The Educational Value of Confucian Art

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Religions and philosophies have always had a great impact on architecture and art throughout history. Take for instance the impact that Christianity had on centuries of European religious architecture or the outpouring of of humanistic art in the Renaissance that followed the Middle Ages.

Chinese art is no exception, with Chinese philosophy having had a great impact on the creation of art works in several East Asian cultures. The works range from paintings to calligraphy passing through music, figurative art and even architecture (Check out a previous article of the Confucian Weekly Bulletin about Confucian architecture.)

The three main spiritual traditions or philosophies of China are traditionally regarded as harmonious but distinctive. Wild and evocative landscapes are typically Taoist in inspiration, depicting the individual as only a small part of the natural world. Buddhist teachings are expressed in artwork that can also serve as a meditation aid, for example, Tibetan mandalas.

Confucian art, by comparison, has been viewed as providing an ethical and educational function for society. “The earliest wall paintings referred to in ancient texts depicted benevolent emperors, sages, virtuous ministers, loyal generals, and their evil opposites as examples and warnings to the living”; while plant or animal forms were often employed as symbols – the orchid, for instance, represents “purity and loyalty”. [1]

Three Laughers at Tiger Ravine
Close up of the “Three Laughers at Tiger Ravine”, Kano Toshn Yoshinobu, late 18th Century. This Japanese artwork figures Confucius, Lao Tzu and Buddha meeting, symbolizing the harmony between the three philosophers and their teachings. Click here to read more about the Tiger Ravine allegory and the story behind the painting. Photo retrieved here.

Indeed, analogy is a potent educational tool often used in Confucian art. The aim of Confucian art is to embed in the artistic works the central Confucian principles of benevolent governance and moral codes. [2]

Six Gentlemen.jpg
Ink painting Six Gentlemen by Ni Zan (1301-1374), Yuan Dynasty (1206-1370). The six trees in this picture are the pine, cypress, camphor tree, Chinese scholar tree, phoebe and elm. This painting is a great example of analogy in Confucian art, the trees mentioned are in fact all Confucian symbols of moral integrity. Picture and description retrieved here. 




Badge with Bear
Badge with Bear for 5th Rank Military Official, China, Qing Dynasty, late 19th century. This military badge with a plant and animal motif reflects Confucianism and Taoism’s ties to the natural world order. Also, these colors are very desaturated, most likely to show that the individual should be of secondary importance to the great good, an important quality for a man of the army. This badge’s flowers are in a branching pattern, to show a path of least resistance toward natural harmony. Picture and description retrieved here. 
Calligraphy In Memory of My Nephew (partial) by Yan Zhenging (709-784), Tang Dynasty (618-907). Zhenging created this piece of work to commemorate his nephew who sacrificed his life for the country. It expresses strong patriotic feelings. Although only a sketch, the swiftness of the pen’s strokes is apparent, and the gradual deepening of the shade of ink complements the white spaces on the scroll in a way that expresses grief and sadness. Picture and description retrieved here. 


[2] Eva Kit Wah Man, 2015. Issues of Contemporary Art and Aesthetics in Chinese Context, Springer.

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