Art and Design, Vol. 3, Issue 1, Mar  2020, Pages 40-52; DOI:

Ambiguous Culture behind the Living Space in East Asia

, Vol. 3, Issue 1, Mar  2020, Pages 40-52.


Yijia Xuan 1*

1 School of Literature, Nankai University, Tianjin, China

Received: 8 December 2019; Accepted: 7 January 2020; Published: 23 January 2020


In the process of modernization, the field of space design is affected by industrialization, which has the characteristics of duality, homogeneity and function supremacy. However, the author believes that space design needs to take into account both functional and spiritual needs. Therefore, this paper discusses the special space influenced by East Asian aesthetics and ambiguous culture, which is named ambiguous space. Compared with the ambiguous space in the living space of China, Japan and modern architectural space, it confirms the existence of the ambiguous space, and clarifies the guiding significance of culture and aesthetics to the design activities. In this paper, two kinds of ambiguities are combed out through the research, that is, the existing ambiguities and the boundary ambiguities. And detailed analysis of the causes and functions of the corresponding samples, in order to study the spiritual needs of people as the main form of space.


Ambiguous Culture, East Asian Aesthetics, Living Space

1. Introduction

1.1. The Definition of “Space of Ambiguity”

The term “space of ambiguity” in this paper is coined through the author’s combination of the concept of “gray space” proposed by the Japanese architect Kisyou Kurokawa and Japanese “culture of ambiguity”, aiming to portray spatial characteristics of ambiguity both in China and Japan under cultural influences. Different from other vocabulary depicting the spatial forms, functions and natures, “space of ambiguity” emphasizes the aesthetic consciousness and cultural background contained in it.

1.2. Value of Research

At present, architectural and space-related professional colleges and universities in Asia mostly carry out teaching activities based on the western architectural education system. But I think Asia is fundamentally different from the west in terms of aesthetic consciousness of space. Ignoring this difference and moving the spatial system of other cultures into China will result in the homogenization of today' s big cities.

In the process of modernization, China has been absorbing the advanced experience of developed countries. In the field of space design, the thought of duality, homogeneity and functional supremacy brought by industrialization has also deeply affected urban construction. With the development of the society, people' s demand for space has risen from meeting the basic functions in the early stage to a higher level, not only to meet the physiological needs, psychological needs cannot be ignored. Architecture should further develop its aesthetic value on the basis of material. The direction of further development, I think, should be based on different cultural backgrounds to explore a more diversified way of space construction that is different from the international style. Therefore, I think it is of great significance to study ambiguous space.

1.3. The Concept of “Culture of Ambiguity”

The 1994 Nobel Prize winner Kennzaburou Ooe made a speech at the awards ceremony, called I' m in ambiguous Japan. At that time, Japan experienced great changes of modernization and rapid economic development. The country was carrying the banner of " leaving Asia and joining Europe" , but its people were still deeply influenced by the traditional Asian culture. Such separation made Ooe feel that Japan was incompatible in the international community due to its " ambiguous" culture. The speech pointed out the embarrassing situation of Japan at that time, which made the " ambiguous culture" of Japan come into focus again.

Cultural ambiguity exists in every country and nation, which is different from the form and degree. In Japan, it is emphasized and even developed into a cultural brand [1]. Often are domestic scholars put forward this concept, it is because of the overall cultural differences, make people from different countries often arise when communication is difficult to understand the situation, generally speaking compared to the western democracy and freedom culture formed under the cultural characteristics of equality, direct, the east under the influence of Taoism, Oriental people pay more attention to grasp the boundary of things, giving others a vague impression that the whole is elusive.

1.3.1. Japanese “Culture of Ambiguity”

The “culture of ambiguity” in Japan is best demonstrated in its language: Japanese.[2] Being a secluded island nation with a singular nationality and stable farming lifestyle has enabled Japan to keep its people away from the crisis of survival. Japanese people do not need to express their intentions quickly through language. They are more inclined to a “tacit understanding” way of communication, using hesitating tones, expressions and even body movements to complete the transmission of information. Therefore, compared with peoples of other cultures, the Japanese are more unpredictable.

