Review of Ideas and Art in Asian Civilizations: India, China, and Japan by Kenneth R. Stunkel M.E. Sharpe

Ideas and Art in Asian Civilizations: India, China, and Japan. Kenneth R. Stunkel.  Armonk: M.E. Sharpe, 2012. ISBN: 9780765625403

This book is designed to serve as a general guide to the cultural history of India, China, and Japan. Following the introduction (pp. ix-xiii), the main part of the book has five sections. Section 1 discusses basic aspects of cultural expression that can be traced in all three countries to be discussed (pp. 1-12); section 2 is dedicated to India (pp. 13-82); section 3 to China (pp. 83-192); section 4 to Japan (pp. 193-259); and section 5 presents a summary (pp. 261-270). The book is completed by suggestions for further reading (pp. 271-288), a selection of related websites (pp. 289-291), and an index (pp. 293-304). Mainly showing works of art and architecture but also maps and diagrams, the work includes a great wealth of illustrations. As far as orthography is concerned, it is unfortunate that the author does not use diacritics on Sanskrit terms. Chinese terms are rendered in Wade-Giles with Pinyin being added in brackets behind. Chinese characters, however, are not included.

Stunkel’s book employs a new, refreshing approach, as he breaks up the concept of “East Asian history” being the basis of the academic subject of “East Asian Languages and Civilizations”, as well as of many introductory works, such as e.g. Charles Holcombe’s recent book A History of East Asia: From the Origins of Civilization to the Twenty-First Century (Cambridge: CUP, 2011). East Asian history, in that sense, is defined as the history of China, Korea, and Japan. The problem with this conception is that one of the most influential intellectual currents in China, Korea, and Japan is Buddhism. Hence Buddhism, coming from India, is a strong link requiring to see the intellectual history of East Asia also on the background of this Indian heritage. In discussing the ideas and art of India, China, and Japan, Stunkel has therefore defined a new approach showing connections which cannot be shown in introductory works based on the conception of East Asia.

The objective of Stunkel’s book is to “provide a concise account of core ideas in the three traditional literatures, supported by brief historical and social background and enlivened by works of art and architecture as they relate to those ideas” (p. ix). The author defines a fixed pattern of categories which he makes the basis for his discussions of  the cultures of India, China, and Japan: “The strategy … is to bring each civilization into focus by concentrating on … eight categories: historical overview, dominant social forms, beliefs about nature, ideas in select works of literature, formal traditions of thought, ideas in religion and myth, characteristic way of thinking, and ideals of beauty” (p. ix). Following this pattern, the sections on India, China, and Japan are divided into eight subsections, each of which discusses one of the categories with regard to the relevant country. As the vast scope of the book cannot  possibly be covered within one work, the author admits that he can only discuss the named categories by representing each with a selection of important issues: “Even more than for conventional histories, the problem for this book is judicious selection. A great deal is left out or compressed” (p. 1).

Speaking about the structure of the book, it catches the eye that the space dedicated to a given category, can greatly differ among the sections on India, China, and Japan. Certainly, it would not be possible to have every given category covered in the same length regarding each of the three countries. Imparities can reflect that a category may be of different importance in the different cultures. However, in some cases, how the author sets priorities deserves further analysis.  For example, it seems to this reviewer that in the China-section the category “Ideas in Literature” is fairly underrepresented. While in the Japan-section the category receives a coverage which introduces a variety of different important genres of literature; the coverage of the category in the China-section confines itself to the five canonical classics, and to the Shiji by Sima Qian. While the five canonical classics are indeed of fundamental importance to the history of ideas in China, it is a little disappointing to see that the Shiji is the only other work of Chinese literature covered. In the Chinese tradition, poetry was commonly described as the most noble form of literary expression. However Chinese poetry, which includes world famous authors such as Tao Yuanming (365-427) and Xie Lingyun (385-433), Li Bai (701-762) and Du Fu (712-770), is not represented with even one poet as an example. This is especially surprising, since in Chinese history ideas first expressed in poetry frequently also came to be reflected in art. One prominent example is Tao Yuanming, who through his poetry created the fashion of portraying oneself as a wise man living as a hermit. As shown in an article by Susan E. Nelson, the imagined hermitage of Tao Yuanming’s was frequently reflected in paintings.   Another example for a questionable selection of themes is found in the discussion of Daoism in the category “Traditions of Thought” of the China-section. Daoism is here represented by the Laozi, the Zhuangzi, and the “Neo-Taoists”. (The latter is a term which had been used in older sinology as a Western name for the Xuanxue. The Xuanxue was an early medieval philosophical school expressing its thought mainly through commentaries on works of classical antiquity. In modern research, the term “Neo-Taoism” is regarded as inappropriate, as the Xuanxue has commentaries not only on Daoist works, but also on Confucian works, such as the Lunyu.) To this reviewer it seems that much more important than the Xuanxue would have been some sort of representation of the wide range of religious Daoism, which includes the Tianshi dao, the Shangqing- and the Lingbao-schools, as well as the various schools of Quanzhen-Daoism. All of this is left completely unmentioned. In particular, as far as the reflection of ideas in the arts is concerned, religious Daoism is of great importance as its deities have been depicted in both sculpture and painting.

Even though the selection of themes is sometimes questionable, Stunkel’s book would serve as excellent reading material for a lecture course on the history of India, China, and Japan. Themes the author does cover are always portrayed in a profoundly reliable fashion, and the book is also written in an easily readable style. Freshman students could certainly extract much knowledge from it, and, for this purpose, the carefully chosen and annotated suggestions for further reading are also very helpful.

Reviewed by Thomas Julch, Ghent University
Edited by Andrae M. Marak

(c) 2013 The Middle Ground Journal, Number 7, Fall, 2013. See Submission Guidelines page for the journal’s not-for-profit educational open-access policy. [Originally published on the St. Scholastica website]