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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780395763414
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date: 05/15/1997
Pages: 352
Product dimensions: 9.02(w) x 9.03(h) x 0.79(d)

About the Author

Jeff Yang is one of the most acclaimed young voices of Asian America. He is a columnist and featured contributor to the Village Voiceand the founder of A. Magazine, where he has served as editor and publisher since 1989. He lives in New York City.

Dina Gan is the features editor of A. Magazine.

Terry Hong is the contributing editor, of A. Magazine.

Read an Excerpt


Chapter One


Japan's Designer Plants: Bonsai and Ikebana

In nature, a tree can live for centuries and grow to hundreds of feet. Now, imagine that same tree spending its decades in a six-inch ceramic pot. This is the miracle of miniaturization known as bonsai, an art form that translates literally from the Japanese as "miniature tray landscape." Most historians place the origin of bonsai in the 15th century. Though associated with Japan, the technique of dwarfing potted trees is thought to have been brought there from China by a Buddhist monk. Still, whatever its origin, the art has been filtered through Japanese aesthetics, and in turn has acquired a mystical significance for its American admirers. "The art of bonsai lies not in what the plant is, but in what it suggests," says George Hull, author of the book Bonsai for America.

As an artistic concept, bonsai is focused on the recreation of an aspect of the natural landscape, carefully refined and scaled to miniature proportions; it is believed that by having such miniature versions of nature about one's dwelling, the bonsai owner brings peace and harmony to his or her physical and spiritual surroundings. Such is the paradox of bonsai: it is nature reduced, tamed, and controlled by man—a painstaking exercise in artificiality that is nevertheless meant to denote cosmic harmony.

Bonsai trees are difficult to care for, and—having been tamed and miniaturized—will turn brown and die with little notice. Those seeking a slightly less frustrating form of the Japanese agricultural aesthetic might turn to ikebana, the delicatearrangement of cut flowers and plants.

Ikebana evolved in 15th century Japan from the Chinese Buddhist ritual of the "flower offering," which migrated to Japan in the 7th century.

Derived from ikeru ("to keep alive") and hana ("flower"), ikebana came into its own as an art form in the latter part of the 15th century, establishing a style of composition from which all later schools of Japanese flower arrangement are derived.

Generally speaking, the art of ikebana consists of the arrangement of a set of branches or floral stems (known as the shushi) to create a harmonious and thought-provoking pattern. In the school of ikebana most commonly practiced today, there are three stems in the shushi, ordered by length: The longest is known as the shin, the stem of middle length is called the soe, and the last and shortest is called the hikae. While the placement of these three stems may seem random to the casual eye, in fact every bend, twist, and angle is carefully planned according to a blueprint known as the kakeizu. After the shushi are set in place, subordinate stems, blooms, and leaves (known as jushi) are often arranged around them, to lend color and fullness to the finished work.

In contrast to the vivid hubris sometimes displayed in Western flower arrangements, ikebana teaches the quiet (and humble) appreciation of time itself. A philosophy lesson in a vase, it seeks to cultivate a sensitivity to growth as an elastic continuum: It celebrates both the fading and the blossoming of the flower. In ikebana, a perfect leaf might be cut to resemble a torn one, so as to represent decay. A flower's bud might be considered more beautiful than one in full bloom, because ikebana finds within the bud "the energy of life's opening toward the future."

And this may be the reason for its time-tested popularity both in Japan and, more recently, throughout the world: ikebana offers sanctuary from the world of fast food and fax machines, showing that a rose is never just a rose—and that nothing lasts, or is lost, forever.

I LIKE IKEBANA

Ikebana was once taught to Japanese women as a necessary accomplishment, a critical step in "finishing." Upper-class women, that is—who could afford the requisite private master. As ikebana itself teaches us, however, times change: Now the art has been introduced throughout the world as something to be appreciated by both sexes, and as a skill that can be taught in classrooms, rather than solely through private tutorial. A disclaimer: This democratization hasn't made it easier to learn. Ikebana is, in fact, so monstrously elaborate that its rules are outlined (in excruciating detail) in a tome of 12 large volumes—an epic that has as yet gone untranslated into English. So:

