Nasher Museum of Art

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    Ai Weiwei, Marble Chair, 2008. Marble, 47 1/4 x 22 1/16 x 18 1/8 inches (120 x 56 x 46 cm). Collection of the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, Durham, NC, USA. Museum purchase with funds provided by the Estate of Wallace Fowlie, 2011.15.1. ©Ai Weiwei. Photo by Peter Paul Geoffrion.

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    Chinese, Fine jade double-gourd washer, 18th century. Celadon and russet jade, 5 1/8 x 2 3/4 x 8 1/16 inches (13 x 7 x 20.5 cm). Collection of the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, Durham, NC, USA. Bequest of Col. Van R. White, 1992.7.7.

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    Utagawa Toyokuni III, Travelers in the Snow at Oi, 1853. Woodcut in colors in paper, 8 5/8 x 13 7/8 inches (21.9 x 35.2 cm). Collection of the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, Durham, NC, USA. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. W. K. Stars, 1979.54.3.

  • 1974_27_23_v1_700

    Thai, Prayer book, n.d. Paper, glass, ink; Book (closed): 17 3/8 x 7 3/16 x 2 3/4 inches (44.1 x 18.3 x 7 cm). Collection of the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, Durham, NC, USA. Gift of the Honorable and Mrs. William Leonhart, 1974.27.23.

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    Tanaka Ikko, Mt. Fuji, 20th century, 3rd quarter. Woodcut in four colors on paper, 9 1/2 x 13 1/16 inches (24.1 x 33.2 cm). Collection of the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, Durham, NC, USA. Gift by transfer, from Prof. Hideo Kawanami; 1974.6.1.

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    Chinese, Vase, 1662 – 1722. Porcelain, 11 7/16 x 7 1/16 x 4 15/16 inches (29 x 18 x 12.5 cm). Collection of the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, Durham, NC, USA. Gift of Col. Van R. White, 1973.50.5.

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    Fred Fang Yu Wang, Luan Baby Phoenix, 1995. Ink on rice paper, on silk mount; 76 x 24 7/8 inches (193 x 63.2 cm). Collection of the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, Durham, NC, USA. Gift of Mr. Shao F. (E’78, P’ 14) and Cheryl L. (P’14) Wang, 2011.19.1. © Estate of Fred Fang Yu Wang. Photo by Peter Paul Geoffrion.

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    Map of Asia, 2008. Produced by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency,


What is meant by “Asian art”? Asia is a vast, diverse continent with numerous countries, cultures, and ethnicities. Scholars often focus on regions or individual countries when studying the arts of Asia. Southeast Asia officially refers to the countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN): Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Lao PDR, Malaysia, Myanmar (Burma), Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Viet Nam. The South Asian subcontinent includes present-day India, southeastern Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka. The arts of Japan, China, and Russia are often discussed on their own, while Korea has generally received less attention by scholars in the U.S.

While there are many differences in the visual arts of Asia, there is a shared belief in humans’ intimate relationship with nature, and in the close association between the natural and spiritual worlds. Images of the natural world may express personal, philosophical, and/or religious beliefs. Buddhism’s influence can be seen to varying degrees across Asia, with the exception of Russia. In India, Hinduism’s influence is also evident. The visual forms that manifested in response to these major religions varied, depending on how and to what extent people adopted and transformed them alongside their existing indigenous belief systems.[1]

Throughout Asia, images of the Buddha are generally recognizable by certain key elements: a figure wearing a simple monk’s robe, and having distended (or elongated) earlobes, a bump or protuberance on top of his head (ushnisha, a symbol of super-spiritual knowledge and enlightenment), and a tuft of white hair between his eyes (urna). Hand gestures (mudras) are symbolic, with each signifying a different state of being or a particular teaching. Images of wheels (chakras, an ancient sun symbol) on the feet or hands symbolize various states of existence and Buddhist doctrine. A lotus flower symbolizes spiritual purity, wholeness of creation, and cosmic harmony, while its stem serves as an axis mundi, or a point of connection between the heavens and the earth. The Buddha is sometimes depicted sitting on an open lotus throne. (For more on the iconography of the Buddha, see the Victoria & Albert Museum website.)

There is, of course, secular art in Asia as well. The range of subject matter, medium, form, and technique reflects the diversity of Asia and the long history of intercultural exchange.

Southeast Asia

The region of Southeast Asia is divided by geography, political boundaries, language, and ethnicities, and different cultures and ethnicities interpret iconography (symbolism) and visual motifs in different ways.

