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Moon Paintings of China and Japan

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Painting by Japanese ukiyo-e master Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (1839-1892).

Painting by Japanese ukiyo-e master Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (1839-1892).


The moon shining brightly in the night sky has been depicted by artists for many centuries in almost every country in the world. Its powerful, tranquil presence gives the viewer a reason to pause and relax for a couple of minutes, or to contemplate some spiritual or philosophical meaning.

The moon has a meaning of its own in Chinese and Japanese art. Ink brush moon paintings and ukiyo-e woodblock prints featuring the moon are familiar to almost everyone and automatically spring to mind when thinking about East Asian art. But are you aware of the meanings behind the moon itself or even the position of the moon in these paintings? If you're interested to learn more, please read on!

An ancient Chinese painting depicting two men observing the moon. Can you see the distance and the void between the two men and the moon?

An ancient Chinese painting depicting two men observing the moon. Can you see the distance and the void between the two men and the moon?

Chinese Moon Paintings

The moon has special significance to Chinese society. For thousands of years, the Chinese people have considered the moon to be the home of the the toad, the Moon Goddess Chang'e, and her companion, the Moon Rabbit. The moon and its solitude have been the subject of Chinese poetry and literature since ancient times.

It's only natural that the moon would be the subject of art in China. Over the centuries, paintings depicting scholars gazing at the moon, beautiful women illuminated by moonlight, the Chinese countryside on a clear night, and more have become familiar themes in Chinese art. Most are a familiar subject of Chinese shanshui (山水画/'shanshuihua') landscape paintings, while others have a spiritual connotation.

In Western art, the moon and landscape of the painting are usually painted in full detail. Sometimes paintings have an implied philosophical or spiritual meaning or connotation. In traditional Chinese art, the moon is usually depicted as distant and tiny while the rest of the painting is vast. A poem is often featured on the painting to explain its meaning. It's up to the viewer to use her/his imagination to imagine a big, beautiful full moon in the night sky.

The vastness of the painting is a characteristic of Chinese shanshui paintings. The people in the painting are often dwarfed by the immense landscape around them and the moon is often depicted to the left or right of the painting. The position of the moon enhances the sense of distance between the person and the moon. In the midst of the people, landscape, and moon is a vast void. This void is a place where the viewer can encounter the solace of the painting and join the people of the painting as they contemplate the moon's tranquility in their own thoughts.

"White plum in the moonlight" by Itō Jakuchū (1716-1800).

"White plum in the moonlight" by Itō Jakuchū (1716-1800).

Japanese Moon Paintings

Moon paintings are one of Japan's most famous genres of artwork. Japanese paintings depicting a massive moon obscured by willow branches or clouds have become famous all around the world.

In ancient Japanese mythology and in Shinto beliefs, there are three heavenly gods: The sun goddess Amaterasu, the storm god Susano-o, and the moon god Tsukuyomi. In ancient times, Tsukuyomi was the ruler of the night. The earth moved by lunar rhythms and the people of ancient Japan felt the power of Tsukuyomi in their everyday lives.

Paintings of a juxtaposed sun and moon can be found in many of the temples of ancient Japan. During the Asuka (538-710 AD) period, Buddhism came to Japan via China. With it came the popularity of Buddhist-inspired art, and the trend of painting the sun and moon together continued throughout the Asuka and Nara (710-794 AD) periods in Japan.

During the cultural renaissance of the Heian era (794-1185 AD), paintings of the moon exploded in popularity across Japan. It was during this time that the paintings of a gigantic moon behind blossoms that we all know today became popular. The moon and flowers or grass became a common motif on silk screens and bamboo blinds, scroll paintings, maki-e (蒔絵) lacquerware, and in Tang-style yamato-e (大和絵) landscape paintings, both of which became popular during this time. Also, moon-viewing parties started becoming popular during this time.

In the Kamakura era (1185-1333 AD), Buddhism - and Zen Buddhism in particular - flourished across Japan. Its influence was felt in art, literature, and poetry. One of the favorite topics of the era to write or draw was the moon.

Also during the Kamakura era, Noh drama and the Japanese rock garden (枯山水, or kare-sansui) rose in popularity. People would hold moon-viewing parties in their gardens or read poetry about the moon.

The moon represented the human heart in a state of lonely solitude, like the moon on a cold autumn night. Or it was portrayed as the brilliant bright orb in the night sky that it is.

Ukiyo-e print by Yoshitoshi from his "One Hundred Aspects of the Moon" series depicting cherry blossom petals falling on an actor playing the part of the Otokodate (a fictional "Japanese Robin Hood") Fukami Jikyu underneath the spring moonlight.

Ukiyo-e print by Yoshitoshi from his "One Hundred Aspects of the Moon" series depicting cherry blossom petals falling on an actor playing the part of the Otokodate (a fictional "Japanese Robin Hood") Fukami Jikyu underneath the spring moonlight.

The Ukiyo-e Moon

During the Edo period (1603-1868), ukiyo-e (浮世絵/"floating world pictures"), woodblock cuts exploded in popularity across Japan. Since these prints were mass-produced, they were available to the ordinary people and they became a type of entertainment to the Edo public. During the 1860s, the popularity of ukiyo-e caught on in the West. This led to the Japonisme influence on Western artists such as Vincent Van Gogh, Edgar Degas, and Claude Monet.

In the early 17th century, the artists Honami Kōetsu and Tawaraya Sotatsu formed the Rimpa (琳派) school. The Rimpa school (which was more of a movement than a school) mostly painted in the old Yamato-e style of rice paper and ink paintings, but with a highly abstract, decorative touch.

