East Asian arts

Written By: James R. Brandon, James T. Ulak, William P. Malm
Apr 30, 2018

group of samuraiEast Asian arts, the visual arts, performing arts, and music of China, Korea (North Korea and South Korea), and Japan. (The literature of this region is treated in separate articles on Chinese literature, Korean literature, and Japanese literature.) Some studies of East Asia also include the cultures of the Indochinese peninsula and adjoining islands, as well as Mongolia to the north. The logic of this occasional inclusion is based on a strict geographic definition as well as a recognition of common bonds forged through the acceptance of Buddhism by many of these cultures. China, Korea, and Japan, however, have been uniquely linked for several millennia by a common written language and by broad cultural and political connections that have ranged in spirit from the uncritically adorational to the contentious.

A broad introduction to East Asian arts—their common characteristics, traditions, and values—follows. More detailed and focused treatment is presented elsewhere. For detailed coverage of the visual art of East Asia, see Chinese art; Chinese bronzes; Chinese calligraphy; Chinese jade; Chinese lacquerwork; Chinese painting; Chinese pottery; Japanese art; Japanese calligraphy; Japanese pottery; Korean art; Korean calligraphy; and Korean pottery. For detailed coverage of the architecture of East Asia, see Chinese architecture; Japanese architecture; and Korean architecture. For detailed coverage of the music of East Asia, see Chinese music; Japanese music; and Korean music. Likewise, for detailed coverage of the dance and theatre of East Asia, see Chinese performing arts; Japanese performing arts; and Korean performing arts.

The visual arts

From ancient times, China has been the dominant and referential culture in East Asia. Although variously developed Neolithic cultures existed on the Korean Peninsula and on the Japanese archipelago, archaeological evidence in the form of worked stone and blades from the Paleolithic and Neolithic periods suggests an exchange between the early East Asian cultures and the early introduction of Chinese influence. This cultural interaction was facilitated in part by land bridges that connected Japan with the continent.

Liangzhu ceremonial congCeremonial cong of jade (calcined nephrite), 3rd millennium bc, Neolithic Liangzhu culture; in the Seattle Art Museum, Wash., U.S.The Seattle Art Museum, purchased by the Foster family in memory of Albert O. Foster, photographed by Paul Macapia

Significant developments in the production of earthenware vessels from as early as 14,000 bce in Japan (thus far, the world’s earliest dated pottery) and from approximately 3500 bce in Korea are well documented. They reveal a rich symbolic vocabulary and decorative sense as well as a highly successful union of function and dynamic form. These types of vessels chronicle the increasing needs for storage as there was a gradual societal transformation from nomadic and foraging cultures to more sedentary crop-producing cultures. There were pottery-dominant cultures in China as well. The painted (c. 5000 bce) and black (c. 2500 bce) earthenware are the best known.

Chinese earthenware amphoraChinese earthenware amphora, Neolithic Period, c. 6500–1500 bce; in the Honolulu Academy of Arts.Photograph by chungj 415. Honolulu Academy of Art, gift of the Honorable Edgar Bromberger, 1950 1023.1

As Korea and Japan continued in various Neolithic phases, developments in China from approximately 2000 bce were far more complex and dramatic. Archaeological evidence firmly corroborates the existence of an emerging bronze culture by approximately 2000 bce. This culture provided the base for Shang dynasty (c. 1600–1046 bce) culture, which witnessed extraordinary developments in the production of bronze, stone, ceramic, and jade artifacts as well as the development of a pictograph-based written language. Bronze production and the expansion of rice cultivation gradually appeared in Korea from approximately 700 bce and then slightly later in Japan. While no single political event seemed to further the transmission of Chinese cultural elements to Korea and Japan, clearly the expansionist policies of the rulers of the Han dynasty (206 bce–220 ce) stimulated what had been a gradual assimilation of Chinese cultural elements by both Korea and Japan. Indicatively, it is from this period that Chinese documentation of legation visits to Japan provide the first written records describing the structure of Japanese society.

