Sunday, October 30, 2011

Eastern Elegance And Eccentricity

It's no revelation to say that the cultures of the Far East (by Far East I mean China, Korea and Japan) differ quite markedly in many ways to European, and even Middle Eastern, cultures. I have become particularly intrigued by the Oriental sense of aesthetic - perhaps also because the aesthetic has a clear, external manifestation, whereas it's hard for me to be able to talk about how people actually think and what they believe. The Oriental view (and I am writing this as a layperson who hasn't studied this at all, but more from my observations and experiences whilst travelling here) emphasises a holistic harmony and balance, which we see, at the most basic level, with the complementary forces of yin and yang.

The ultimate expression of Far Eastern  esoteric harmony: the Japanese karesansui (dry landscape) garden, heavily influenced by Zen Buddhist principles. (The garden in the picture is at Ryoan-ji temple and is perhaps the most famous example of the style.)

This primacy of harmony is seen especially in the belief systems that arose in the region, most notably Confucianism, with its emphasis on duty to the family and nation and subservience of the individual to the community. This can lead to efficient societies where everyone is pulling in the same direction, but it comes at the cost of initiative, inventiveness and progress. Whilst in China speaking to a local, educated woman she complained about her country(men) saying that "we don't know to create." And this is a common refrain that I have heard in all three countries: people are very good at carrying out their set tasks, but if they are faced with a novel or unexpected situation then they are at a loss as to what to do. This inertia, a clinging to the status quo in defiance of all evidence to the contrary, explains why all three civilisations cut themselves off from the outside world in the Middle Ages, a move that profoundly altered the course of history: the Far East at the time was far richer and more advanced than Europe and had even started long voyages of exploration (Zheng He in 1421 reached east Africa), but by closing themselves off they stagnated and it wasn't until the mid 19th century that they were brought back into the wider world by force. The "Unequal Treaties" that resulted still rankle, especially in China.

The cultures of the Far East have also developed very different aesthetic tastes, in most senses of the word, to the West. The Eastern aspiration for harmony permeates their relationship with nature (whereas for most of its history the Western worldview was that God had created the world for mankind to which it should be subservient) and finds ultimate expression in their formal gardens where esoteric principles dictate the placing of every plant and stone so as to achieve the right balance. Grander gardens even have a number of pre-defined "views"  that may even be seasonally specific. Such categorisation of beauty feels odd to me but is common across Far Eastern cultures and can be found in Chengde"s 72 scenic spots, the 4 Beauties of China, or even the 152 national treasures of Japan. Traditional Eastern music is not harmonic like Western music and often sounds discordant to our ears (in China there is a TV channel devoted entirely to Beijing opera - I can only stand a minute of it before I have to switch over); a lot of emphasis is put on elegant presentation, especially of foods, which can result in a tendency to overpackage; and sweets and desserts are nowhere near as sweet as in the West and are usually more subtle and use a wider variety of ingredients, such as red beans, sweet potato and green tea. I may sound disparaging at times, but there is much to be admired. I particularly like the simplicity and elegance of many of their products: from unadorned, monochrome Jingdezhen porcelain, to practical utensils from Muji, and the spare stylishness of Uniqlo. These were born of the same artistic impulse that spawned haikus, Sun Tzu's famous proverbs and tea ceremonies, and that turned the mundane blossoming of cherry trees into a national holiday.

Sweet pea ice cream. Although it may sound like a ridiculous idea to us, it actually tastes pretty good (other ice-cream flavours that I have come to like in Asia: sweetcorn, red bean and green tea).

