Monthly Archives: June 2015

Focus on art: Japanese aesthetics and design principles

Author:  Stephane D'Alu, via Wikipedia Commons 日本・京都の龍安寺石庭 Dry Garden in Ryoanji (Kyoto, Japan)

Author: Stephane D’Alu, via Wikipedia Commons
Dry Garden in Ryoanji (Kyoto, Japan)

Today’s blog post is taking us to Japan and to Japanese notions of aesthetics and beauty which are fundamentally different from western notions of beauty in art.
Unlike in the West, in Japan the concept of aesthetics is not seen as separate and divorced from daily life, but as an integral part of it. Japanese aesthetics has its roots in Shinto-Buddhism 神道 Shintō , with its emphasis on wholeness in nature and its celebration of nature and the landscape, as well as its emphasis on ethics, as well as Zen Buddhism and its philosophy. In Buddhism, everything is considered as either dissolving into ‘nothingness’ or the ‘void’ or evolving from it, whereby this void is, however, not a sort of ‘empty space’, but rather a space of potentiality from which things can grow and come into being and later return to it – everything is in transience and constant change.
Japanese concepts of aesthetics are based on the ancient ideals of wabi (transient and stark beauty), sabi (the beauty of aging and of natural patina) and Yūgen 幽玄 (subtlety and profound grace).
Wabi-sabi represents an aesthetic understanding based on the acceptance of transience and imperfection, an appreciation of the beauty of things which are imperfect, incomplete and impermanent. Things in decay or those in bud are evocative of wabi-sabi and are therefore appreciated. The concept of wabi-sabi is derived from the Buddhist teaching of the three marks of existence (三法印 sanbōin  ), which include impermanence (無常 mujō), emptiness or the absence of self ( ) and suffering ( ku ). This notion of an aesthetic based on imperfection stands in direct contrast and opposition to the western understanding of beauty and aesthetics based on the ancient Greek ideal of perfection. Moreover, Japanese aesthetic ideals have an ethical connotation, since the aesthetic concepts are not only found in nature, but are also evocative of virtues of human character and appropriateness of behaviour. It is therefore believed that the appreciation and practice of art can instil virtue and civility in people.
The concept of wabi-sabi evolved from two different but related concepts, those of wabi and sabi, whose meanings overlapped and converged over time until they unified into the new combined concept of wabi-sabi (わび・さび or侘・寂). Wabi わび originally referred to the experience of loneliness of living in nature remote from the rest of society, whereas sabi (寂) means ‘withered’, ’lean’ or ‘chill’. There is an interesting phonological and etymological connection to the Japanese word sabi (錆), meaning ‘to rust’. While the two Kanji characters as well as their meanings are different ( ‘rust’, sabi), the original spoken word, which is pre-kanji or yamato-kotoba, is believed to be one and the same.
In Japanese aesthetics, wabi now connotes a quality of rustic simplicity, of understated elegance, quietness and freshness, and can be applied to both natural and human-made objects. Wabi can also refer to the imperfect quality of any object, due to limitations in design and quirks and anomalies arising from the process of manufacture and construction which add uniqueness to the object, in particular also with respect to unpredictable or changing conditions of usage. Sabi refers to the beauty or serenity that comes with age, and to the limited life-span of any object whose impermanence is evidenced in visible repairs and in its patina and wear.
Wabi-sabi has come to be defined as ‘flawed beauty’ and its characteristics include asymmetry, simplicity, irregularity, asperity or roughness, austerity, intimacy, modesty and economy, as well as an appreciation of the integrity of processes and of natural objects. The concept also has connotations of solitude and desolation.
Some examples illustrating the concept of wabi-sabi are chips or cracks in an item of pottery, which make the object more interesting and confer a greater meditative value onto it, the colour of glazed items which changes over time, as well as materials like wood, fabric and paper which exhibit visible changes over time, but also natural phenomena like falling autumn leaves.

Author: via Wikipedia Commons

Author: via Wikipedia Commons, wabi-sabi bowl

A related design concept is the principle of miyabi ( ), which means ‘elegance’, ‘courtliness’ or ‘refinement’ and is sometimes translated as ‘heart-breaker’. It has its origins in the aristocratic ideals of the Heian era (平安時代 Heian jidai ), which prescribed the elimination of anything which was vulgar, unrefined, absurd, crude or rough and aimed for the polishing and refinement of manners and sentiments. Miyabi is closely connected to the notion of Mono-no-aware もののあわれ  ( 物の哀れ, lit. ‘the pity of things’), a bittersweet awareness of the transience of things.
Wabi-sabi can be achieved through the seven aesthetic principles derived from Zen philosophy:
Kanso (簡素) – simplicity; a clarity achieved through the omission of everything that is non-essential resulting in a plain, simple and natural manner
Fukinsei (不均整) – asymmetry or irregularity; the notion of controlling balance in a composition via irregularity and asymmetry. An example for this principle is the Ensō (円相 circle) in brush painting (sumi-e 墨絵 or suibokuga 水墨画 ), also known as the Zen circle, which is often painted as an incomplete and unfinished circle, symbolizing the imperfection that is part of existence, as well as the absolute, the void, enlightenment, elegance and the universe itself. Some artists practice painting an ensō daily as a meditative spiritual Zen exercise. One of the aims of fukinsei is that by leaving an item incomplete, the beholder is given the opportunity to participate in the creative act by supplying the missing symmetry.