The cultures of China, Korea, and Japan went on, from this period of interaction during the Han dynasty, to develop in quite distinctive ways. China, for example, experienced two major dynasties, the Han and the Tang (618–907), that were truly international in scope and easily rivaled contemporary Mediterranean powers. In succeeding dynasties, including rule by foreign invaders from the north, the development of the visual arts continued to explore and develop the basic media for which the Chinese demonstrated special affinity: clay, jade, lacquer, bronze, stone, and the various manifestations of the brush, especially in calligraphy and painting. Emphases shifted, as did styles, but the fundamental symbolic vocabulary and a predisposition to renew through reinterpretation and reverence of the past was characteristic not only of Chinese arts but of all the East Asian arts.

Korea’s pivotal location gave it particular strategic value and thus made it the target of subjugation by a stronger China and Japan. But Korea strove to maintain its own identity and to prevent China and Japan from exercising control over more than a small portion of the peninsula. National contributions to the larger aesthetic culture of East Asia included unequaled mastery of goldsmithing and design as well as a ceramic tradition that included delicate celadon ware and a vigorous folk ware that inspired generations of Japanese tea masters. Indeed, Korea was a primary conduit of continental culture to the Japanese in many areas of visual expression, including metalwork, painting, and ceramics.

Koryŏ dynasty vaseKorean bottle with a celadon glaze and mishima (inlaid decoration), Koryŏ dynasty, 13th century; in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Height 34.6 cm.Courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London; photograph, Wilfrid Walter

In the late 13th century, Mongol forces made two unsuccessful attempts at invading the Japanese islands, and the country was spared occupation by a foreign power until well into the 20th century. This unusual condition of comparative isolation provided Japanese cultural arbiters with a relative freedom to select or reject outside styles and trends. Nevertheless, Chinese art’s highly developed, systematic forms of expression, coupled with its theoretical basis in religion and philosophy, proved enormously forceful, and Chinese styles dominated at key junctures in Japanese history. The reception and assimilation of outside influence followed by a vigorous assertion of national styles thus characterized the cycle of Japanese cultural development. In addition to distinctive reinterpretations of Chinese ink monochrome painting and calligraphy, an indigenous taste for the observation and depiction of human activity and an exquisitely nuanced sense of design are readily apparent in most areas of Japanese visual expression, none more so than in narrative painting and in the wood-block print.

The elements and tendencies common to the Chinese, Korean, and Japanese cultures are vast, but two kinds of visual expression are especially important: a strong affinity for the clay-formed vessel and calligraphic expression through the ink-charged brush. Vigorous, subtle, and technically sophisticated expressions ranging from Neolithic earthenware to celadon and glazed enamelware were both integral to daily life and prized by connoisseurs who judged ceramics by an elaborate code of appreciation. Increasingly abstracted forms of pictographs provided a means of writing that was image-based; characters formed by the brush could be normative but also offered infinite possibilities for personal expression through ink modulation and idiosyncratic gesture. Although Korea and Japan later developed phonetic syllabaries, the visual language of the educated continued to be based on the ancestral Chinese form. The meanings of words, phrases, or whole texts could be expanded or nuanced by their visual renderings. Painting was derivative from calligraphy, and implicit in painting skill was a preceding mastery of the brush-rendered calligraphic line. As a consequence, calligraphy was unequaled as the major element in the transmission of cultural values, whether as information or as aesthetic expression.

The influence of Buddhism, a force which was initially foreign to East Asia, also should not be underestimated. Emerging from India and Central Asia in the first century after nearly 500 years of development on the subcontinent, Buddhism offered a convincing universalist system of belief that assimilated and frequently gave visual expression to indigenous religions. By the 5th century ce, a Chinese dynastic line had adopted Buddhism as a religion of state. While individual rulers, courts, or dynasties at times propelled the florescence of East Asian arts, none of them equaled the patronage of Buddhism in duration, scale, and intellectual sustenance. Confucianism, Daoism, and, to a somewhat lesser degree, Shintō required expression through the arts; however, Buddhism’s multiple sects, complex iconography, and program of proselytizing made it the natural and dominant vehicle of transcultural influence in East Asia.

