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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

East Asian Cultural Exchange in Tiger and Dragon Paintings

In East Asian art, especially monochrome ink painting, it is no simple task to determine whether a work of art originated in China, Japan, or Korea. To some, the inability to pinpoint a painting’s origin may be frustrating, preventing as it does deeper reflection on the history behind it. At the same time, however, such works reveal the historical progression of cultural interaction and exchange; they function as evidence of the ways in which indigenous cultures incorporate foreign elements, out of which arise new and innovative forms alongside existing traditions. In pre-modern East Asia, many artistic traditions first originated or developed in China and dispersed to Korea and Japan, the latter two cultures adapting the sources to local practices. Moreover, painters in East Asia typically copied and adapted established styles as part of the broader repertoire of art production.

This practice of cultural exchange and adaptation is exemplified by a pair of tiger and dragon paintings in the Museum’s collection (12.123.1; 12.123.2). Walking tigers and dragons depicted with water were popular visual compositions across East Asia, and for this reason, the specific origins of the Met’s paintings remain an enigma. The visual pairing of tigers and dragons has a long history in East Asia, appearing in the first hexagram, 乾 (qian), from The Book of Changes, thought to have been written during the Zhou dynasty (1046–256 B.C.). Here, the clouds trail behind the dragon while the wind follows the tiger. According to the book, the two creatures are commonly associated with Daoism: the tiger represents “yin” and the dragon denotes “yang.”

Since this time, tigers and dragons have been interlinked with specific iconographic motifs and connotative meanings. During the Han dynasty (206 B.C.–220 A.D.), they became part of the Four Divine Animals that represent the cardinal directions along with philosophical doctrines such as the Five Elements and Daoism. Tigers were associated with “west” and the color white, dragons with “east” and the color blue. The pairing of a tiger and a dragon was also considered well balanced because they represent counterparts—tigers are from the real world and dragons from the imaginary. The two creatures have been closely related to Buddhism as well. A tiger was depicted in jataka tales with Buddhist figures such as Bukan, Kanzan, and Jittoku; the dragon translated from the Indian deity Naga, god of snakes, or the king cobra, when Buddhists scripts were brought to China from India. The strong religious associations of tiger and dragon motifs contributed to their popularity in the fine and decorative arts throughout China, Japan, and Korea.

In the Met’s pair of tiger and dragon paintings (12.123.1; 12.123.2), we see that the tiger has a humanlike facial expression and a distorted body, and its stripes are described with cursory brushwork. The facial expression looks Korean, while the exaggerated posture seems to be Japanese. The depiction of pine-tree leaves implies Korean features, whereas the rocks painted in light, watery ink are typically seen in Japanese ink paintings. Initially, these paintings were thought to be the work of the Song-dynasty artist Muqi (ca. 1210–after 1269). There was, however, the possibility that these hanging scrolls were either Chinese or Korean, with an additional theory proposed that they could be Japanese, as they incorporated features from all three cultures. Korean artworks began to flood into Japan during the sixteenth century, so it is plausible that Japanese artists integrated Korean styles with their own, which previously had been based on a blending of Chinese and traditional Japanese elements. It is suggestive that the tiger in the Met’s painting has a contour body line identical to that seen in a painting by Japanese artist Kano Tan’yū (1602–1674) in Nanzenji temple in Kyoto. The same tiger also appears in Tan’yū’s sketches (Tan’yū shukuzu), imitating old artworks drawn by Asian artists. Many East Asian artworks were produced based on a model, but by distinguishing some distinctive features between Chinese, Korean, and Japanese tiger paintings, we can trace the origins of certain stylistic techniques, iconographic motifs, and symbolic associations in this pair of paintings.

The hallmark of Chinese tiger paintings is the meticulous expression of the tiger’s black stripes. Fine brushwork details each strand of hair, giving it a fluffy, more realistic, three-dimensional appearance. By contrast, the stripes in Korean tiger paintings tend to be simple black ink lines. Korean tigers are rendered as more two-dimensional than Chinese tigers, flatness being a distinctive aspect of Korean paintings in general. Since tigers are not indigenous to Japan, Japanese artists depicted them from imagination, as brave and fierce spirits, which made portrayals of them highly desirable among high-ranking warriors, including shoguns. On the other hand, in China and Korea, the tiger was respected as the king of animals, and the dangers of encountering one were well understood. Accordingly, Chinese, Korean, and Japanese tigers tend to have different facial expressions and suggestions of temperaments. In Chinese paintings, they look very realistic and aggressive, while Korean artists portrayed them as playful but with violent tendencies. Japanese tigers can have any of these characteristics: sometimes they are imbued with powerful and belligerent qualities, sometimes portrayed with witty and adorable expressions. For example, two Japanese tiger paintings in the Met’s collection, one executed by Meisō (1986.171) and the other painted by the Hokusai School (38.106.4), reflect the tiger’s pugnacious character, while a costume for a Bugaku court dance (JP1906) depicts the tiger as a playful figure, almost akin to a house cat.

The rendering of background settings also reveal cultural differences. (The Met’s collection provides excellent opportunities to compare the traits of landscape elements in China [1973.120.9], Japan [1991.480.1,.2], and Korea [2008.55].) In tiger paintings, Chinese works are prone to have more painterly and intricate landscapes, whereas Korean works tend to have a less detailed backdrop, focusing more on the imagery of the tigers themselves. In Japanese tiger paintings, bamboo forests are the predominant setting, while Korean tigers frequently inhabit a mountainous terrain with pine trees. Bamboo trees functioned as one of the strategic elements in portraying wind, which symbolizes the emergence of God in East Asia. Japanese artists seem to have adhered to the initial Chinese models developed by Muqi (1986.345.1), whose works were highly influential and considered the fundamental standard, following the concept inscribed in his pair of tiger and dragon paintings: the rising dragon produces clouds and the roaring tiger causes the wind to blow vigorously (龍興而致雲、虎嘯而風烈). In contrast, China and Korea developed a new method of embellishing tiger and dragon paintings with magpies, monkeys, and sometimes oak trees, loading the paintings with auspicious symbolic iconography: oak trees with magpies are interpreted as “sharing happiness,” as “oak tree” in Chinese has the same pronunciation as 同 (meaning “equal” or “together”), while the magpie is believed to be a symbol of luck in China and is thought to be a harbinger of good news in Korea. From these iconographic representations, it is clear that tiger paintings evolved to act as an amulet to repel bad luck and evil spirits in China and Korea.

Globalization is not exclusive to modern society but is a long-standing tradition. Through interactive exchanges, people have enhanced cultural and intellectual assets. The paintings embodying diverse traits from different cultures are the fruit of this valuable heritage. They evoke for viewers the beauty and possibilities of inclusion and diversity, about which people sometimes forget.