Author: Kanjuro Shibata, via Wikipedia Commons Ensō (円相)

Author: Kanjuro Shibata, via Wikipedia Commons
Ensō (円相)

Shizen (自然 , lit. ‘nature’) – naturalness; an absence of pretense or artificiality. An example for this principle is the Japanese garden日本庭園 nihon teien, whose intentional design based on naturally occurring rhythms and patterns, is, though ‘of nature’, also distinct from it.
Yūgen (幽玄 , lit. ‘mystery’) – subtlety, profundity or suggestion; the term is derived from Chinese philosophical concepts and meant ‘dim’, ‘mysterious’ or ‘deep’ . Yūgen shows more by showing less and by limiting the information. The power of suggestion that visually implies more by not showing everything leaves things to the imagination, thereby enhancing their effect. Yūgen is the subtle profundity of things that is only vaguely suggested and is beyond what can be expressed in words, yet is of this world. Examples for yūgen are the subtle shades of bamboo on bamboo, to watch the sun set behind a mountain, to gaze after a ship that slowly disappears behind the horizon or to contemplate the flight of a flock of birds. Yūgen is a profound, mysterious sense of the beauty of nature and the sad beauty of human suffering.
Datsozoku (脱俗) – break or freedom from habit or routine, transcending the conventional. A feeling of surprise that arises from unexpected breaks in a pattern or a break from the ordinary. An interruptive break in a design.
Seijaku (静寂) – tranquillity, stillness, solitude or an energized calm, in which one can find the essence of creative energy. An example for seijaku is meditation or the feeling one may have in a Japanese garden.
Shibui (渋いadjective, lit.‘bitter tasting’)/shibumi (渋み noun) or shibusa (渋さ noun)– austerity, simple, subtle and unobtrusive beauty, beauty by understatement, elegant simplicity, minimalism. The term originally referred to a sour or astringent taste. Examples are objects which appear to be simple overall, but which include subtle details like textures, which balance simplicity with complexity, offering an appearance of which one does not tire but whose aesthetic value grows over time as one finds new meanings in its subtleties. Shibusa-objects circumscribe a fine line between contrasting aesthetic principles like restrained and spontaneous, or elegant and rough.


Another concept of Japanese aesthetics is the principle of iki ( いき, often written 粋), which has an etymological root meaning ‘pure’ or ‘unadulterated’ and a connotation of having an ‘appetite for life’, which is an expression of originality, simplicity, sophistication and spontaneity, and is emphemeral, straightforward, measured and unselfconscious. Iki can be expressed in the human appreciation of natural beauty or as a trait of human character or through artificial phenomena exhibiting human will or consciousness , but does not occur as such in nature. Iki is a broad term referring to qualities that are aesthetically pleasing, refinement with flair, or a tasteful manifestation of sensuality. The concept of iki is thought to have formed among the urban mercantile class (Chōnin 町人 townspeople) in Edo 江戸(lit. ‘bay entrance’ or ‘estuary’) in the Tokugawa period ((徳川時代 Tokugawa jidai 1603–1868).

Balinese: language and mythology (the world turtle Bedawang)

bedawang Today’s blog post is taking us to South East Asia, to the Indonesian island of Bali and its language, Basa Bali.  Balinese is an Austronesian language, like Indonesian, and is spoken by about 3 million people on the island of Bali and in parts of Indonesia like western Lombok and some villages in Sulawesi, where many Balinese anak Bali live. Virtually all people in Bali also speak Bahasa Indonesia, the national language, except for some old people. While the grammatical structures of Indonesian and Balinese are quite similar, the vocabulary of both languages is quite different. Balinese has many words of Sanskrit, Farsi, Tamil as well as Javanese, Dutch and Portuguese origin, reflecting the Hindu background of Balinese society. A particularity of Balinese is its two levels of social distinction, which each has its own set of parallel vocabulary and which reflect both the social status of the speaker as well as that of the person addressed. Biasa or common words are used by people of equal social status and they reflect informality and intimacy among the speakers. In contrast, halus or refined words reflect formality and distance among the speakers. There are, however, only a certain number of words that are different in both language levels, mainly those concerning human beings, while most words can be used for both levels. Topics that are considered very halus, like religion, always require the use of halus words. The Balinese are predominantly Hindus and the traditional Balinese social structure is therefore based on the Hindu caste system. However, ‘caste’ in Bali is not at all based on rigid distinctions and restrictions of occupations as in India, it merely reflects a notion of general social status, which in turn is reflected in the language. The 4 castes are:

Brahmana , the highest caste and those of priests (Brahmin in India), the name of members of this caste starts with Ida Bagus (m) or Ida Ayu (f);
ksatria the second caste and ruler and warrior caste (Kshatriya in India), the name of members of this caste starts with Anak Agung or Cokorda/Tjokorde Gde (m) or Tjokorde Istri (f);
wesia the third caste and that of merchants and officials (weysha in India), the name of members of this caste starts with I Gusti ;
and the sudra or rice farmers’ caste (shudra in India, the non-caste). Only about 7 % of the anak Bali belong to the triwangsa or the three higher castes, while the large majority, more than 90%, belong to the sudra caste.