- James T. Ulak

The performing arts

From ancient times dance and theatre have played a vital role in China, Korea, and Japan. Many performances of plays and dances were closely tied to religious beliefs and customs. In China, records from about 1000 bce describe magnificently costumed male and female shamans who sang and danced to musical accompaniment, drawing the heavenly spirits down to earth through their performance. Impersonation of other characters through makeup and costume was occurring at least by the 4th century bce. Many masked dances in Korea have a religious function. Performances invoking Buddha’s protection are especially popular and numerous in Japan and Korea. Throughout East Asia the descendants of magico-religious performances can be seen in a variety of guises. Whether designed to pray for longevity or for a rich harvest or to ward off disease and evil, the rituals of impersonation of supernatural beings through masks and costumes and the repetition of rhythmic music and patterns of movement perform the function of linking humans to the spiritual world beyond. Hence, from the earliest times in East Asia, dance, music, and dramatic mimesis have been naturally fused through their religious function.

In East Asia the easy intermingling of dance and theatre, with music as a necessary and inseparable accompanying art, also derives from aesthetic and philosophic principles. In the West, by contrast, musical performance, spoken drama, and ballet have evolved as separate performing arts. Confucian philosophy holds that a harmonious condition in society can be produced by proper actions, including the playing of music and the performance of dances that are appropriate and conducive to moderation. Throughout China’s history, poems were written to be sung; songs were danced. Dancing, while it might occasionally be pure dance without meaning, more often was used to enact a story in the theatre. Zeami (1363–1443), the most influential performer and theoretician of Noh drama in Japan, described his art as a totality, encompassing mimesis, dance, dialogue, narration, music, staging, and the reactions of the audience as well. Without arbitrary divisions separating the arts, East Asia has developed exceptionally complex artistic forms possessing extraordinary richness and subtlety.

Dance may be dramatic or nondramatic; in all traditional theatre forms some elements of dance will be found. Puppets, masks, highly stylized makeup, and costuming are common adjuncts of both dance and theatre. Dialogue drama (without music) is rare but does exist. The major dance and theatre forms performed today in East Asia can be loosely classed as unmasked dances (folk and art dances in each country), masked dances (Korean masked dances and bugaku and folk dances in Japan), masked dance theatre (Noh in Japan and sandae in Korea), danced processionals (gyōdō in Japan), dance opera (jingxi and other forms of Chinese opera), puppet theatre (kkoktukaksi in Korea and Bunraku in Japan), shadow theatre (in China), dialogue plays with traditional music and dance (Kabuki in Japan), dialogue plays with dance (kyōgen in Japan), and modern, realistic dialogue plays introduced from the West into China, Korea, and Japan in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Common traditions

As previously noted, China, Korea, and Japan have been historically close for centuries, thus accounting for their numerous common artistic traditions. From pre-Christian times until the 8th and 9th century ce, the great trade routes crossed from the Middle East through Central Asia into China. Hinduism, Buddhism, some knowledge of ancient Greek, and much knowledge of Indian arts entered into China, and thence in time into Korea and Japan. Perhaps before the Common Era, the Central Asian art of manipulating hand puppets was carried to China. For more than 700 years, until 668, in the kingdom of Koguryŏ, embracing northern Korea and Manchuria, court music and dances from Central Asia, from Han China, from Manchuria, and from Korea, called chisŏ and kajisŏ, were performed. Many of the dances were masked; all were stately as befit serious court art. They were taken to the Japanese court in Nara about the 7th century. Called bugaku in Japan, they have been preserved for 12 centuries and are still performed at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo, though they have long since died out in China and Korea. In Koguryŏ’s neighbouring kingdom of Paekche, a form of Buddhist masked dance play was performed at court, and, in the 7th century, it too was taken to the Japanese court at Nara by a Korean performer, Mimaji, who had learned the dances while staying at the southern Chinese court of Wuhou. Called kiak in Korea and gigaku in Japan, the Aryan features of some of its masks clearly indicate Indian (or Central Asian) influence. Such complicated genealogies are common in East Asian performing arts.