Nonetheless, there are some similarities across the region. The concept of what constitutes “art” is broadly inclusive and is characterized by variety and hybridity. In particular, the influences of Buddhism and Hinduism, and the region’s history of trade with India and China, are evident in the visual imagery, forms, and materials. Islam, Christianity, and Western Europeans had less of an effect on the development of Southeast Asian art. Today, art continues to evolve, simultaneously carrying on local traditions and subsuming new influences to create a dynamic, hybrid visual language.Art is an integral part of everyday life and often serves a functional purpose. Many art objects are closely linked to religious and spiritual life. The objects may be invested with power, having been created for an invisible entity—whether the spirit of an illness, a deity, or a talisman—to enter it and somehow be addressed.[2] Art objects may also show the owner’s status, rank, or political power; strengthen relationships with other people or spirits; provide protection; aesthetically enhance the world where people live, work, and worship; or explore issues of identity.


  • What might the visual motifs, forms, techniques, and/or materials tell you about where the artwork was made and/or used? What might these elements tell you about the artist or the owner of the artwork?
  • Do you think the artwork may be, or may have been, imbued with symbolic power? What sort of power? Why do you think this?
  • Can you identify a particular religious or cultural tradition that the artwork addresses and/or was influenced by?
  • What do you think was the intended purpose of artwork? Where do you think it was intended to be displayed? Why do you think this?
  • Do you think the artist made the work for a specifically Southeast Asian audience or for an outside audience? Why do you think this?

South Asian Subcontinent

Home to three of the world’s oldest religions—Buddhism, Hinduism, and Jainism—the South Asian subcontinent abounds with symbolically-rich visual imagery.[3]

The profusion of the visual arts reflects the belief that the world is dynamic and infused by the divine. Voluptuous forms, ornamentation, texture, and color convey layers of emotional, spiritual, and intellectual meaning.According to Indian philosophy, all living beings are caught in an endless cycle of birth, life, death, and rebirth. Therefore, both life and the material world are understood to be illusions. Since art is an interpretation of life, it is believed to have the power to convey deep, hidden meanings about life. However, because art is a visual illusion, it is inherently symbolic. For instance, a figure’s prominent belly generally symbolizes physical and spiritual well-being, while a shrivasta (endless knot) jewel on the chest indicates physical and spiritual purity.In order to fully understand the symbolism of an artwork or object, you will want to do some research into the specific iconography, beliefs, and history of the region from where the work originates, as interpretations vary across regions and have changed over time as external influences affected the local visual culture. For instance, when the British made India a colony, they established British-style art schools and imposed Western ideas in an attempt to eradicate indigenous Indian art forms. As they had done for centuries, Indian artists responded by rejecting and/or selectively adapting British ideals into their own traditions.


  • What might the visual motifs, forms, techniques, and/or materials tell you about where the artwork was made and/or used? What might these elements tell you about the artist or the owner of the artwork?
  • How do you think life and/or the material world are shown to be an illusion?
  • Can you identify a particular religious or cultural tradition that the artwork addresses and/or was influenced by?
  • What message(s) do you think the work conveys about the cycle of life, death, and rebirth?
  • What do you think was the intended purpose of artwork? Where do you think it was intended to be displayed?.. Why do you think this?
  • Do you think the artist made the work for a specifically South Asian audience or for an outside audience? Why do you think this?


Japanese artists have long adopted, absorbed, and transformed different cultural influences and made them uniquely Japanese. Imagery, forms, techniques, and materials from China and Korea, and later from Western Europe and the United States, especially influenced the development of Japanese art.

The introduction of Buddhism also made its mark by introducing anthropomorphic spirits, or spirits manifested in human form. Unlike Buddhism, Japan’s indigenous “religion,” Shinto (“Way of the Gods”), had no founder, no scriptures, no teachers, and no saints. Shinto was “based on a profound sense of awe for natural manifestations such as sun, water, trees, rocks, sound and silence,” where spirits (kami) were believed to reside.[4] Sensitivity to nature and adherence to rituals—both of which are central to Shinto and Buddhism—are visible in artists’ and architects’ use of natural materials and motifs. Asymmetrical compositions that juxtapose disparate textures, colors, forms, and space are believed to have a calming effect that encourages introspective contemplation and conveys a sense of equality that did not exist in Japan’s hierarchical society. Visual cues are often subtle and emotive—for example, curtains hanging in disarray in a narrative hand scroll painting could signify emotional turbulence. But, there is also art that is vividly colorful, more direct, and full of humor and satire. This is particularly true of woodblock prints, which were popular with 19th century Western Europeans and influenced the art of Vincent van Gogh and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, among many others.Art has been and continues to be integral to life in Japan—painted sliding doors and screens divide architectural spaces, carefully crafted earthenware cups are used for tea ceremonies, and rock gardens and hanging scrolls foster meditation.