The Rimpa school was also known for its half-moons, which adorned many of their paintings. This half-moon became popular across Japan during the Edo period, and can be found in all kinds of arts and crafts from the Edo period, as well as on clothing.

Perhaps the most famous series with the ukiyo-e moon as a theme is Tsukioka Yoshitoshi's "One Hundred Aspects of the Moon" series. Published in 1885 when ukiyo-e was in decline, this was one of the last of the great series to be published. This series is a series of 100 characters from Chinese, Japanese, and Indian legends, as well as scenes from kabuki theater. Most are set underneath a full moon.

Throughout the Edo period, the moon remained a very popular subject for ukiyo-e art. Scenes of night life in places such as Edo (modern-day Tokyo) and Kyoto were hugely popular and prints depicting a gigantic moon (or 'ukiyo-e moon') floating over houses, temples, and Japanese landmarks were very common.

"Flight of Ducks" by Japanese painter Ohara Koson (1877-1945).

"Flight of Ducks" by Japanese painter Ohara Koson (1877-1945).

Moon Art in Modern Day China and Japan

At the end of the 19th century, the popularity of ukiyo-e in Japan waned as Japan opened up to the outside world and entered the Meiji period. During this time, Western-style art began to take hold in Japan and artists started to emerge who mastered the Impressionist and Modernist styles popular in Europe and the US. However, in the 20th century, ukiyo-e experienced two revivals and combined with Impressionism to form the Shin-hanga (新版画/"new prints") movement.

During the early 20th century, China also entered the era of modern Western painting. In 1949, the Communist Party of China completed its takeover of mainland China and from that point onward, Chinese art entered the period of "socialist realism".

Despite all these upheavals and shifts in art movements, the moon stayed as present as ever in Chinese and Japanese artwork. It remained in the realm of traditional art, and adapted to the modern styles of painting.

The animated moon also makes appearances in modern-day anime and manga. The moon behind swirling clouds or cherry blossom branches blowing can make a scene in an anime movie much more haunting or peaceful!

In Conclusion

In China and Japan, the moon is an object that has been painted for thousands of years, and will probably continue to be painted for many more years to come. Over the centuries those ancient moon paintings have provided tranquility, enlightenment, and entertainment to those who view them. As people in the West have discovered these paintings, they are now giving people all around the world a little something to relax by and have a moment of quiet contemplation.

Most importantly of all, they are a snapshot of a changing landscape in both countries. As urban landscapes have grown in both countries over the past century, the nighttime scenery provides a glimpse into the world that was and, sometimes, what a particular location was like for those living in modern-day Chinese and Japanese cities.

Thank you for your visit to this article and hopefully you understand the meaning of Asian moon paintings and moon art a little more! Please check in again as I'll try to make updates to this article as time permits.


truefaith7 (author) from USA on August 27, 2016:

You are very welcome and thanks for the feedback! It is most certainly an interesting topic!

Suzette Walker from Taos, NM on August 26, 2016:

What an interesting article. This is a subject of which I know nothing about, so this was quite enlightening for me. The photos are beautiful and the paintings exquisite. Thanks for sharing this with us.

truefaith7 (author) from USA on May 13, 2015:

Yes it is interesting how we perceive the moon differently in both sides of the globe, and how those differences manifest themselves in artwork on both sides. The constellations in the night sky are something else that are viewed differently in East and West (and countless other cultures in the world for that matter) and it's fascinating how the stars can have so many different meanings to so many different people. Enjoy learning more about the very fascinating world of Japanese art and if you've visited my hubs over the past several months, hope I can help provide some insights into this subject!

Tolovaj Publishing House from Ljubljana on December 22, 2014:

Isn't interesting how different we see the moon in the West and in the East? Like we don't share the same one! I only recently discovered Japanese art which highly influenced several important children illustrators. I see you have several pages in this area, so we'll probably meet soon:)


truefaith7 (author) from USA on June 08, 2012:

Thanks for the feedback Mike. Your celestial visions are amazing! I agree. Celestial images and moon paintings are always beautiful, and images of galaxies are just plain amazing.

Mike Marks on June 07, 2012:

I'm very interested in celestial images. I once rode a meditation wave of a wolf howling...aaauuu to the moon and receiving a silence mmmmmmm response... reminding me of duality's passion, the longing of one for the other, and the origin of OM... witness my visions at...

truefaith7 (author) from USA on May 16, 2012:

Thanks for the feedback, and I'm glad you enjoyed your visit! I am very honored to have you as a fan!:-D Asian paintings, arts, and crafts are very fascinating, and there's always something new to learn about them. I've been interested in Asian art since I was a kid and haven't lost the fascination! Good luck with learning Chinese brush painting! I've thought about taking the plunge and trying my hand at it myself, but finding the time is not very easy.:-S

Marilyn Alexander from Vancouver, Canada on May 16, 2012:

This is a beautiful hub, truefaith7! You have communicated to me some very interesting points about Asian and Japanese paintings. I am a beginner but an enthusiastic beginner with Chinese brush painting so I enjoyed this hub very much. I am off to read your other hubs now.

Voted up and awesome. You have a new fan!

truefaith7 (author) from USA on May 16, 2012:

Thank you so much for your feedback Vinaya. I'm very glad you enjoyed your visit and found the hub to be detailed and useful!

Vinaya Ghimire from Nepal on May 16, 2012:

I never have had opportunity to read about Chinese and Japanese paintings.

This hub is very rich with information and art analysis.

The paintings you have posted here are wonderful.