Very likely by the 7th century, nomadic puppeteers from Central Asia who had taken up residence in northern Korea migrated to Japan. The men continued to be both herdsmen and puppet manipulators in their new homeland, while the women performed dances and sang as popular entertainers. (There may have been a native puppet tradition in Japan as well.) In time the art of puppet manipulation joined with that of epic storytelling to produce the famous Bunraku puppet theatre. Musical accompaniment for Bunraku and for other popular plays in Japan, such as Kabuki, was provided primarily by the samisen, a three-stringed lute, borrowed from China by way of Okinawa. The lion dance, originally from China, is performed in a score of versions in Korea and Japan as well as in China, India, Sri Lanka, and Bali. Certain myths are dramatized in common as well. The story of the angel or nymph who flies down to earth and arouses the love of a mortal man is known in many parts of the world. It is dramatized in Southeast Asia (especially in Myanmar [Burma] and Thailand, as the play Manora), in Chinese opera, and in both Noh and Kabuki theatre in Japan (as Hagoromo [The Feather Robe]). The legend of the one-horned wizard who traps the dragon gods of rain and causes a searing drought originated in India and was later transmitted by the Chinese to Japan, where it is dramatized in Noh (Ikkaku sennin [“The One-Horned Wizard”]) and in Kabuki (Narukami [Saint Narukami and the God Fudō]).

The direction of artistic exchange was reversed in the 19th century. As part of Japanese national policy following the Meiji Restoration (1868), artists studied Western performing arts. In the early decades of the 20th century, Chinese and Korean actors, dancers, and playwrights studying in Japan took back to their countries Western theory and practice in ballet, modern dance, and theatre. Most influential was the Western dramatic theory of realism. It diametrically opposed the traditional intermingling of music and dance with drama, and it eschewed the stylization and symbolism that lay at the heart of East Asian performing arts for more than 2,000 years. A conflict between traditional and Western performing arts came into being that continues to the present.

As has been noted, dance and theatre are accompanied by music in all except the most unusual cases. Music may be instrumental or vocal. The music is especially composed for each Bunraku puppet play in Japan and for most dance plays and court dances. Fixed melodies accompany most folk performances. In Chinese opera and in Japanese Kabuki, melodies appropriate to scene, action, character, or mood being portrayed are selected from a standard musical repertoire of several hundred tunes. The knowledgeable spectator easily identifies scenes by the music that accompanies them (a similar system is found in Southeast Asian theatre). The close linking of music with dance and theatre can be seen in the Korean drum dance, in which the dancer also is a musician who plays the drum, and in a number of Japanese Kabuki and puppet plays that show characters expressing hidden feelings by playing a musical instrument. Equally important, the performer demonstrates to the audience his skill in yet another refined accomplishment.

The performing arts of India (see South Asian arts) are closely linked to sculpture and painting by the unusual phenomenon that bodily positions in all these arts are regulated by similar, indeed almost identical, codes. The code of hand gestures, for example, for the dancer and the actor set forth in the Natya-shastra (“Treatise on the Dramatic Arts”; dated variously from the 2nd century bce to the 4th century ce and later), a treatise on dramaturgy, is identical with that for Buddhist temple sculpture, or painting. Although these hand positions (mudrā) from India also are seen in Chinese, Korean, and Japanese statues of the Buddha, they were not adopted by East Asian performing artists (as they were by dancers and actors in Cambodia, Thailand, Myanmar, Java, and Bali).

MudrasEncyclopædia Britannica, Inc.

In three notable instances, however, the performing arts in China and in Japan can be seen to be closely related to the visual arts. During the Song dynasty (960–1279) in China, Northern and Southern schools of painting evolved that were totally different in style; the former used bold outline and brilliantly contrasting colours of deep green, blue, and gold, while the latter emphasized delicate, monochrome ink painting of misty landscapes. Northern and Southern schools of opera at the time reflected the same contrasting characteristics: the former dynamic, vigorous, and filled with action, the latter emphasizing wistful emotions and soft, gentle singing. Zen Buddhism was a common source of inspiration in the 15th and 16th centuries in Japan for Noh dance drama, for the tea ceremony, for ink painting, and for the art of rock-and-sand gardens. Spareness of form, discipline, and suggestion rather than explicit statement are Zen attributes found in these and other arts cultivated by the military ruling class (samurai) of the time. In 18th-century Japan, a lively and faddish urban culture produced both ukiyo-e wood-block prints and Kabuki. In fact, ukiyo-e artists, such as Tōshūsai Sharaku, established their fame by portraying famous Kabuki actors as their subjects. Eroticism, verve, brilliant colouring, and an intense interest in the passing moment characterize equally both Kabuki theatre and ukiyo-e visual art.