1. Don't expect to be able to learn about ikebana in one handy, thumbnail lesson.

2. Take some time to ponder the essences of growth, change, death, and rebirth.

3. Now learn some fundamentals. Modern ikebana pieces fall into two general classifications, based on the type of container used to hold the work: Pieces which use shallow dishes are known as moribana, and pieces which use long, narrow vases are called nageire. Moribana give the illusion of plants springing forth from the soil; a spiked plate known as the kenzan is used to keep the shushi and jushi upright. Nageire, which are more obviously arrangements of cut flowers and branches, are held in place by twists and manipulations of the plant matter itself, or, if necessary, with supports made of cut branches. Once the type of container to be used is chosen, the next thing to do is to determine the flow of the piece. This depends on the orientation of the shin: A strong, upright shin indicates a "masculine" line; a shin that is angled produces a graceful, "feminine" line. (Any thoughts regarding the implicit sexism in all of this can be forwarded to Japan, circa 1400 A.D.)

4. Now that you're fluent in the basic terms, get thee to a library, enroll in a school, or best yet, find yourself a willing guru. This won't be easy, and mastering ikebana will take years. However, if you've truly absorbed the aforementioned essences (step 2), you'll have the patience required to learn, and learn well.—T.

Brush Painting

Long before Western artists were engaging in surrealism or abstract art, Chinese painters understood that the only way to represent the true beauty of an object, landscape, or person was to show its essence—to express its spirit. As a result, Chinese painting is in some ways the most liberating of disciplines; it is, in others, the most rigid, since its rules of stroke, shape, and composition have been established for eons.

Both painting and calligraphy have their roots before the beginning of recorded Chinese history. The Chinese were using brushes for both painting and calligraphy from as early as the 16th century B.C., as evidenced by surviving Neolithic pottery works, decorated with simple painted patterns. The Zhou dynasty (1000-200 B.C.) produced the first wall paintings and murals, examples of which have survived to today. By the Han dynasty (200 B.C.-200 A.D.) and onward, full-fledged brushwork was abundant, especially after the invention of paper in the 1st century.

THE "FOUR TREASURES"

According to Chinese tradition, these are the "four gems" of brush painting and calligraphy: Brush: Tradition has it that Meng Tian (d. 209 B.C.) invented the brush. The earliest calligraphic brush yet discovered dates back to the Warring States period (480-222 B.C.), but brushes were used as early as the 3rd century B.C. to apply designs on pottery. The two main types of brushes are hard-fur (jian hao) and soft-fur (rou hao), each of which also falls into two categories: dakai bi for writing large characters, and xiao kai bi for writing letters or documents. The brush is held vertically between the thumb and index finger, with the middle and ring finger used to guide the hand, and the fingers lightly closed. Calligraphers say that when the brush is held properly, one can place an egg in the hollow of one's hand. Ink and inkstone: Ink from the Far East has always been carbon-based. The invention of carbon-based ink is attributed to Cang Jie (697-597 B.C.); the first inkmaker to actually be documented is the calligrapher Wei Tan (179-253 A.D.). Chinese ink is a superior product, valued for its smoothness and balanced tone. It has a translucent quality, is waterproof, and does not fade with age. Calligraphy ink is prepared by rubbing the ink stick (usually a decorated ingot of solid ink) against a special inkstone, while adding water from a small dripper. Paper: Calligraphers once used both silk and paper, but paper eventually became preferred. Even today, the best paper is considered to be Xuan paper, produced in the city of Xuan in Anhui Province, where two families have handed down its secrets for centuries.—T.H.

Calligraphy

Throughout history, only three civilizations have produced true, original calligraphy—the Arabs, the Chinese, and Western European civilization. The most marked difference between these three was the historical social position of the calligrapher: In both the traditional Arab and Western societies, the calligrapher was always "in service," providing a skill for a patron, the Church, or a client. Only in Asia did the calligrapher emerge as a revered independent artist, whose work was honored as a discrete form of creative expression. Part of the reason for this may lie in the fact that, unlike Arabic script or the Western alphabet, Chinese characters are pictograms, rooted in images from nature rather than phonetically represented sounds; as a result, the Chinese written language is as much an art form as a tool for communication.

HISTORY AT THE TIP OF A BRUSH

Calligraphy in China

Before the art of calligraphy became widespread, characters were often etched into objects for decorative purposes; some of the oldest artifacts date back to 3000 B.C. when bones were inscribed with characters for the purposes of divination. As written language developed and the number of characters grew, Chinese writing became increasingly sophisticated. In the 3rd century B.C., when China was for the first time united under the Emperor (Qin Shi Huang Di (259-210 B.C.) existing writing systems were collated to create an all-encompassing 10,000 character script, allowing the proper recording of official data. By the 3rd century A.D., a simplified set of the character script had been devised, and the introduction of paper had led to a flourishing of calligraphic art. Later, a "running script" was developed, allowing a new case of brush movement and giving calligraphers greater creative freedom. Even today in China, calligraphy is still the most highly regarded of the "Three Perfections"—the others being poetry and brush painting.