Generally, people of a lower caste will ‘speak upward’ to a member of a higher caste, i.e. they will choose the more refined halus words. Likewise, a member of a higher caste will ‘speak down’ to a member of a lower class, that is, choose the common biasa words. So a farmer speaking to another farmer would use biasa words, and a member of a high caste speaking with another high class individual would use halus words. However, a farmer speaking with or referring to a member of the high class would use halus words.

Here is an example:

Biasa level: Dadi tawang adane? May I know your name? (Indonesian: Bisa saya tahun nama Anda?) Adan tiange…. Jerone nyen? My name is…. What’s yours? (Indonesian: Nama saya….. Anda siapa?)

Halus level: Dados uningin parabe? May I know your name? (Indonesian: Bisa saya tahun nama Anda?) Parab tiange….. Sira parab jerone? My name is…. What’s yours? (Indonesian: Nama saya…. Anda siapa?)

Biasa level: Ene poh. Luung sajan. (Indonesian: Ini mangga. Bagus sekali.) This is a mango. It is very good. Ene biu. (Indonesian: Ini pisang) This is a banana.

Halus level: Niki poh. Becik pisan. (Indonesian: Ini mangga. Bagus sekali.) This is a mango. It is very good. Niki pisang. (Indonesian: Ini pisang) This is a banana.

As you can see from the last example, there are often two different words for the same thing, like here the word for ‘banana’ which is biu on the biasa level, but pisang on the halus level of speech. The same thing is true for the expression ‘This is….’, which is ‘niki…..’ on the halus level, but ‘ene…’ on the biasa speech level.

Author: chensiyuan, wikipedia Commons

Author: chensiyuan, wikipedia Commons

Here are some words typical of Balinese culture:

Odalan temple festival (halus word only)

Pedanda Brahmana priest (pandit in India)

Meru wooden, pagoda-like building with grass roof, named after the holy Mount Meru in India

Naga mythological snake or dragon

Pura puseh temple for the divine ancestors

Pura dalem temple for the dead in the underworld

Another particularity of the Balinese is that people are named according to their order of birth in their family. The names are the same for both males and females, but as an indicator of gender the particle i is used for males and ni for females before the name. Here are the names for members of the farmer caste:

Wayan for the first-born of a family (I Wayan/ Ni Wayan)

Made for the second child

Nyoman for the third child Ketut for the fourth child

A further cultural peculiarity is that the anak Bali will always give directions according to the four directions of the compass instead of using ‘left’ and ‘right’.

North = kaja South = kelod West = kauh East = kangin (all biasa words)

This has interesting implications: While kaja generally means ‘inland, towards the mountains’ ‘in the direction of Gunung Agung‘, the highest and holy mountain of Bali (a prosperous direction), in Southern and Central Bali it therefore means ‘north’ but in Buleleng in Northern Bali it means ‘south’! The same goes for kelod, which means ‘towards the sea’ (a disastrous direction): in Southern and Central Bali it refers to the ‘south’, while in Buleleng in Northern Bali it means ‘north’!

Balinese also has an old indigenous script, the Carakan script:

the old Balinese script, the Carakan alphabet

the old Balinese script, the Carakan alphabet

Bali also has a very rich mythology. According to the Balinese creation myth, in the beginning of time, only the world snake Antaboga existed. During a meditation, Antaboga created Bedawang or Bedawang Nala, a giant turtle who carries the world on her back. Two snakes or dragons (naga) lie on Bedawang’s shell, as well as the Black Stone, which is the lid of the underworld. All other creations sprang from Bedawang. When Bedawang moves, there are earthquakes and volcanic eruptions on earth.
Bedawang = boiling water Nala = fuel
Bidawang means ‘turtle river’ in the Banjar language
The goddess Setesuyara and the god Batara Kala, the creator of light and earth, rule over the underworld. Above the world, there is first a layer of water, then a layer of moving sky, where Semara, the god of love lives. Above this floating sky there is the dark blue sky with the sun and the moon. Yet again above this sky, there is the scented sky full of fragrant flowers, the abode of the human-headed bird Tjak (Cak), of the snake Taksaka and of the Awan-snakes (falling stars). The ancestors live in a fiery sky, located above the scented sky. The abode of the gods forms the final and uppermost layer of the sky.
Etymology: a = not, Ananta = endless, never exhausted, boga = food
Anantaboga = endless food, food that never gets exhausted

A rather good online dictionary for Balinese:

Author: Tropenmuseum Amsterdam, Wikipedia Commons the turtle Bedawang Nala and the snake Ananthabhoga

Author: Tropenmuseum Amsterdam, Wikipedia Commons
the turtle Bedawang Nala and the snake Ananthabhoga

Author: Tropenmuseum, Wikipedia Commons Wayang figure representing Batara Kali

Author: Tropenmuseum, Wikipedia Commons
Wayang figure representing Batara Kali