Although dances were often performed to sung poems and plays either were written in verse form or contained references to classic poems, the performing arts traditionally are seen as distinct from literature in East Asia. A century and a half passed in Kabuki before the first complete play script was preserved, and in China, where a tradition of written literature dates to 1400 bce, no play text was considered worth committing to paper until the late Song, about the 13th century. With few exceptions, playwrights have rarely been accorded the same status as writers of poetry, novels, or criticism. As a result, the performing arts in East Asia succeeded by and large in escaping the stultifying grip that literature came to hold on Indian Sanskrit drama and, some would say, still holds, at least in part, on drama in the West.

The general outlines of artistic borrowings among East Asian countries can be traced from historical records. But borrowing tells only half of the story. No matter how strong the initial outside influence, in time, assimilation of the foreign art took place. Older native performing traditions reasserted themselves, and new creativity altered the borrowed elements. This can be seen even in bugaku dances in Japan; although they are believed to preserve ancient Chinese and Korean forms to a very remarkable extent, native Japanese qualities are also present. Local styles predominate even more in the popular arts. Japanese Bunraku puppet plays and Kabuki theatre show almost no observable signs of foreign influence. In spite of certain general cultural similarities, then, the dance and theatre of China, Korea, or Japan exhibit definite local characteristics not shared by the arts of their neighbouring countries.

bugaku performanceBugaku, a court dance adapted to Japanese tastes from the dance and music of 8th-century China and Korea.G. Haasch/ZEFA

In China singing became highly developed, and the most important theatre performances are built around song (hence the term Chinese opera). Dance as a separate art has a weak tradition there and, at least in the 20th century, was tied very closely to the theatre. The shadow theatre, known from Morocco through Egypt and Greece and in India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, and Cambodia, is found in East Asia only in China. In Korea there are scores of court and folk dances and danced plays, but no sophisticated dramatic forms evolved until the 20th century. Masked dances especially are characteristic of Korea. In Japan, from an early tradition of imported pure dance and from folk dance, complex theatrical forms evolved that include dance drama, epic narrative performed as a puppet play, and dialogue dramas either accompanied by music or not.

The aesthetic principles that govern dance and theatre in East Asia are radically different from those of the West. Dancers in the West attempt to be free from the pull of the Earth, trying to leap and soar in the air. Dancers in China, Korea, or Japan stand firmly on the dance floor, often scarcely raising their feet in the air; they move in relatively slow and often geometric patterns. Arm and hand movements are important and varied, while in Western dance the hands are little used. Whether the dancer’s movement is dance or not, it is always stylized. Speech is stylized as well, whether it is dialogue or narration, chanted or sung. The intent may be to portray archetypes, human or mythological, especially in shadow and puppet theatre and in masked dances and plays. Form is emphasized, both for its ritual value and because audiences are trained to recognize the beauty implicit in form. There may be a purposeful contradiction between artistic ends and means: children were moved as human puppets in China, and adults acted before lighted screens to make a living shadow play; in Japan, puppets execute realistic daily actions, while live Kabuki actors refrain from duplicating daily life. The East Asian audience is prepared to respond in quick succession to a sequence of different stimuli—physical characterization, human speech, song, narrative commentary, visual composition, formal movement patterns—over long periods of time, for 8 hours in Noh or up to 12 hours in Kabuki. This differs from the West, where the spectator expects to be exposed to a clearly focused theatrical image for only two or three hours. The East Asian experience is more diverse, more extended, more conventional than the Western experience in the theatre.

A further important characteristic of dance and theatre in China, Korea, and Japan is that performing arts developed very largely within an oral tradition. By and large the performers themselves created the forms; only gradually did specialists in choreography, musical composition, or writing take their places in performing groups. Even after forms reached maturity, traditions of dance, acting, and music were passed on orally to the next generation. Play scripts came to be written in full only at a late date.

Social conditions

It is notable that, although some dance and theatre forms were highly regarded in China, Korea, and Japan, performers were usually looked down upon. Wandering performers especially were despised in the agrarian societies, where attachment to the land was valued and Confucian teaching, strong throughout East Asia, stressed veneration of one’s parents, which included tending their graves and making offerings for their welfare in the spirit world. The place of drama or of dance in these societies depended in part upon their audiences, whether they were court nobles, villagers, or town merchants.