In Japan these aspects of Oriental thought are taken to their extreme. Although they may not come up with many completely novel ideas, they are masters at taking a concept or development and then running with it to an apotheosis. They may not have invented swords or iron-working, but medieval Japanese swordsmiths created perhaps the greatest swords ever made, capable of maintaining their edge for centuries and even able to cut through thick tree trunks. The science of optics and lens-making developed in Europe and didn't really start in Japan until World War II, not now it's rare to see a high-end SLR camera that is not Japanese. This perfectionism is not limited to high-end products. In Kyoto I visited the traditional crafts museum (a wonderful museum not just because it's free, but because they have resident craftsmen whom you can watch at work as they make intricate and beautiful objets d'art) where the same attention to detail was extended to even the most mundane objects: to make traditional boxwood combs the artisans dry individual pieces of wood for 17 years before they are worked.

For over a millennium Kyoto was the capital of Japan. It, and the surrounding Kansai region, are home to a treasure trove of temples, shrines, gardens and palaces where the expression of the Japanese aesthetic reaches its pinnacle. As the spiritual heartland of Japan it is only fitting that the Kansai region is home to some of its most important and awe-inspiring shrines and temples. The Todai-ji temple houses a giant, 15m-tall, bronze statue of Buddha, but the hall itself overshadows, both literally and figuratively, the big Bud. It is not only comfortably the largest wooden building in the world, but following a fire 300 years ago it was rebuilt, but 30% smaller than it was originally. A few kilometres down the road lies the Horyu-ji temple complex where several of the buildings date from the 7th century making them the oldest extant wooden buildings anywhere in the world. The craftsmanship to build such resistant and large wooden buildings is remarkable, but they also clearly demonstrate the inertia inherent in the system: although the two temples were built 1000 years apart the styles and methods used in their construction vary little, whereas over the same period of time in Europe building design underwent a multitude of evolutionary steps.

The awesome (in the truest sense of the word) Todai-ji temple. To get an idea of the size look out for the people standing at the entrance to the sanctum.

Japan seems to have the strange ability to be hyper-modern one minute, with its shinkansen and adoption of the latest useless, hi-tech gizmos (such as robotic pets, toilet seats that are not only heated but also play music, and mobile phone-drying boxes for when you accidentally drop yours down the toilet), and yet ossified and retrograde the next. Following the earthquake earlier this year the whole world's attention was focused on Fukushima. Building a nuclear power plant on a coast that is prone to tsunamis is not a great idea, but then there are other aspects to Japan's electricity sector that demonstrate how common sense often gets trumped by habit and short-term expediency. Japan, despite being a relatively small country in terms of size, has the odd distinction of having two separate electric systems, with different frequencies, running concurrently, one in the western half of the country and the other in the east. They're not easily compatible and transmission between the two halves of the country is very limited, so when the earthquake struck for months after Tokyo and the east were subject to power shortages and blackouts, whereas the west had surplus energy that could not be shared. The reason? when electricity first came to Japan over a century ago it was via companies that provided energy for light bulbs. One company in Tokyo bought a generator from the US whilst a company in Osaka bought a generator from Germany, both with different generation frequencies. As generating capacity increased the two halves of the country ended up with two varying standards and there hasn't been the will to solve the problem. Or you have electricity transmission itself. In the immediate postwar period reconstruction was key and distribution power cables in cities were strung up on pylons, rather than buried, as it was the cheapest, most efficient method. Nowadays, despite having the money to bury their cables, the vast majority are still aerial, not just blighting the urban landscape, but posing a serious danger, especially in the event of earthquakes when fallen, live cables can potentially kill people. Yet rather than fixing the problem the government periodically issues obfuscations and false justifications for not burying them, all because there is an extreme reluctance to change the way things are done.

A typical Japanese city alley: with colourful signs, extremely narrow, and a canopy of power cables that always reminds me of India.

Travelling in Japan is a fascinating experience as you feel the familiarity of a developed, affluent society, and yet at the same time there are a myriad little details and quirks that just seem odd, unexplainable and downright bizarre. I wonder if the feeling is mutual? I would love to get their impressions of what Europe is like and whether they think some of our habits and customs, that we think are perfectly rational and self-evident, are more than a little bit bonkers.

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