In addition to the language habits, such as ambiguous behavior is reflected in their language, art, space and so on various aspects. In The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, American anthropologist Ruth Benedict referred to western " sin culture" and said that this phenomenon originated from " shame culture" of Japan[3]. And Chinese social science scholars Zhaozhong Li believes that in this elusive ambiguity, hidden is the unique collectivity and unscrupulous aggressiveness of a single nation in an island country, that is to say as long as good for Japan' s development they can ignore everything else. That has created an elusive Japanese temperament.

1.3.2. Chinese “Culture of Ambiguity”

Compared with Japan, China also has its own cultural ambiguity. China’s 5,000-year history is a history of ethnic and cultural integration. In modern society while China is an independent " country" , but the Chinese people have a broader concept than the country, that is TianXia (the world), which is related to Chinas multi-ethnic and feudal system of dynasties since ancient times. In this development process, our culture is more inclusive than the closed independence of island countries. The concept of family, country and world in Chinese people' s mind seems to be closer to internationalism and humanism, so we tend to have ambiguous attitudes under the influence of harmony, " benevolence" and love both sides in interpersonal relations and ways of doing things. It is highly inclusive and develops an ambiguous culture of “seeking common ground while reserving differences.”

From this, it can be seen that although China and Japan belong to the same East Asian countries, there are still very obvious cultural differences between them. However, this difference is built on the background of the continuity of some cultures of the two countries. I think the exploration of Japan' s ambiguous culture and its influence on space can be a reference for the development of space forms with Chinese cultural characteristics to a certain extent.

1.3.3. The Source of “Culture of Ambiguity”

The civilizations of East Asia originated from the Yellow River where the natural conditions were relatively stable and helped our ancestors begin their farming life. For the sake of crop growth, the ancient Chinese summed up the laws of nature and accordingly produced Book of Changes and Bagua. They believe that there are two kinds of forces interacting with each other in the world and the two, instead of being separated, are in a unifying relationship. The dialectical thoughts about the integration of all things and mutual transformation have formed a kind of relativism in the East Asian culture. In this paper, space design will be used as a carrier to explore the influence of this culture on people' s construction activities.

1.4. The Concept of Gray Space

In the 1960s, when Modern metaphysical materialism flourished, Kisyou Kurokawa proposed the concept of gray space that describes the transitional space between the indoors and the outdoors (i.e., Figure 1) [4]. Due to the uncertainty of its function and nature, the changeable gray is described as “Rikyuu Iro” (i.e., Figure 2) which is put forward by Japanese tea master Sen Norikyuu.

Figure 1. Gray Space.

Figure 2. Rikyuu Iro.

1.5. The Background of Gray Space

At that time, the international community was in the " Mechanical Age" , an era of universality centered on the west. With the rapid development of science and technology, people believe that the world has ultimate truth, which can promote the progress of society and the future of mankind. This emphasis on science and technology elevates human reason to the top, while relegating the fields of art, religion, culture, and emotion and perception to secondary positions .But Kurokawa did not agree with this trend of thought. He believed that if space was decomposed according to functions, the existing diversified space would be eliminated and the essence of space would be lost. [5] In order to visualize and visualize as much as possible this vague and indefinite space feeling, Kurokawa proposed " gray space" .

2. Materials and Methods

This paper took sample analysis as its method of investigation. The samples are the traditional dwellings in China and Japan as well as the modern architecture created by East Asian architects which reflects the culture of ambiguity. The basis for sample selection will be explained below.

The space of ambiguity is similar to the gray space. Before the concept was put forward, this space form has already been applied to buildings around the world. In order to confirm the existence of the space of ambiguity, the selected samples are mainly traditional architecture.