Chinese emperors, Korean kings, and Japanese emperors and military rulers (shoguns) all supported performers at their courts. During the Tang dynasty, the 8th-century Chinese emperor Xuanzong (also called Minghuang) established schools in the palace city of Chang’an (Xi’an) for music, dancing, and acting. The latter school was called the Pear Garden (Liyuan); ever since, actors in China have been called “children of the pear garden” (liyuan zidi). More than a thousand young people from all ranks of society drew government salaries while studying and performing at lavish state banquets and for official ceremonies. Acting or dancing might be a permanent job (at least until old age made one less attractive) at the Chinese court, but in Korea performers at the court held other positions in the government and were mobilized from around the country only for rehearsal and performance. In Japan, dancers and musicians have been attached to the imperial household from the 7th century until the present time. First gigaku and then bugaku dances were official performing arts, while shrine dances (kagura) were also partly under imperial patronage. The military rulers of Japan incorporated into their retinues Noh actors and musicians beginning in the 15th century, and, in time, provincial lords also began to follow this practice.

Court support resulted in high artistic levels in all countries. Performers were relieved of financial problems and could devote themselves, often full-time through their entire lives, to their art. Audiences were educated and for the most part discerning. The importance attached to official performances undoubtedly spurred artists to extend themselves to their utmost. In time, however, such forms as Japanese Noh and bugaku and Chinese kunqu opera became so rarefied that they could be appreciated only by a small elite group.

At the Chinese and Korean courts, young female dancers were part of the ruler’s personal retinue (often his concubines); they were not allowed to mix with men of the court, so that some court arts were performed solely by men and others solely by women. This custom and the consequent artistic practice of male and female impersonation is also found in court theatre of Cambodia and Thailand. In Japan, women seldom performed at court, and the major dance and theatre forms were entirely the province of male performers. Since it was unusual for rulers or courtiers themselves to take part in performance (they often did in Java, Bali, and Thailand), the court artist was usually a middle-level civil servant.

Folk performers, on the other hand, are local villagers who, like the sandae masked dancers of Korea or the young women who perform festive ayakomai dances in Japan, are amateurs who do not live by their art. The midsummer Bon dance for spirits of the dead or early spring rice-planting dances in many areas of Japan or various auspicious dances held at the New Year in Korea and China were performed only once a year, and hence a high level of artistry was not usually achieved. Because many folk performances were held as part of religiously sanctioned rituals (Korean mask plays ensuring harvest, dances and dance plays of many varieties in Japan dedicated to local Shintō deities), performers achieved considerable status in the local community by their participation in these essential communal rites.

Performers of popular dance and theatre in East Asia live—as do commercial artists everywhere—by their ability to draw audiences who are willing to pay money for a seat in a public theatre. The shadow and puppet performers of China, jingxi actors and musicians, and Kabuki and Bunraku puppet performers in Japan are popular artists. Neither a part of village culture nor patronized by the court, they have always been held suspect by their rulers. Kabuki, in particular, was faced with repressive government action throughout most of its history. Popular theatre grew in importance in China and in Japan concurrently with the growth of large urban centres and a moneyed, mercantile economy, in the 17th–19th centuries. (An important urban popular theatre did not develop in Korea.) Today troupes perform nightly throughout the year, when it is possible, and consequently, in popular theatre, large repertories of standard plays are created (some 350 in Kabuki and more than 200 in Chinese opera). Popular theatre forms in China and Japan are intensely theatrical, though they lack literary qualities that would recommend them to the intelligentsia. Indeed, Kabuki in Japan and jingxi in China have had little official status until the mid-20th century in spite of their immense audience popularity and their obvious excellence as performing arts. Traveling troupes that perform shadow or puppet plays, do acrobatics and juggling, dance and sing, and perform versions of court or popular entertainments have long been a feature of Chinese and Korean village and provincial town life. Artistically the forms are related to folk performing arts; socially the performers are considered outcasts, wandering entertainers of no status who belong to the popular tradition of performing arts.

