Maya Lin: The Influence of Asian-American Heritage on Artistic Identity


Culture is an integral aspect of who someone is, and it inevitably influences their life and work even if they don’t realize it. Some may even choose to hide from their cultural heritage or pretend that it has no influence on them. However, rather than hiding from cultural identity, it is always better to embrace it and let it empower you.

A great story of a renowned and influential individual who realized that her culture could not be hidden from her work is acclaimed artist and architect, Maya Lin. Once she embraced her culture, it allowed her to be even more self-expressive in her art. After she accepted her culture and acknowledged it as a part of her, she felt truly herself.

Maya Lin’s East Asian heritage permeated her world through her parents' upbringing. She grew up as a second generation immigrant, born in the United States after her parents immigrated from China in the 1940s. The Lins had always been an artistic family. Lin’s mother wrote Taoist poetry, and her father was a craftsman who made furniture, pots, and other similar items. Her childhood home in Athens, Ohio was built in the Chinese 50’s modernist style and decorated with many of her father’s works. Although he was Chinese, her father’s artistic style was very Japanese. As a result, Maya Lin’s childhood home was laid out like a traditional Japanese house, and the decorations included Japanese style and motifs.

Like many second-generation immigrants, Lin struggled with her identity while growing up. She was facing American culture at school and in the community, but a greatly contrasting East Asian lifestyle at home. In an interview, Lin talked about growing up, saying, “I had a really hard time with my identity. I think I wanted to fit in, I wanted to be American.” Because she tried to be more “American,” she often rejected her family culture. For example, when recruited by the Asian American Society in college at Yale University, Lin felt uncomfortable being a part of it and chose not to join. This wasn’t the first time she felt awkward in all-Asian groups. Lin has also expressed that while growing up, it felt strange for her to hang out with groups of all Chinese Americans or all Asian Americans. In fact, she considered herself more as a typical American midwesterner rather than a Chinese American.

Even when Lin wasn’t consciously embracing her culture, however, her East Asian upbringing infused her art. This influence was particularly prevalent while she was in college. The 50s Chinese Modernist house she grew up in affected her architectural style, and even some of her artworks. Her well-known simple and direct artistic style can also be traced back to a home influence. Her mother wrote poetry in the Taoist philosophical tradition that emphasizes simplicity, balance, and spiritual harmony.

Her most famous work, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., in fact, displays Taoist influence. This memorial is a wide V-shaped walkway surrounded on both sides by walls. These walls display 58,318 names of Americans who fought and gave their lives in the Vietnam War. Her design is simple but conveys a powerful message, and her parents believe that this style was subconsciously derived from Taoist philosophy. As her father explained, “[The memorial’s] simplicity is like Taoism: simple yet very direct. I'm not saying we have directly influenced it, but indirectly by the way we live, the way we brought [our children] up. The quietness and the directness really is an Eastern influence."

Maya Lin is also well-known for her other installations, designs, and artwork, all of which draw inspiration from her cultural background. Two of these famous works are:

Groundswell - Displayed at the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio, this piece is created from pieces of recycled glass that emulate natural groundswells in the sea or ground caused by storms or seismic activity. Groundswell is one of Lin’s pieces that drew from her cultural heritage. As she noted, "The piece is a conscious effort on my part to combine my Eastern and Western cultural heritage—namely, mixing my affinity for the southeastern Ohio terrain and its regional burial mounds with my love for the raked-sand gardens of Japan."

Wavefields: These are a series of three fields patterned to resemble waves, located in Ann Arbor, Michigan; Miami, Florida (called Flutter); and Mountainville, New York. In their creation, Lin drew influence from Native American effigy mounds, which are common in her home state. While these wavefields don’t represent her East Asian heritage, they were inspired by the American cultural surroundings in Ohio, where she grew up.

After years of denying her heritage, Maya Lin discovered her culture had always been ingrained in her. With this discovery, she was able to acknowledge and even treasure, the legacy that had been passed down to her from her parents and from previous generations of influential Chinese artists, architects, writers, and scholars.

he now openly talks about the influence her cultural heritage has on her work. When discussing the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, for example, she stated that her East Asian cultural influence "is there. You can see it . . . the sensitivity to the landscape . . . the simplicity and the basic philosophy of the design. It's a memorial that does not force or dictate how you should think. It asks and provokes you to think whatever you should think. In that sense it's very Eastern -- it says, 'This is what happened, these are the people.' It wants you to . . . come to your own personal resolution. It has a lot of hidden philosophy. It reflects me and my parents."

Maya Lin is an example of a successful, talented, and well-known minority in the art field. Incorporating her cultural heritage into her work has driven her success. Her story shows others that one’s cultural identity and heritage can be a source of inspiration and empowerment. It can also drive others to embrace their own cultures as well.

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