East Asians believe that the house culture is the condensation of ethics and the culture of people and architecture [6]. Therefore, the construction techniques and completion of East Asian dwellings have been greatly developed, fully embodying people' s aesthetic interest and spiritual pursuit. In addition, observing the layout of traditional cities(i.e., Figure 3), we can also find that East Asia is bounded by the walls of " the Imperial Palace" , and the residential buildings spread to the surrounding areas in the form of villages [7]. This kind of urban texture has formed the consciousness of East Asian people' s division between private and public space. On account of these two points, when studying the space of ambiguity in East Asia, the selection of spatial samples is concentrated on the traditional residential area.

Figure 3. Layout of traditional East Asian cities.

Finally, this paper selects two cases of modern architecture to illustrate the culture of ambiguity and the inheritance of East Asian aesthetics as well as the forms and values of expression in modern design.

3. Results and Discussion

In this paper, the study of ambiguity is mainly divided into two aspects: the first is the ambiguity of existence, that is, the ambiguity between “existence” and “nonexistence” caused by aesthetic consciousness in the process of space formation; the second is the ambiguity of boundary, that is, the unique spatial feelings caused by cultural background in the process of space use.

3.1. Ambiguity of Existence

The study of space has been clearly recorded from the Spring and Autumn Period of China. “With the empty part inside the four walls of the doors and windows, the function of the house can be achieved [8]” written by Lao Zi in Tao Te Ching. It means that it is the " void" enclosed by the top of the wall and the ground that embodies its significance as a " space" . This thought also embodies the essence of the transformation of Yin and Yang in Book of Changes. Therefore, in the culture of ambiguity, one important point is the ambiguity of the existence of things.

3.1.1. Sample of Traditional Chinese Houses: Tings (Pavilions)

Chinese classical gardens pay attention to " touring the mountains and playing with the water" . Pavilions (i.e., Figure 4) provide a place for sightseeing. Tings are mostly built on the mountains or by the water. Appreciating the moon and flowers as well as drinking tea among the pavilions are the experiences of genteel life.

The building is generally an internal space entity separated from the external environment. However, a Ting is an open room with a half wall or a half column. Although there is a building volume, it is difficult to define it accurately (i.e., Figure 5). From a distance, the Ting has a top, but it does not block the view of sight and even become a part of the garden scenery itself; from a close point of view, the sight height is lower than the top, and the Tings seem to disappear in the surrounding environment. It is this kind of specious space formed by pillars that can best reflect the aesthetics of East Asia. The column is the entity, but what actually forms the space is the " empty" formed by the columns encircling. A Ting is the ambiguous overlapping of the two states of existence and nonexistence.

picture 5

Figure 4. Ting (Pavilions).

Figure 5. The difference between Architecture and Pavilion.

3.1.2. Sample of Traditional Japanese Residential Buildings: Energy Architecture

Compared with the courtyard houses formed under the convention of big families in China, the house volume in Japan is smaller. Moreover, the buildings are mostly independent, which is called " Energy Architecture" by the Japanese architect Masayuki Kurokawa [9]. He exemplified that when people are looking for a place to live in the wilderness, a stone or a tree may bring them a sense of security, which is the function of " energy" (i.e., Figure 6) emitted by objects. The prototype of the beam-column structure in East Asia comes from trees, which is not closed to resist the outside world, but to distinguish the private and open mindset by the surrounding environment of " energy" emitted by columns.(i.e., Figure 7) There are almost no walls in the interior of Japanese houses which are only divided by movable paper doors. If necessary, they can be disassembled to form a complete and transparent room, and the large opening to the outside is reserved, which blurs the existence of the building.




Figure 6. " Energy" emitted by objects.

Figure 7. The image of Energy Architecture.

3.2. Ambiguity of Boundary

Architecture is the internal entity space separated from the natural environment. People' s cognition of the real objective existence mainly depends on the boundary and difference between it and the surrounding environment. It is easy for people to feel fuzzy and unclear because of the ambiguities of boundaries and the homogeneity between the inside and outside.