- James R. Brandon

East Asian music vis-à-vis that of other major cultures

East Asia can be viewed as one of the big four among the generally urban, literate cultural areas of the world. The other three are South Asia, the Middle East, and Europe. Around each of these major regional cultures one can find many satellite musical systems known as national forms. In most cases, the fundamental musical concepts of such national forms reflect the basic ideals of the cultural core. For example, the musics of Iran and Egypt are of one family, as are those of France and Sweden or of China and Japan. A possible fifth addition to the “big four” concept is the Southeast Asian musical culture characterized by the use of knobbed gongs. Its documents on music theory from the 18th to the 20th century combine South and East Asian concepts with indigenous insights. Its most distinctive aspects are its instrument types and resulting ensembles and forms.

Gini Gorlinski, associate editor of music and dance of Encyclopædia Britannica, discussing the differences between Chinese and Indonesian music.Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.

Using instrument type alone as a measure, it is sometimes possible to note cultural influences and mixtures of the major traditions in smaller units. For example, the physical structure and playing positions of various bowed instruments in mainland Southeast Asia can often mark clearly Chinese influence, as in Vietnam, or Muslim and Chinese forms in confluence, as in the various bowed lutes of courtly ensembles in Cambodia and Thailand. By the same token, the appearance of flat gongs in mainland Southeast Asia shows Chinese connections, while the knobbed gongs clearly stem from Southeast Asian culture proper.

Concepts of music

If one turns to distinctions in musical style, one of the first questions to arise is “What is music?” Two basic definitions will suffice for the present discussion. The first definition is cultural: a sonic event can be called music if the people who use it call it music, regardless of one’s own reaction to it. Similarly, certain events that sound musical to foreign ears are not music culturally if they are not accepted as such by native culture carriers. A good example of such a situation is found in the Middle East, where singing is never allowed in the mosque, though one may hear performances and even buy records of “readings” from the Qurʾān. Such cultural and functional problems of definition seldom arise in East Asian music, and a more neutral definition is appropriate. A sound event may be considered and studied as music if it combines the elements of pitch, rhythm, and loudness in such a way that they communicate emotionally, aesthetically, or functionally on the levels that either transcend or are unrelated to speech communication. Those who have been moved by a love song or a lament can well appreciate some of the implications of such a view of music. When listening to “exotic” music—i.e., that of a tradition outside one’s own background—it is important to remember that such transcendental values are at work for the alien listener as well as for listeners familiar with the particular musical language in use.

There are many kinds of music in the world, the three most common terms being folk, popular, and art music. Folk and popular music have their special indigenous and mixed forms in Asia (as in all the world today), but it is in the literate art traditions of Asia that historical and musical distinctions can be made most clearly. In the context of this discussion, art music is defined as a tradition having, to some degree, a conscious theoretical basis and a sense of repertoire that is played against the highest standards held by informed native listeners. The performer is often a professional, and there may be a known historical depth to the traditions. Thus, there may be art music in many nonliterate cultures such as that of the Australian Aborigines and that of the tribal courts of Africa. Here, however, the major concern is with one of the large urban, literate cultures and its three national variants. Before looking at these musical systems in detail, it is useful to compare the entire culture with those of the other major “big” three, South Asia, the Middle East, and Europe.

Theoretical systems

All four major literate cultures, in their ancient forms, laid a strong emphasis on the extramusical qualities of music. For example, the study of such concepts as the power of vibrations (in ancient Indian music theory) and the relationships between music and other elements in the universe (in Assyrian records as well as in the writings of medieval European scholars) can be matched in East Asia by the joint efforts of Chinese musicologists and astrologers to bring the music of the empire in tune with the universe.

