On 8 February 2019, the National Museum of Scotland opened Exploring East Asia gallery— a significantly diverse space which demonstrates three major cultures in East Asia: China, Japan, and Korea.
As geographically close neighbours, China, Japan, and Korea modestly learn from each other and commonly share a cultural heritage as well as a progression of technological innovation stretching back over 2,000 years. Yet at the same time, each country still manages to hold uniquely distinct traditions.
The exhibition authentically embodies aesthetic inspiration from beginning to end. Visitors will immediately receive a warm greeting from Weituo when they enter into the gallery. As a protector figure in Chinese Buddhism, the sculpture of Weituo is often situated at the entrance gate of Chinese temples facing the main hall and pagoda, where his presence is said to guarantee calm and peace, and his hands meet in a gesture of respecting spiritual beings and believing in universal enlightenment.
One important focus amongst these three cultures is educated pursuit. The idea of living a scholarly and poetic life, being free from trivial cares, had a powerful appeal. A cultivated individual would practice calligraphy, Go (a board game of abstract strategy), poetry, and painting as refined pastimes. Through those inscriptions on oracle bones, one can track a shared writing system in the region, which underpinned government administration, scholarship, philosophy, and literature. Given the fact that the art of writing is a tangible expression of culture, the gallery invites visitors to try their hand at writing Chinese characters, to experience the origin of cultural foundations across East Asia. In Chinese culture, calligraphy can reflect the writer’s personality and integrity.
More often than not, the collections of arts in East Asia do not have practical utility but are simply for the purpose of pleasure and happiness. Some images can be regarded as metaphorical symbols— for instance, dragons symbolise strength and power, and since they live in the clouds, it is believed that their presence helps to bring rain; carp represents ‘good fortune’; while crane celebrates longevity. Some objects express best wishes, as advocated by the philosopher Confucius, jade has virtues of solidity and subtlety. Ruyi literally means ‘as desired’, is a curved decorative object made from jade, and would make a perfect gift to one’s beloved as a talisman.
Undoubtedly, this new gallery provides a unique perspective on the cultural development of East Asia. Usually, many people might have an impression that Eastern culture is mysterious and puzzling, but after visiting this gallery, one will figure out that Eastern culture is actually illuminated by every piece of art derived from daily routines: emotions, beliefs, the respect for nature, the discovery of truth, life pursuits. Together, all these vital elements underline the deep meaning beyond the culture, it is humanity.
Image: Peiyi Liu