3.2.1. Traditional Chinese Dwellings

In ancient China, the boundary between wooden architecture and wooden furniture is very vague which can be divided into timber structure and joinery work. The spatial division mode also has similar characteristics: nature is the big environment; interior is the small environment, while the state, city and courtyard are all medium environments (i.e., Figure 8). Our understanding of security and privacy is also formed under this progressive space volume. There is no clear demarcation line between each environment, so China' s residential space is a building to protect the soul.


Figure 8. The spatial division mode.

i. Chinese Garden

Traditional Chinese folk houses developed to the Southern and Northern Dynasties, with halls and cloisters in the houses. Later, with the rise of literati and the development of commodity economy, the combination of residence and garden has become very common.

Chinese garden’s actual use value is far lower than the pursuit of spiritual interest, is the concentrated embodiment of space aesthetics. Many ancient Chinese gardens had walls, but they did not completely separate the inner and outer space. As long as there was a little view of the neighboring garden, it could never be cut off. So the boundary of this garden is very ambiguous.

ii. Wu (Verandas) and Lang (Corridors)

A Wu is a corridor under the eaves of the hall with one side as the external wall of the building and the other side connected to the outdoor, supported by columns, and shares a roof with the building(i.e., Figure 9). It is a transitional environment between the indoor and the outdoor, which provides a semi-open social space with a suitable environment for people in everyday life.

There are many kinds of Langs, under which there are eaves on the foundation, forming a view road from the interior to the landscape (i.e., Figure 10). Compared with a Wu, the Lang is a further extension from the indoor to the outdoor.



Figure 9. Wu.

Figure 10. Lang.

iii. Verandas with Ornamental Perforated Windows

In Chinese classical gardens, there are inner and outer walls. The inner walls are used to organize scenery and divide space. Small windows are often opened on the walls. The small windows can take into account both lighting and ventilation, adjust the small environment climate and play a role in eliminating the sense of seclusion when it is used in a place with relatively close sight distance. In ancient times, the garden emphasizes twists and turns, changing scenery step by step. Therefore, the sightline and route should be kept away from direct entries. In order to save area, the interior walls and corridors are combined, extending the viewing route and constructing the effect of " garden in the garden, scenery in the scenery" .

3.2.2. Traditional Japanese Dwellings

Japan has a word from the tea ceremony " i chi go i chi e" , originally refers to the tea ceremony master heart with a rare mood, sincere tea for visitors to the spirit. Japanese people believe that meeting people may only happen once in a lifetime, so treat others in the best way. Masayuki Kurokawa summarized this sense of beauty as " micro" , that is, a moment contains eternity. Unlike the western view of linear time, Japan' s " phase I" is the moment that overlaps the future and the past (i.e., Figure 11). This kind of thought also affected the space design, so the boundary that delimits a space becomes ambiguous.

Figure 11. Two kinds of time comparison.

i. Tsuboniwa

Tsuboniwa is a kind of unique courtyard form in Japan, which usually covers an area of no more than 3.5 m2, mostly found in Machiya, Kyoto. This kind of building is narrow and long in length. Each household shares the middle wall structure, which is not conducive to lighting and ventilation. The wood structure is easy to be corroded and damaged, and people' s life experience is poor. Therefore, Tsuboniwa was born, covering a very small area, bringing sunshine and fresh air to the interior of the house. Tsuboniwa is the exterior of a building, which weakens the boundary and provides public communication space for people' s family members.

ii. Engawa

When Kisyou Kurokawa proposed “grey space”, he used Engawa to represent the part between the indoor and the outdoor, which is very similar to Chinese corridors (i.e., Figure 12). One side of the Engawa is mostly Japanese sliding doors, so when the sliding doors are all opened, the interior and the Engawa form a complete space, then the Engawa becomes the extension of the interior and people can continue the indoor activities in this space; when the sliding doors are all closed, the interior and the exterior are separated and the Engawa becomes the extension of the exterior and the height of it raised from the ground is just suitable for people to sit vertically(i.e., Figure 13) [10]. People can have a break when working in the courtyard and it is also a social place for neighbors to conduct short visits. This blurring between the indoor and the outdoor and the overlapping of functions increase the vitality of buildings as well as connects the space effectively.