  • What might the work—its form, technique, subject matter, and/or style—tell you about Japanese society and/or Japanese identity at the time the work was created?
  • What role, if any, does nature play within the composition?
  • One scholar notes that Japanese art is characterized by a focus on the emotional tension of the overall composition, and if one part of the composition was altered, the entire composition would change drastically. Do you think this is true of the work you are looking at? Why or why not?
  • What emotion(s) do you think the artist was trying to convey? How is this emotion conveyed?
  • Do you recognize the influence of another culture(s) in the work? How do you think the artist has adapted or transformed this influence to make it Japanese?
  • What do you think was the intended purpose of artwork? Where do you think it was meant to be displayed? Why do you think this?
  • Do you think the artist made the work for a specifically Japanese audience or for an outside audience? Why do you think this?


Chinese artists have long incorporated motifs and styles from other cultures, transforming them into new Chinese traditions. In particular, between the 1st and 10th centuries, Buddhism influenced the arts in China by introducing new iconography, large-scale sculpture and paintings, an emphasis on individuals, a new model for building temples, and more.

Buddhist philosophy was adopted into indigenous Chinese belief systems, including Confucianism and Daoism. Confucianism placed the concept of humanism at the center. Confucianism is concerned with cultivating and maintaining ethics and virtue, as well as upholding the moral order.[5] Daoism, which developed as a religion at the time Buddhism was becoming accepted in China, teaches a close relationship between humans and nature, and emphasizes living in cosmic harmony.[6] It is possible to see the influences of these different belief systems in many of the arts of China, from pottery, bronze castings, and jade carvings to silk textiles, painting, and calligraphy, the latter of which became the most revered of the fine arts.


The Chinese believed in the power of the word. Emperors used the written word to pronounce their authority; scholars used it to write histories and record legends. Since the Han dynasty (206 BCE-221 AD), calligraphy (beautiful writing) has been revered as the highest fine art form.

Created with a brush and ink, calligraphy is believed to express more than the written words and their meaning—it reveals the writer’s strength of character. Moreover, “its very form should reveal itself to be a moral exemplar, as well as a manifestation of the energy of the human body and the vitality of nature itself.”[7] To master their art, calligraphers must be in tune with their materials and their own body, and be highly trained in the written Chinese language, which consists of more than 50,000 characters, each representing a different word. (A well-educated person is familiar with approximately 5,000 characters.)[8]


  • What do you think the brushstrokes reveal about the character of the calligrapher?
  • What do you think is the significance of the words? (See if the wall label offers any information.)


In the 6th century Xie He laid out the Six Laws of Painting, or six criteria for judging painters and their brush and ink paintings.[9] These laws helped to initiate what became a sophisticated culture of connoisseurship and critique.

During the Tang dynasty (618-960) rulers at court were the primary patrons of the arts and preference shifted from wall paintings to vertical and horizontal scroll paintings. The scrolls, which were not designed for permanent display, were viewed by small, select audiences. During the Song dynasty (960-1279), brush and ink painting was elevated to a similar status as calligraphy, as artists began combining poems and pictures in single compositions from the 11th century onward. There is also a history of owners and viewers adding seals and inscriptions, known as “colophons,” to scrolls.[10]Painting styles and preferences changed over the centuries for a variety of reasons. In general, though, narrative painters tended to emphasize individual faces and scaled figures according to their importance. Landscape painters created compositions with multiple eye levels, rather than with one single point of view. Regardless of subject matter, painters attempted to capture both the outward appearances and inner essences of their subjects.[11]

  • Can you distinguish between individual figures? Who do you think they are? What do you think their status or occupation was at the time they lived? Were they real people, legendary figures, or gods? Why do you think this?
  • What could the interaction between the figures, the figures’ dress, and/or the setting (the architecture and/or landscape or lack thereof) tell you about the period in which the painting was made? What could these elements tell you about the painting’s meaning?
  • How is your perspective on humans’ relationship to nature affected, if at all, as you move your eyes up a landscape painting? How do you feel about your personal relationship to nature as you contemplate the painting? Why do you think you feel this way?
  • If there is calligraphy on a painting, what do you think the relationship between the writing and the imagery is? Do they play off of each other visually? To what effect?
  • If you are looking at a scroll, do you see any seals or stamps that might indicate a history of ownership? Do you see any writing that looks like it could be inscriptions added by people who viewed the scroll? If so, how do you think this information affects the meaning or significance of the painting, if at all? What could this information tell you about the painting?

Pottery, Bronze, and Jade

Artists experimented with numerous forms and created both representational and abstract designs on pottery, bronze casting, and jade carvings. Animals, both real and mythical, were common visual motifs for these objects, which were used for functional, ceremonial, and ritual burial purposes.

