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Japanese Tiger and Dragon

Japanese ink painters of the 16th century studied Chinese examples. The tiger and dragon screens use the same combination of ink washes and brushstrokes as this 13th-century Chinese hanging scroll.

A six-panel folding screen could stand on its own, folded like an accordion.


key idea
Japanese ink painters in the 16th century borrowed ideas and art forms from China.

The ancient Taoist idea of yin and yang, and the symbolism of the tiger and dragon, came to Japan from China. The ideas had been absorbed into a form of Buddhism based on meditation, known as Chan in China and Zen in Japan. Zen appealed to the samurai warriors rising to power at the end of the 12th century. The simplicity and self-control of meditation was good training for the disciplined life of a warrior.

Warriors admired ink painting for similar reasons. It requires the simplest of materials, just ink, water, and paper. At the same time, it takes great control to use just one color—black, thinned to grays with water—to suggest a full range of tones, with just a few strokes. Once on the paper, a brushstroke cannot be changed.

Japanese painters of the 16th century modeled their style of ink painting on Chinese examples brought to Japan by Zen monks. They also adopted Chinese subjects. Many ink paintings feature Chinese landscapes, rather than Japanese scenes closer to home. The dragon and tiger theme pictured here was also borrowed from Chinese painting. No tigers lived in Japan, so the Chinese paintings were the Japanese artist’s main source of information about the animal.

Of course, art forms rarely transfer to another culture unchanged. Chinese ink paintings usually took the form of narrow hand scrolls or wall hangings. Japanese artists painted in those formats too, but they also often created similar scenes on much larger freestanding folding screens. The panels joined seamlessly at the folds to create a single, vast surface on which to paint. Such screens were well suited for the sparsely furnished rooms of typical Japanese buildings.

March 2005