Figure 12. Engawa.


Figure 13. Engawa use drawing.

iii. Kamisyouji

The paper covered wooden or bamboo sliding doors in Japanese houses are called Kamisyouji(i.e., Figure 14). This kind of paper doors are not as good as the wood and iron doors in terms of sound insulation and heat preservation, but they represent a unique spatial and interpersonal relationship in East Asia, independent of but restrained by each other. The thin paper door cannot cut off the conversation and light in the room, even the air and taste are in circulation, but Kamisyouji is more like a signal that the room owner does not want to be disturbed. In modern residential design, many designers have realized that as long as the door is shut, it is completely closed and the communication between families will be less. It is better to design the flow environment by referring to the Japanese Kamisyouji [11].

Figure 14. Kamisyouji in Japanese room.

In addition to the basic functions of space division, Kamisyouji also plays an important role in lighting. Japanese writer Junichiro Tanizaki believes that the Japanese hall is only able to reflect the gentle beauty under the indirect light formed by the Kamisyouji.

3.3. “Space of Ambiguity” in the Modern Architecture of East Asia

3.3.1. The Ambiguity of Existence: The 21st-Century Museum of Contemporary Art in Kanazawa

Located in Kanazawa, Japan, the 21st-century art museum is placed between the park and the municipal government (i.e., Figure 15). The architect hoped to design it as an open, park-like art museum.


Figure 15. The 21st-Century Museum of Contemporary Art in Kanazawa.

The circular shape of the museum has a uniform and continuous open interface, and people can freely enter the museum from all directions. The outer wall of the first floor is made of glass. Within the range of people' s sight, the gallery seems to disappear in the surrounding environment and one can clearly see the inside appearance. On the second floor, the designer catered to the style of the surrounding buildings to form a unified skyline.

3.3.2. The Ambiguity of Existence: Folk Art Museum of China Academy of Fine Arts

Located in the campus of China Academy of fine arts, the folk art museum was originally located in the terraced tea garden. Kengo Kuma has completed his largest and most satisfactory architectural works in China. From the aspect of appearance, the museum is a rolling roof, each small roof is paved with grey tiles, which restores the characteristics of Hangzhou traditional architecture and conforms to the surrounding rolling mountains in form (i.e., Figure 16). The complex height change of the building is to cater to the natural undulation of the ground, and it can be seen from a distance that it is integrated with Xiangshan Mountain. The interior of the building also carries out this kind of ambiguity and elimination of the existence. The facade adopts floor to ceiling windows, introduces the outdoor mountain scenery into the interior, and echoes with the design elements, blurring the image and space boundaries of the building [12].

Figure 16. Folk Art Museum of China Academy of Fine Arts.

3.3.3. The Ambiguity of Boundary - House N

House N (i.e., Figure 17) is a three-story progressively nested box house. The outer shell occupies the whole base and divides into a half indoor courtyard; the middle shell further divides into part of the interior space; the inner shell ensures the owner' s private space. Such a nested structure can be said to be the most direct reflection on architectural boundaries. House N' s design reflects the ambiguities of the East Asian style. Even the doors and windows of the building are just a scale adjustment. [13]


Figure 17. House N.