Later, as Chinese society became increasingly stratified, art became an expression of social status. Jade was valued not only for its hardness and rarity, but also because it was associated with power because of the effort and skill that goes into carving the mineral.[12] Bronze was also highly prized. During the 12th and 13th centuries, the Chinese exported much porcelain and pottery to Japan and Indonesia in exchange for other goods. In the 18th century, porcelain makers responded to Western Europeans’ and Americans’ demand for “Chinoiserie” (Chinese or pseudo-Chinese decorative motifs) by adapting new motifs, and by adding colors like rose to the traditional white and blue palette of Chinese porcelain.[13]


  • Do you think the artwork or object conveys something about the owner’s status? How so?
  • Do you think the object was made for a Chinese audience or for a foreign audience? Why do you think so?

Modern and Contemporary

Chinese art of the 19th and 20th centuries has been strongly affected by governmental policies. In the 19th century, as leaders focused on modernizing the country, they encouraged artists to study abroad to learn Western-style oil painting and drawing.

In the early 20th century there were intense debates about the visual arts, with some arguing for total “Westernization,” others arguing for a national “tradition,” and still others calling for a synthesis of the two extremes. Between 1949 and 1976, the years of Mao Zedong’s rule, the arts were heavily regulated and ideologically-controlled. Art was to serve the people (and Mao’s regime and cult of personality) with easy-to-understand visual imagery, in a style known as Socialist Realism. The ideological controls have loosened since Mao’s death, and Chinese artists have been increasingly experimenting with new media, addressing subjects that were previously taboo, and taking part in the international contemporary art world.[14]


  • Do you detect an ideologically-regulated message? What is the message? How do you know?
  • Who do you think commissioned the work? Why do you think this?
  • Where do you think the work was intended to be displayed, and for what audience? What do you think is the relationship between the intended location of display and the work’s message, if any? Why do you think this?


Asian Art Archive. Chiu, Melissa. Contemporary Asian Art. London: Thames & Hudson, 2010.Craven, Roy C. Indian Art: A Concise History. London: Thames & Hudson, 1997.

Fibicher, Bernhard, and Matthias Frehner, eds. Mahjong: Contemporary Chinese Art from the Sigg Collection. Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz, 2005.

Fisher, Robert E. Art of Tibet. London: Thames & Hudson, 1997.

Fisher, Robert E. Buddhist Art and Architecture. London: Thames & Hudson, 1993.

Haller, Paula Lee. Discovering the Art of Korea. Princeton: Films for the Humanities, 2003. (DVD)

Jessup, Helen Ibbitson. Art & Architecture of Cambodia. London: Thames & Hudson, 2004.

Kerlogue, Fiona. Arts of Southeast Asia. London: Thames & Hudson, 2004.

Michell, George. Hindu Art and Architecture. London: Thames & Hudson, 2000.

Portal, Jane. Korea: Art and Archaeology. New York: Thames & Hudson, 2000.

Stanley-Baker, Joan. Japanese Art. London: Thames & Hudson, 2000.

Tregear, Mary. Chinese Art. London: Thames & Hudson, 1997.

[1] For more information about understanding different religions through a study of artworks, see the Ackland Art Museum’s “Five Faiths Project,”

[2] Fiona Kerlogue, Arts of Southeast Asia (London: Thames & Hudson, 2004), 22.

[3] Jainism teaches asceticism, non-violence, and the sacredness of all life forms. For more information about how the religions affected India’s arts, see Roy C. Craven, Indian Art (London: Thames & Hudson, 1997).

[4] Joan Stanley-Baker, Japanese Art (London: Thames & Hudson, 2000), 24.

[5] See Jeff Richey, “Confucius,” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy,originally published November 12, 2003, last updated July 14, 2005,

[6] See Ronnie Littlejohn, “Daoist Philosophy,” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, originally published September 18, 2003, last updated July 12, 2005,

[7] Dawn Delbanco, “Chinese Calligraphy,” in Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000-), originally published April 2008, last revised November 2008,

[8] Ibid.

[9] There are disagreements about the way the laws have been translated into English and interpreted. See Clunas, Art in China, 46.

[10] Ibid., 54.

[11] Maxwell, Hearn, “Chinese Painting,” in Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000-),originally published June 2008,

[12] Jade, an extremely hard mineral, must be imported to China from Central Asia. It “cannot be carved with a metal blade, but must be worked with abrasive sand in a procedure of slicing and drilling which involves great expenditure of time and skill.” Craig Clunas, Art in China, second edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 16.

[13] For a more comprehensive description of “Chinoiserie,” see Monique Riccardi-Cubitt, “Chinoiserie,” in Grove Art Online, Oxford Art Online,

[14] Chinese artists are still not entirely free of political interventions. Consider, for example, what has happened with artist Ai Weiwei.