Calligraphy in Korea

By the 7th century A.D., Chinese characters had become the official script of the Korean court, and remained so until the legendary King Sejong (reigned 1418-1450 A.D.) invented and instated hangul, a simple phonetic Korean alphabet. At first, Korean calligraphers and scholars wrote using a combination of Chinese characters and Korean hangul, and relied on Chinese stylistic models, changing their forms as Chinese calligraphers came in and out of fashion. Individual Korean styles did not begin to develop and become popularized until the 19th century; in the 20th century, one of the most important trends has been calligraphy using only hangul, representing the first time that Korean artisans have attempted to create a purely indigenous calligraphy.

Calligraphy in Japan

As with the majority of its artistic and expressive forms, Japan first came into contact with calligraphy and the Chinese writing system via Korea—most likely through Japan's invasion and occupation of Korea (307-567 A.D.). Calligraphy as an art form first emerged during the Nara period (710-974 A.D.), during which time a considerable number of Chinese monks, who were also accomplished calligraphers, came to Japan. The first important Japanese calligraphic practices focused on the copying of Buddhist sutras; not until the Heian dynasty (794-1185 A.D.) did Japanese calligraphy develop its own unique tradition.—T.H.

Daruma

Need some luck in your life? Consider purchasing a daruma. These black, red, and white roly-poly dolls with fearsomely painted faces and two wide eyes are traditionally used in Japan as charms, and while no one's saying they'll change your life, fortune and happiness have been staked on stupider things in the past.

The daruma is a direct descendant of the children's toy known as the okiagari koboshi (literally, "the little priest who stands up"). For those of you who know your playthings, the okiagari koboshi was the original Weeble: with its rounded, weighted bottom, it too wobbles but doesn't fall down. The okiagari koboshi was popular as a toy during the 16th century, but had at the time no luck-bringing or wish-fulfillment function.

The daruma in its present form dates to the Edo period (1600-1868), where it was believed to act as a charm to protect against the dreaded smallpox. It's meant to be a cute, goofy representation of Bodhidharma (died circa 532), pronounced in Japanese as "bodai daruma" or just "daruma," the Indian monk who is believed to have brought Buddhism, not to mention kung fu, to China. The daruma's rotund, limbless form is due to the fact that, after meditating in a cave for nine years, the monk lost the use of his arms and legs. (After nearly a decade of inactivity, you'd resemble a Weeble too.)

Today, daruma are wish-fulfillment charms used to ask the Bodhidharma for a successful harvest, a good test score, victory in an election, and so on—a custom which first developed in the silk-producing Kanto region, and is now common throughout Japan.

In Japan, the best selection of daruma is made available at special Darumaichi ("daruma fairs"), which usually happen between the end of the year and early spring, mostly in eastern Japan. The most prominent daruma manufacturers are still found in the Kanto region, clustered in Gumma Prefecture. For those who can't get to Japan every year to stock up, they're also widely available in Asian craft stores in the U.S. Get one, Or two. Be happy.—T.H.

Fans

Fans—the heat-busting, not the sports-watching variety—had their origin in China some 5.000 years ago. Of course, the requisite quaint legend exists surrounding the invention of the hand-held fan. Apparently, while the rather practical-minded daughter of a distinguished mandarin was celebrating the Lantern Festival, she felt suddenly faint from the heat, so she took off the mask she was wearing at the time and did the obvious—held it close to her face and moved it back and forth to create a slight breeze. The other court maidens saw her example and immediately began to relieve themselves in the same way. Is this truth or fiction? Believe what you want.

Stories aside, the original fans were made of leaves, bound grasses, or feathers (especially peacock plumage), fixed to a wood or bone handle; they were used to cool the face, encourage fires, and for various ceremonial purposes. Eventually, the technique of stretching silk and later, paper across a rigid wire frame to create a flat, paddle-shaped fan was developed, and screen fans largely replaced the bound-feather variety.

