ExEAS Teaching Unit

A Comparative Exercise in Art History of Asia
De-nin D. Lee
Department of Art
Bowdoin College

Select two slides (or alternatively, digital projections, color hard copies, etc.), of similar objects. Pairs that work well include two Neolithic ceramics from China and Japan, two statues of the Buddha from India and Japan, or two landscape paintings from different traditions. For example, two statues of the Buddha that work well for this exercise are the Gandharan Buddha from Vidya Dehejia’s Indian Art book (figure 49), coupled with the Horyuji Buddha in Sherman E. Lee’s A History of Far Eastern Art (figure 216). (See instructor resources for complete citations.)
The purpose of the exercise is to encourage students to develop their visual skills and to build their vocabulary for talking about art. Additionally, students may be encouraged to confront stereotypes about certain cultures in Asia and to distinguish the art objects produced by different cultures and at different times. When performed with a text and an image comparison, this exercise can be used to teach students about the differences between written and oral narratives.

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Ask students to respond to the following questions by comparing the two images:
  • Is one image or object more:
    • active/static?
    • splendid/reserved?
    • intimidating/accessible?
    • consistent/contradictory?
    • frightening/reassuring?
    • strident/harmonious?
    • heavy/light?
    • bold/subtle?
    • humanizing/alienating?
    • refined/coarse?
    • natural/artificial?
    • elaborate/simple?
    • multifaceted/uniform?
    • colorful/monochromatic?
  • What cultural/social/economic/material demands or constraints dictate the differences you detect?
  • Is it possible to generalize about a culture by looking closely at a single object produced and used in that culture?
  • What conclusions may be drawn?
  • Can you see or anticipate any problems in this method of learning about another culture?
  • How can we ensure that we conduct our investigation responsibly?

A variation to this exercise uses a text and an image for comparison, such as a chapter from Genji monogatari (The Tale of Genji) and a painted scene from Genji monogatari emaki (Tale of Genji scroll paintings). The text of the “Deer Jataka” and a painted mural from Dunhuang are two other good choices for this exercise.

Instructor Resources
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Dehejia, Vidya. Indian Art. Reprint, London: Phaidon, 2000. Figure 49.

Lee, Sherman E. A History of Far Eastern Art. 5 th Edition. New York, Prentice Hall, 2003. Figure 216.

Murasaki Shikibu. The Tale of Genji. Translated by Edward G. Seidensticker. New York:

Knopf, 1991. OR Murasaki Shikibu. The Tale of Genji. Translated by Royall Tyler. New York: Penguin Classics, 2003.

The Deer Jataka is available in many books, such as: Cowell, E.B., ed. “Ruru [Deer] Jutaka.” In The Jataka, Vol. IV. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981. Pages 161-66.

The collection of the Gotoh Museum in Tokyo (http://www.gotoh-museum.or.jp/collection/index.html) includes Tale of Genji scroll paintings. The Gotoh Musuem website is only in Japanese. To view the Genji scroll paintings, click on the link with the characters 源氏物語絵巻 below it.

For internet resources with information on the Dunhuang murals, see: