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  • Ars longa, vita brevis
  • Walter C. Clemens Jr.
Stephen Little and Virginia Moon, eds., Beyond the Line. The Art of Korean Writing. Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art and New York: Prestel, 2019.
John Henry Rice and Jeffrey S. Durham, Awaken: A Tibetan Buddhist Journey toward Enlightenment. Richmond: Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. Distributed by Yale University Press, 2019.
John Carpenter, ed., The Tale of Genji: A Japanese Classic Illuminated. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2019.
Forrest McGill, ed., The Rama Epic: Hero, Heroine, Ally, Foe. San Francisco: Asian Art Museum, 2016.

Each of these works illuminates the development of a civilization through its art and writing—both its calligraphy and great stories. This review travels across four civilizations that are quite distinct, even though they all share some common features, such as the influence of Buddhism. Each book under review illustrates the tensions that occur between a quest for material gain and spiritual enlightenment. A contemporary observer will also note that shared cultural values among some countries have done little to transcend tensions born of nationalism and power politics.

Each book tells us about a wide range of people and their ways of life. Each presents art and writing by top leaders, their consorts, diplomats and other officials, scholars, monks, artisans, workers, and even slaves. Each book tracks human culture from ancient times to the present. Each may provoke contemporary social scientists to step back and consider the broad context in which humans and their organizations evolve, contesting and sometimes cooperating with one another. Ars longa, vita brevis derives from a longer aphorism attributed to Hippocrates: "Life is short, and art long; the crisis fleeting; experience perilous, and decision difficult"—useful caveats for politicians, social scientists, and most everyone else. [End Page 163]

In a similar vein, readers of Asian Perspective may want to ruminate on a message in the Diamond Sutra found within a pagoda in Korea's North Cholla Province (Little and Moon, p. 159). Similar to Plato's flickering shadows on a cave wall, but more colorful, this Buddhist poem reads:

All conditioned phenomenaAre like a dream, an illusion, a bubble, a shadow,Like dew or a flash of lightning;Thus we shall perceive them.

Beyond the Line focuses on the past two thousand years, but its first image shows rubbings of spirited petroglyphs on a cliff near Ulsan. Dating from about 5,000 BCE, the glyphs depict whales, turtles, sharks, seals, tigers, hunting scenes, and man-made tools, as well as human and shamanistic figures. Their strong and joyous movements might remind a modern observer of Picasso and Matisse.

Korean calligraphy has reflected the changing face of politics and culture. For two millennia, Korean elites used ideographic Chinese characters to convey Korean words—a script known as hanja. This difficult-to-master practice was challenged by King Sejong of the Chosun dynasty who, in the mid-fifteenth century, commissioned scholars to develop a phonetic script geared to the structure and sounds of Korean speech—later called hangeul. Relatively easy to learn, the script enabled elite women and some commoners to become literate, but many officials and scholars distained a writing system easily accessible to all. Not until Christian missionaries began to establish elementary schools at the end of the nineteenth century did serious efforts to foster mass literacy using hangeul begin. The first newspaper published entirely in hangeul, entitled the Independent, appeared in 1896.

While foreign missionaries promoted hangeul, some anti-Japanese patriots used traditional hanja calligraphy to reassert Korean identity. For example, Ahn Junggeun, who assassinated the Japanese resident-general Ito Hirobumi in 1909, produced nearly two hundred fiercely nationalist hanja scrolls stamped by his inked handprint during the weeks before his execution (an example of which may be seen at Little and Moon, p. 330). After Japan annexed Korea in 1910, however, the occupiers labored to deracinate Korea and Nipponize its culture. The Japanese occupiers taught hangeul to peasants to facilitate control but discouraged hangeul among Korea's educated classes, whom they forced to use Japanese in documents and literary works. This was the milieu in which the [End Page 164] Society for the Study of the Korean Language...


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