3.3.4. The Ambiguity of Boundary - House NA

House Na is a tree building. After analyzing the horizontal space boundary, I choose this case to reflect the contemporary architects' exploration of ambiguous space vertically. The building is formed by 21 floors, which satisfies the owner' s yearning for nomadic life (i.e., Figure 18). There is no rigid space division in the building, but an indirect division is formed through the height dislocation. Just like the paper barrier in the traditional building, it does not divide the air circulation, sound, light or even smell. Everyone can feel the breath of others at home. Although the structure is not the same as the natural image of trees, the feeling of living in it does Evoke people' s original memories and feelings. Fujimoto also hopes to use this innovative architectural exploration to retrieve our original keen perception of space.

Figure 18. House NA.

As a special featured space without fixed space type, function and position, the space of ambiguity plays an important role in exploring the cultural background and aesthetic consciousness behind the space design. Using the method of sample analysis, this paper combed the different spatial forms of ambiguity in traditional Chinese and Japanese dwellings. It is well evidenced that the culture of ambiguity does have an influence on space design. There are two ways to produce ambiguous space: one is to respond to the objective natural conditions. In the process of development, people are affected by the space atmosphere and then have a specific aesthetic interest, for example, the tsuboniwa in Kyoto, Japan. The other is to follow up on people' s ideology and morality in the process of social development where space arises at the proper moment to satisfy aesthetic taste, such as pavilions in Chinese gardens. The ambiguous space tends to eliminate the artificiality, blur the boundary of space as a whole, and to differentiate between ambiguous existence and ambiguous boundary.

Through the analysis of the works of modern famous Japanese architects, this paper explores the embodiment and construction means of the culture of ambiguity and East Asian aesthetics in modern architecture, so as to provide references for future designing activities.

4. Conclusions

As early as 1500 years ago, the ancient Chinese people emphasized that the house was not the container of the body, but the dwelling place of the soul. Even though the material production conditions at that time could not be compared with the modern society, the cultural significance and spiritual pursuit in the space were not limited by the production level. After the industrial revolution in the 20th century, science and technology in human society have been rapidly developed. People' s pursuit of efficiency and precision has made space design more and more commercial, materialized and dualistic. Cultural exchanges and integration in the global scope have also led to the homogeneous trend of form and system, and even squeezed the tradition continuously. It is more and more difficult for people to have a sense of belonging to the modern city. In the fast-paced life mode, it is hard to find the leisurely return of ancient people to nature and soul. However, in today' s saturated production, only by awakening the unique traditional culture again and finding the direction suitable for China' s own development can it gain new life.

As a special featured space without fixed space type, function and position, the space of ambiguity plays an important role in exploring the cultural background and aesthetic consciousness behind the space design. Using the method of sample analysis, this paper combed the different spatial forms of ambiguity in traditional Chinese and Japanese dwellings. It is well evidenced that the culture of ambiguity does have an influence on space design. There are two ways to produce ambiguous space: one is to respond to the objective natural conditions. In the process of development, people are affected by the space atmosphere and then have a specific aesthetic interest, for example, the tsuboniwa in Kyoto, Japan. The other is to follow up on people' s ideology and morality in the process of social development where space arises at the proper moment to satisfy aesthetic taste, such as pavilions in Chinese gardens. The ambiguous space tends to eliminate the artificiality, blur the boundary of space as a whole, and to differentiate between ambiguous existence and ambiguous boundary.

Through the analysis of the works of modern famous Japanese architects, this paper explores the embodiment and construction means of the culture of ambiguity and East Asian aesthetics in modern architecture, so as to provide references for future designing activities.

Conflicts of Interest

The author declares that there is no conflict of interest regarding the publication of this article.


This research received no specific grant from any funding agency in the public, commercial or not-for-profit sectors.


The author would like to acknowledge Professor Gao, who gave me guidance in the process of writing this paper; Professor Tu and Professor Li, who proposed suggestions for my article; and my classmate Zhao, who also helped me in the process of writing this paper.


© 2017 by the authors. Licensee International Technology and Science Press Limited. This article is an open access article distributed under the terms and conditions of the Creative Commons Attribution (CC BY) License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.


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