Chinese screen fans were first introduced to Japan during the Nara period (710-794 A.D.), where they were called uchiwa. Less than a century later, the Japanese improved on the Chinese original by inventing the folding fan, called the ogi—a pleated, decorated leaf of paper, mounted on a semicircular frame of thin, flat sticks. Folding-fan technology migrated back to China, where it was quickly adopted by the Chinese (with a certain amount of disgruntlement at having been outdone by their island cousins yet again); from there, in the 14th century, the fan traveled to Europe. By the 15th century, thanks to the efforts of peripatetic Portuguese traders, fans were ubiquitous, and European demand seemed limitless. To increase the efficiency of manufacture, fan parts were often imported from China and assembled domestically in Europe.

By the 17th and 18th centuries, France had become the leading manufacturing center of fans, which had became an essential part of the genteel wardrobe. They had become increasingly intricate, using materials that included vellum, fabric, and lace, and designs that featured printed, hand-colored, embroidered, and even lacquered decor. Fan handles were most often made of mother-of-pearl: folding-fan skeletons were constructed from ivory, mother-of-pearl, or fancy wood, and held in place with silk ribbons or thread.

Fashion dictated that a woman—that is, a lady—had to have a different fan for every outfit; a lady was never fully dressed without her fan, which served not just as a fashion statement, but also as a means for discreet flirtation. Entire books were written purporting to teach the "language of the fan," lest a knot-headed male not understand female signals of fannish desire. (To offer even greater flirting flexibility, ingenious craftsmen created "lorgnette fans" with built-in eyeglasses, and "domino fans" with carved-out eye-holes.)

By the 20th century, inventors had engineered mechanized fans that did a much better job of cooling, and the arrival of the air conditioner virtually ended the era of the fan-as-utilitarian-instrument. Bereft of its practical use, the popularity of the hand-held fan largely faded by the end of the 19th century. However, the fan retained its value as a flirtation device—and the continuing popularity of Southern epics like Gone with the Wind may someday lead to a revival of the demure, but naughty "social" fan. Certainly there are gentlemen (and not-so-gentle men) for whom a smoky, half-hidden look over a folded-paper half-moon might be an incomparable aphrodisiac. And with a more subtle use of her fannish wiles, might Scarlett not have gotten Rhett to give a damn?—T.H.

Eiko Ishioka

Eiko Ishioka is perhaps the most prominent Japanese graphic designer of the last decade. Multitalented and multifaceted, her works can be found in advertising, on stage, in video, on film, and around the world.

Ishioka was born in Japan on July 12, around 1939. Her father was a pioneering graphic designer, who became Eiko's first source of inspiration. He didn't, however, encourage this interest, advising her to 90 into a noncompetitive, "feminine" area of design, like making dolls or shoes. Ishioka didn't listen, going on to study graphic arts at the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music. Upon graduating in 1961, she went to work in the advertising division of Shiseido, Japan's oldest cosmetics company. Then, in 1970, Ishioka received international acclaim with her poster design for Japan's Expo '70, an event that showcased the nation's most noteworthy artistic and technological achievements. One year later, Ishioka began her legendary affiliation with Parco, a chain of Japanese department superstores. Ishioka singlehandedly created and maintained the company's public image through a series of groundbreaking posters that rarely had anything to do with the fashions available at Parco. Instead, Ishioka's work was about women, fashion, society, and sometimes about nothing in particular; these bold visual statements quickly established the company as one of Japan's major trend giants, especially among the all-important young consumer market.

In 1971, Ishioka became the first woman to be elected to the Tokyo Art Directors Club. One sour peer announced that it was her gender which made her newsworthy; had she been a man, her election would never have drawn media attention. He'd later have to eat his words: Ishioka was no novelty, and attention would follow her like bees to honey. In 1979, Ishioka designed the posters for Francis Ford Coppola's wrenching Apocalypse Now. Ishioka also designed the Japanese edition of Eleanor Coppola's book, Notes, which detailed the difficult making of Apocalypse Now. Then, in 1983, Ishioka wrote and designed the elegant book Eiko on Eiko—which, for the first time, introduced her genius to an international English-speaking audience. Despite their common work, Ishioka and Coppola did not meet face to face until 1984, when the director arrived in Japan to produce Paul Shrader's Mishima, for which Ishioka did the production set designs. The film won a Special Jury Prize at Cannes, and Eiko and Francis were off to a rich collaborative future. In 1985, Ishioka did the surreal sets for another Coppola work, Faerie Tale Theatre's video production of the story of Rip Van Winkle. Then came Dracula. While Ishioka's specific credit is that of costume designer, the ambiance of the film was largely of her creation. It was her costumes, inspired by everything from Australian frilled lizards to Buddhist figurines, that served as the production's visual core, so successful were her designs that they resulted in editorial spreads in Vogue, Harper's Bazaar, and Mirabella. Of course, there's far more to Ishioka than her work with Coppola. Other projects include the 1988 Tony Award-winning Broadway hit, M. Butterfly, by David Henry Hwang: the cover for Miles Davis's album Tutu, which won her a Grammy: and the Issey Miyake fashion show, which she transformed into a theater event that played for six packed performances. Rarely has an artist been successful in as many media as has Eiko: rarer still has an artist's work been so influential.—T.H.