In addition, all four cultures developed mathematically and acoustically based music theories. The pitches produced by dividing the length of a string were the basis of the three non-East Asian music theories. String acoustics were known in China as well, but East Asian writings use the overtones of end-blown bamboo tubes to illustrate their systems. It is fascinating that, whatever their origin, the Middle Eastern and South Asian theories produced highly variable tone systems while the two ends of the old continent (i.e., the West and China) generated 12 tones based on a cycle of pitches 5 tones apart (such as C to G to D in the West). This cycle of fifths produced 12 pitches that were mathematically correct, but the 13th pitch did not match the 1st pitch. In the West this so-called “Pythagorean comma” became bothersome as Western music oriented toward vertical sounds called harmony in which the distance between pitches in chords needed to be the same in every key. In the 17th century Western acousticians developed a formula that allowed them to bypass the “natural” tone system by making all pitches equidistant. The same formula was discovered by a Chinese mathematician and musicologist, Zhu Zaiyu, in the late 16th century; but such “well-tempered” tuning was not accepted in Chinese music practice until very recently, when Western music styles combined with indigenous traditions. This is one reason why Asian music sometimes sounds “out of tune” to Western ears.

The scientific base of music is reshaped by each culture into a system that meets its needs and tastes. There are differences in the sound, the instrumentation, and the forms of Western and Eastern music. However, if the wonder of such variants is to be fully appreciated, it must be understood that music is not in fact an international language. It consists of a whole series of equally logical but sometimes very different closed systems. The word closed is used to mean that the musical facets mesh perfectly within a given system, but they often may prove difficult or impossible to transfer to another system. In this light, a given passage of Chinese music when analyzed or judged with the logic of Beethoven is chaos, but Beethoven seems equally illogical when viewed in the context of Chinese, or for that matter Indian, music theory. Such intercultural clashes can be constructed between almost any of the larger systems. In this context, one can see that Chinese music is tonally more foreign to Middle Eastern or Indian music than to Western, though historically it had closer relations with the other two. There are, of course, many other musical concepts and styles that traveled over the Silk Road between China and other parts of Asia, which are treated in the article Chinese music.

Musical traits common to East Asian cultures

In these primary considerations a view of some general aesthetic traditions common to much of East Asian music is also requisite. The tonal vocabulary of 12 tones generated in a cycle of fifths is the first common factor. From this tonal vocabulary various scales of five to seven notes are chosen. As in the West, the total number of notes in an East Asian scale is often seven, but each scale tends to have what could be called a five-tone (pentatonic) core. The one scale in which no half steps appear (the so-called anhemitonic pentatonic) is common all over the world, although casual listeners often mistake it as being characteristically “Oriental.” A few moments spent listening to authentic East Asian recordings will reveal clearly that the five black notes on the piano do not represent all the sonic resources of Asian music. Indeed, there are a great variety of East Asian musics. Some are historically related and others are indigenous. Their three most common characteristics are linearity, transparency, and word orientation.

Linearity means an emphasis on melodic tension and release supported by or held in further tension by rhythmic devices. This line-and-rhythm orientation and lack of interest in Western-style harmony are, in fact, major distinctions between most of the world’s music and that of the West. In traditional East Asian music, as well as in most other non-Western traditions, all melodic instruments play the same basic melody. No one fills in the texture with chords. If harmonic texture is used, its function is to provide colour rather than to generate tension or release by chord progression. Heterophony (more than one version of the melody being heard at the same time) may occur to enrich the line. The sense of moving through a time continuum toward an ending, however, is basically developed through the tension produced during the wait for a pitch to resolve to a pitch of rest just one tone above or below. In Western single line (monophonic) music one feels this melodic tension when, for example, in the key of C major the note B or D resolves to C. A Westerner may feel an additional sense of harmonic accompaniment in such an example. While such harmonic orientation is not part of traditional East Asian listening and although the scales and pitches may be different in East and West, this basic principle of melodic tension is the same.

Transparency refers to the preference in East Asian music for chamber-music sound ideals; no matter how large an ensemble may be, the individual instruments are meant to be heard. This differs from the orchestral sound ideal, popular in 19th-century Western music, in which the intention is to merge the sounds of the individual instruments into one musical colour. A transparent texture is a logical choice for a tradition that wishes to emphasize lines; orchestral colour helps to merge various lines into single vertical sonic events called harmony.

Word orientation refers to the fact that until the 20th century there was little abstract instrumental music, such as a sonata or a concerto, in East Asia. A piece had either a text or a title that evoked an image, such as Moon Over the River or Spring Sea. Perhaps this relates to a general sensitivity to nature in East Asian culture as a whole. Whatever its source, it has produced many sonorous and pleasing results.

William P. Malm