ono no Komachi 小野小町 (c. 825-c. 900)