Isamu Noguchi

Known at various times in his childhood as Sam Gilmour and Isamu Gilmour, the man who would become one of the great modern sculptors of our time settled on the name Isamu Noguchi as he embarked on his career as an artist.

He was born November 17, 1904, in Los Angeles, California, to Leonie Gilmour, a Bryn Mawr graduate and aspiring writer, and Yonejiro Noguchi, a Japanese poet who had arrived in the U.S. hoping to gain recognition for his works in English. In New York, seeking editorial and linguistic help, Noguchi met Gilmour. Dore Ashton, Noguchi's biographer, writes: "Their romance, which for Noguchi [Sr.] at least was particularly expedient, lasted long enough for Gilmour to become pregnant. By the time Isamu was born...his father had gone to London to impress the literary establishment...and had returned to Japan." Isamu's relationship with his father remained troubled throughout the older Noguchi's life.

After moving to Japan with his mother in 1906, Noguchi was sent back to America alone at the age 14 to attend the renowned arts school, Interlaken, in Indiana. When the school was closed for wartime use, the school's founder placed him with a Swedenborgian minister, who raised him until he reached college age. Noguchi entered Columbia University in 1922, intending to study medicine. With his mother's encouragement, however, he took a sculpture class at the Leonardo da Vinci Art School in New York, and in 1924 left Columbia to concentrate on art.

In 1927, Noguchi was awarded the Guggenheim Fellowship; he used the money to travel to Paris, where he assisted the great sculptor Brancusi. In 1930, after his one-man show in New York, Noguchi traveled to Beijing and studied brush painting with Chi Pai Shih. He then went to Japan, where—snubbed by his father, who asked him not to use the name Noguchi—he became interested in Zen gardens, and studied pottery with Jinmatsu Uno. The diversity of Noguchi's training and experience allowed him to dabble with incredible success in a wide range of artistic disciplines, from the design of furniture and interior objects, such as the "Akari" Japanese paper lanterns for which he is best known to the masses, to numerous exterior designs for plazas, gardens, and public spaces. Among his most acclaimed and prominent projects are the gardens for UNESCO headquarters, Paris (1958); the Billy Rose Sculpture Garden for the Israeli Museum in Jerusalem (1965); and the Horace E. Dodge Fountain and Philip A. Hart Plaza in Detroit (1979). He also designed the Sunken Garden for the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University (1964), and a playground for children near Tokyo (Kodomo no kuni, 1966), among many others.

In the last two decades of his life, Noguchi commuted between his studio in Shikoku, Japan and a converted warehouse in Queens, New York. The latter has been transformed into the Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum, and houses an extensive retrospective of his work; his studio in the town of Mure, Shikoku also maintains a garden and display of his works.

Noguchi died in December 30, 1988, but not before receiving a generous trove of honors—including the National Medal of Arts in 1987 and the Third Order of the Sacred Treasure from the Japanese government.

More lasting and important than any of these awards is the serene simplicity of the aesthetic that he brought to the eyes (and under the feet) of the masses. His assertion that sculpture must exist as an integral part of the surrounding environment has had an overwhelming influence on modern design philosophy, and the objects and spaces that he designed with this harmony in mind continue to uplift and enlighten their users today. —M.S.

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Guest More than 1 year ago
Recommended to anyone interested in a stepping stone into Asian culture. A little heavy on pop stuff (singers, movie stars), but the food section is a good complete reference for anyone into Asian cuisine (covers WHAT you're eating as well as HOW to eat it). Also includes lots of references for further reading and fun facts (such as the translations of Japanese car names).