Animal Motifs in Asian Art: An Illustrated Guide to Their Meanings and Aesthetics

By Canham, Stephen | Marvels & Tales, July 1, 2005 | Go to article overview

Animal Motifs in Asian Art: An Illustrated Guide to Their Meanings and Aesthetics


Canham, Stephen, Marvels & Tales


Animal Motifs in Asian Art: An Illustrated Guide to Their Meanings and Aesthetics. By Katherine M. Ball. 1927. Mineola, NY: Dover, 2004. 286 pp., black and white illustrations, index, bibliography (pre-1927), pbk.

Few reference texts survive eighty years of shelf life, and in the world of Google scholaring and instant updating one may expect that even fewer will endure "intact" as originally published. This is precisely what makes Dover Publications decision to reissue verbatim Katherine Ball's 1927 Animal Motifs in Asian Art so intriguing. My first impulse was to write it off as a bit of Dover arcana, an outdated curiosity of interest perhaps to a few antiquarians but now superseded by "current" scholarship. Then, more or less on an Urashimo Taro whim, I looked up "The Tortoise" and learned much more than I had expected about the "shelly tribe."

Like the venerable Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology, Animal Motifs in Asian Art is meant for browsing, not to be devoured cover to cover. Arranged in an idiosyncratic biologic order beginning with "The Dragon" and ending with "The Dragon-Fly and Other Insects," the text contains chapters on creatures real and imaginary, from badgers to unicorns, and the chapters are clearly named. If you need help with foxes, you will find a chapter; waterfowl and serpents have their own chapters, as do lions, peacocks, fish, and bats, to name only a few of the thirty-eight species represented.

"Asia," as Ball used the term in 1927, refers primarily to China and Japan, with comparative cross-references to Hindu, Egyptian, Incan, Mayan, and Greek mythologies and iconography. South Asia, Southeast Asia, and Korea are not prominently featured. A pertinent literary or philosophical headnote and illustration opens and closes each chapter, and each begins with an overview of the placement of its "animal" in Asian art, followed by a survey of legends concerning the animal. Ball carefully references linguistic origins of key terms and concepts, ranging comfortably through Japanese, Sanskrit, and Chinese lexicons and history. One of the text's most valuable aspects is its copious illustrations (though the quality of the reproductions is not as high as todays production values might dictate), which Ball sometimes closely "reads" in terms of iconography. She is particularly good at identifying and placing specific thematic motifs and structural elements in the visual and sculptural images (though she does call such motifs and elements "decorative"). In this she anticipates the work of Irwin Panofsky and Edgar Wind later in the first half of the twentieth century.

Back to the tortoise, which will serve as a sample of the kinds of lore one will find in the chapters (incidentally, Ball correctly lists tortoises and turtles together under the genus Chelonia). In keeping with her belief that China was the origin for most Asian myths and legends (vii), Ball begins chapter 6 with an exploration of the historical veneration of the tortoise (kuei) and its place in Chinese cosmography. …

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