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Accomplished scholar integrates study of East Asian painting and literature

LIU XIAOFENG | 2020-07-15
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)
A painting depicting kentoushi (ambassadors dispatched to Tang) taking a Japanese mission ship to  learn its advanced technologies, social systems, philosophies and arts. Photo: FILE
Historically, Chinese culture has had a strong influence on its neighbors. Academia now refers to the area within ancient China’s cultural influence as the “Chinese character cultural sphere,” or “the East Asian cultural sphere,” which used to be one of the most culturally and economically dynamic regions across the globe. From a long-term perspective of cultural development, it is necessary to conduct research in the cultural history of the East Asian region. Furthermore, it is important for China to leverage its historical and cultural resources in the new era. 
 
I spoke to Japanese scholar Komine Kazuaki about the East Asian cultural sphere and its literature.
 
Liu Xiaofeng: Buddhist literature constitutes a big part of your recent research. What is the relation between East Asian Buddhism and literature? 
 
Komine Kazuaki: Speaking of Buddhist literature, Konjaku Monogatarishū (Anthology of Tales from the Past) is a collection of tales that begins with Buddha’s stories. The book starts with “what is Buddha” but moves on to explore “what is human.” Buddhist literature travelled from India to East Asia. Lately, apart from studying the traditional northward transmission route that stretched from the Western Regions along the Silk Road to China, Korea and Japan, academia has also begun to study the southward route of Buddhist transmission and the Buddhist literature of South Asia. 
 
The influence of Buddhist transmission is reflected not only in languages and textual references, but also in statuaries and paintings, such as the Dunhuang frescoes. Literature is an indispensable medium for the spread of Buddhist doctrines, thus it would be wrong to look at Buddhism and East Asian literature separately. Even the two characters of Buddhism (佛教) have changed from era to era and in different societies and places. Take the Lotus Sutra as another example, the Mahayana sutras utilize many literary skills, such as analogy and metaphor, so that followers may find it easier to chant the sutras. The sutras themselves are literary works. It would be impossible for me to study East Asian literature without combing the knowledge of Buddhism. 
  
L: How do you understand the comparative study of East Asian culture? What are some of the important topics in this field? 
 
K: Comparative study is a basic methodology for academic research. It means to compare B with A so as to have a better understanding of A. The mission of B is to be over once we figure out the features of A. It’s necessary to clarify why we need to make the comparison, instead of comparing just for the sake of comparing. For example, when studying Anthology of Tales from the Past, most studies so far have ended by concluding the features of the stories. However, when comparing the Japanese collection with ancient Chinese stories, one may be able to gain a deeper understanding of Chinese stories and their features. 
 
Since Japan entered modern society, both the nation and its people have begun to consciously look for themselves and build a sense of national identity. That’s why Japanese literature has seen Western literature as a rival. In the past, Japanese academia mainly focused on Japan alone, which was obviously insufficient in the current globalized world. Opinions are divided on this issue, which is the status quo of Japanese academia. But if you don’t understand the things that are happening to other countries and regions, you will fail to see the whole picture and the essence of many matters. For instance, scholars in the past had the tendency to identify newly discovered phenomena as “exclusive to Japan.” However, they may find otherwise if they look with a broader scholarly vision. 
 
Therefore, to better understand Japanese literature, one must also know the literature and culture of other countries. And that naturally involves the language issue. I overcame the problem by doing kanbun kundoku (explanatory reading of Chinese writing; it means to read classical literary Chinese using Japanese). The method allows me to decipher the literature of East Asia, where Chinese characters had been commonly used before the 19th century. People in the Chinese character cultural sphere are able to communicate through writing, though not speaking. That’s how scholars in the sphere participate in the studies of ancient classics of China, Korea, Vietnam and Ryukyu in seminars and reading clubs. My academic motto is, “Academic openness and the pooling of wisdom enable all to improve in tandem.” By putting our heads together, all the scholars can improve their academic achievements. 
 
As time goes by, countries within the cultural sphere have each produced non-Chinese characters to enrich their languages, such as the hiragana in Japanese, Hangul in Korean, and Chu Nom in Vietnamese. Simplified Chinese is also different from traditional Chinese characters. 
 
L: You have referred to a lot of pictorial materials during your research, why is that? 
 
K:  More scholars have begun to study pictures since the 1980s. Japanese literature and painting are closely related. Painted scrolls, picture books, frescos, paintings on folding screens… these are all art forms. It makes logical sense for  visual culture studies and culture and representation to have a surge in Japan, which goes along with the tradition of combining the study of literature and painting. For example, some stories in Uji Shūi Monogatari can also be found in the famous 12th century painted scrolls Ban Dainagon Ekotoba (The Tale of Great Minister Ban) and Shigisan-engi (Legend of Mount Shigi)
 
I started my early research by doing comparative studies of written materials and illustrated hand scrolls. I had been working at the National Institute of Japanese Literature from the late 80s to mid-90s, during which time I had the opportunity to investigate the Japanese picture scrolls that had gone overseas at art galleries in Europe and America. I saw many painted scrolls such as Nara ehon, or Otogi-zōshi (illustrated manuscripts produced between the Muromachi period and the beginning of the Edo period) overseas, which naturally influenced my research field. 
 
A painted scroll is intended to be viewed as it is rolled open. When you slowly roll out the scroll, the picture seems as if it is flowing right in front of your eyes. Together with dynamism comes the artistic conception behind the painting. The scroll simply draws you into the world inside. For some time, I had a mania for scroll art. Even when I visited New York, I’d spend most of my time studying the picture scrolls at the exhibition center of the public library. 
 
I have recently proposed the theory of “painting stories,” and I am considering publishing a book about it. When studying literature, we need to understand the paintings, and vice versa. Scroll art and picture books can be seen as concentrated reflections of literature and painting. That’s why the basic methodology of studying this subject should be to research both subjects at the same time, which is different from the research methods of art history. 
 
L: What else should be researched in East Asian literature? 
 
K: The journey of academic research has no end. Buddhist Xuanzang reincarnated seven times before he could bring home the scripture. How I wish I could be like him and carry on my research for many lives! 
 
At the moment, what Japan is lacking in its East Asia studies is research into the history of East Asian literature. China has done some studies in this field, and Korea has also done some comprehensive studies of literary history. Although Japan has held many academic activities for fields such as history, religion and art, nothing has been done for the study of the history of East Asian literature. In this sense, Japan has started its literature research later than others. 
 
To get started researching the history of East Asian literature, scholars need to concentrate on reading all types of classics of different eras and countries. Instead of starting with theoretical research, we must start with the fundamental research of textual materials. This requires us to do more field trips, communicate face to face with experts of various fields, and gather and digest local materials. 
 
For instance, Japanese people have relatively good knowledge of Chinese ancient classics. The Analects of Confucius and Journey to the West, for example, are widely known in Japan. But few could come up with any titles of Korean ancient classics, let alone those of Vietnam. There is still a long way to go before we can overcome the difficulties on our academic journey. All we can do is to start now, while waiting for our successors. Conducting research is like climbing a mountain. The mission will require the efforts of later generations. 
 
Liu Xiaofeng is a professor from the Department of History at Tsinghua University. 
 
​edited by MA YUHONG