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The Lure of Painted Poetry

The complex and subtle role of Chinese poetry in the aesthetics of Japanese and Korean art
July 26, 2016

Seunghye Sun Associate Curator of Japanese and Korean Art

Just as the Roman lyric poet Horace posited “as is painting, so is poetry” in Ars Poetica, the elites of East Asia have appreciated poetry and painting as closely related arts. The original concept of the fine arts in East Asia traces back to the Six Arts, referring to the basics of education in ancient Chinese Confucianism: ceremonies, music, archery, chariot driving, calligraphy, and mathematics. In the most ancient forms of fine art, poetry was fused with music and ritual performance. Painting, similarly, shared its origin with calligraphy—using the earliest pictographs of Chinese characters and the same brushwork process. Subsequently, the Three Perfections—painting, poetry, and calligraphy—emerged as the highest forms of creative expression throughout Asian cultures. 

The Japanese and Koreans used the Chinese language for official records and documents until the 19th century, even though each nation has its own alphabet—Japanese Kana and Korean Hangeul—and its own spoken language, both of which are different from Chinese. As a result, Chinese classic texts and themes not only defined an East Asian cultural zone that spanned national borders, but they also occupied a central position within Japanese and Korean arts and aesthetics, paralleling the influence of domestic classics. The educated class in each period in Japan and Korea employed Chinese as an international written language and regarded Chinese-style poetry as the most sophisticated liberal art until English took its place in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The Lure of Painted Poetry: Japanese and Korean Art explores how artists in Japan and Korea have transformed the cultural influence of China into unique masterpieces. Drawn almost entirely from the collection of the Cleveland Museum of Art, the exhibition includes painting, calligraphy, and decorative arts from Japan and Korea that embrace Chinese classical poems, called kanshi in Japanese and hansi in Korean, as an international culture code in East Asia. The masterpieces from the museum’s collection exemplify the visual image of classical Chinese poetry that Japanese and Korean elites learned and applied to their own arts, and thus provide a fascinating opportunity to understand the
phenomenon of cross-cultural merging in East Asia. 


Landscape c. 1414. Japan, Muromachi period. Hanging scroll; ink and color on silk; 102.8 x 54 cm. John L. Severance Fund 1985.111


What is the image of a poet in East Asian art? It is different from the idea the Greek philosopher Plato (427–347 bc) presented in The Republic that poetry is not ethical, philosophical, or pragmatic. Rather, the poet in East Asia was assumed to have the faithful spirit as described by Confucius (551–479 bc) when he compiled Shijing (Book of songs) in his Lun Yu (Analects): the aesthetic principle of poetry was siwuxie, or “having no unfaithful thoughts.”

The elites sought spiritual freedom through the ideal of hermitism. This meant keeping their distance from mundane activities, but it did not always require a lonely life in the mountains, separate from the world. It might aptly be called “armchair reclusion,” which allowed keeping the faithful spirit even during court responsibility or in the midst of city life. To celebrate this lifestyle, Japanese and Korean elites commissioned paintings of their elegant gatherings and added their own poems or companions’ inscriptions.

Confucianism affected artistic taste in Korea and Japan because it was accepted as the guiding principle for ruling the state as well as the educational system. Because poetry anthologies were published only by the elite class, for centuries only poets embraced by those elites were selected and published. The image of poet was established as a wise, faithful, and respectable intellectual. 


One of Eight Views of Xiao and Xiang Rivers

One of Eight Views of Xiao and Xiang Rivers 1788. Tani Buncho¯ (Japanese, 1763–1840). Section of a handscroll mounted as a hanging scroll; ink and color on paper; 29.5 x 49 cm. Andrew R. and Martha Holden Jennings Fund 1980.188.3


In order to express the spiritual faithfulness of poets, East Asian paintings portrayed them with a visual image corresponding to poems. Even though poets’ actual portraits did not survive, well-educated elites could identify the image of a poet with just a few motifs from his or her poems in both landscape and figure paintings: Xiao and Xiang Rivers, Gazing at a Waterfall, West Lake, Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove, or Four Elders of Mt. Shang, for example. Indeed, among the literati the ability to identify poems in a painting without any inscription was considered the highest level of poetry appreciation. 

Korean scholar-officials in the Joseon period liked to have artists paint their literati gatherings (gyehoedo) in the 16th century. On these paintings, the patron added his own poetic inscription to express the high spirituality of the gathering and record the names of participants.

In Japan, the Muromachi Zen clerics copied Chinese-style poems above an ink painting to make a hanging scroll called a shigajiku. Not only were the monks committed to Zen Buddhism, they were also used in diplomatic and cultural exchanges with China and Korea as leaders of culture. Thus their ink paintings often merged Chinese, Japanese, and Korean poems and images. 

Japanese and Korean elites appreciated Chinese landscapes through the imagery of poetry because most of them could not travel to China. In fact, incorporating Chinese poetic themes with idealized visions of Chinese landscapes expressed faithful spirituality in a way that simply painting a realistic landscape from their own mundane life could never have done. Essentially, painted poetry became the image of utopia in the minds of Japanese and Korean elites, whether or not those images looked like the “real” China.

While painted poetry is central to landscape and figure paintings, its presence in decorative arts is more subtle, as a selection of works in the exhibition attests. Yet understanding poetry helps us recognize the poetic themes present in other art forms. The more we know the poems, the more we enjoy interpreting the symbolic meanings of decorative motifs such as the chrysanthemum, lotus, crane, phoenix, grape, and plum. 


Dish with Chrysanthemums and Marigolds

Dish with Chrysanthemums and Marigolds 1700s. Japan, Edo period. Imari ware porcelain with underglaze blue and overglaze enamel and gold decoration; h. 3.2 cm, diam. 21.1 cm. Severance and Greta Millikin Collection 1964.265


Pitcher with Cover

Pitcher with Cover 1100s. Korea, Goryeo period. Celadon ware with inlaid white and black slip decoration; h. 21 cm. Gift of John L. Severance


Calligraphy, practically speaking, was simply a tool to transfer poems more clearly and directly to their audiences. In Korea, the elite class had to compose Chinese-style poems in order to pass the state examinations that were a prerequisite for social status. Thus, Chinese-style poems were more dominant than those pure Korean poems for official careers and social success. In daily life, however, Korean literati also enjoyed the Korean verse sijo and translated it into Chinese poetic styles for publishing in anthologies of poems and verses. The show features beautiful examples of both types. 

Throughout the long tradition of Confucianism, East Asian art has valued the expression of faithful spirituality through poems, calligraphy, paintings, and artisinal crafts. The elites of Japan and Korea enriched their own art and culture by incorporating spiritual and aesthetic aspirations from classical Chinese poems. The Confucian tradition of cultivating the inner mind through poetry, calligraphy, and painting is the key to understanding the common culture of East Asia, and stands as a model for cross-cultural appreciation today. 


Cleveland Art, March/April 2011