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Gibbon paintings in China, Japan, and Korea: Historical distribution, production rate and context


Geissmann, T (2008). Gibbon paintings in China, Japan, and Korea: Historical distribution, production rate and context. Gibbon Journal, 4:1-38.

Abstract

Gibbons (the small apes of the family Hylobatidae) occupied in the past and still occupy today an important niche in Chinese – and for some time also in Japanese and Korean – cultures. Their importance can be assessed in the frequent depiction of gibbons in the figurative arts. This is the first study to quantify the production of gibbon paintings in various periods of these countries’ history. A total of 818 gibbon paintings were surveyed. Results show that the earliest gibbon paintings are much older than suggested in some previous publications – both in China (pre-Song) and in Japan (pre- Momoyama). Moreover, because of the low sampling level of early Asian paintings, gibbon paintings as a genre in each of these countries may still have a much earlier origin than the date indicated by the earliest paintings found during this study. The genre originated in China and later spread to the neighbouring countries Japan and Korea, although artists had limited knowledge about the apes they painted because gibbons never naturally occurred in these countries. Chinese paintings depicted gibbons in a large number of functions and contexts, for instance as symbols of Daoist and Buddhist origin. In Japan, however, the genre was introduced by Zen (=Chan) monks, and the large majority of Japanese gibbon paintings depict the old Buddhist theme “Gibbons grasping for the reflection of the moon in the water”. Stylistically, however, Chinese and Japanese gibbon paintings quickly drifted apart. The theme “Gibbons grasping for the reflection of the moon in the water” is not depicted in Korean paintings, but the small sample of Korean gibbon paintings found during this study precludes generalizations. The production rate of gibbon paintings/time in China underwent marked, previously undocumented fluctuations. During the period from 1525 to 1900, gibbon paintings were continuously, but not frequently, being produced in China. To judge by the number of preserved gibbon paintings from that time, the genre was apparently more popular in Japan than in China. The most dramatic increase in the production rate of gibbon paintings occurred in China during the 20th century. Whereas gibbon paintings as a genre had almost completely been abandoned in Japan during that time, China experienced a previously undocumented and apparently unprecedented increase both in the number of painters that produced gibbon paintings, as well as in the high number of gibbon paintings that were produced by some specialists among these painters. Possible reasons for these fluctuations are discussed. Finally, this study documents changes in style and context of gibbon paintings that occurred in various historical periods and discusses their possible causes.

Gibbons (the small apes of the family Hylobatidae) occupied in the past and still occupy today an important niche in Chinese – and for some time also in Japanese and Korean – cultures. Their importance can be assessed in the frequent depiction of gibbons in the figurative arts. This is the first study to quantify the production of gibbon paintings in various periods of these countries’ history. A total of 818 gibbon paintings were surveyed. Results show that the earliest gibbon paintings are much older than suggested in some previous publications – both in China (pre-Song) and in Japan (pre- Momoyama). Moreover, because of the low sampling level of early Asian paintings, gibbon paintings as a genre in each of these countries may still have a much earlier origin than the date indicated by the earliest paintings found during this study. The genre originated in China and later spread to the neighbouring countries Japan and Korea, although artists had limited knowledge about the apes they painted because gibbons never naturally occurred in these countries. Chinese paintings depicted gibbons in a large number of functions and contexts, for instance as symbols of Daoist and Buddhist origin. In Japan, however, the genre was introduced by Zen (=Chan) monks, and the large majority of Japanese gibbon paintings depict the old Buddhist theme “Gibbons grasping for the reflection of the moon in the water”. Stylistically, however, Chinese and Japanese gibbon paintings quickly drifted apart. The theme “Gibbons grasping for the reflection of the moon in the water” is not depicted in Korean paintings, but the small sample of Korean gibbon paintings found during this study precludes generalizations. The production rate of gibbon paintings/time in China underwent marked, previously undocumented fluctuations. During the period from 1525 to 1900, gibbon paintings were continuously, but not frequently, being produced in China. To judge by the number of preserved gibbon paintings from that time, the genre was apparently more popular in Japan than in China. The most dramatic increase in the production rate of gibbon paintings occurred in China during the 20th century. Whereas gibbon paintings as a genre had almost completely been abandoned in Japan during that time, China experienced a previously undocumented and apparently unprecedented increase both in the number of painters that produced gibbon paintings, as well as in the high number of gibbon paintings that were produced by some specialists among these painters. Possible reasons for these fluctuations are discussed. Finally, this study documents changes in style and context of gibbon paintings that occurred in various historical periods and discusses their possible causes.

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Additional indexing

Item Type:Journal Article, not refereed, further contribution
Communities & Collections:07 Faculty of Science > Department of Anthropology
Dewey Decimal Classification:300 Social sciences, sociology & anthropology
Language:English
Date:May 2008
Deposited On:22 Aug 2008 14:11
Last Modified:05 Apr 2016 12:26
Publisher:Gibbon Conservation Alliance
ISSN:1661-707X
Official URL:http://www.gibbonconservation.org/
Related URLs:http://www.gibbonconservation.org/07_journal_engl.html (Publisher)
Permanent URL: http://doi.org/10.5167/uzh-3306

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