Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

Daoism and Daoist Art

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Indigenous to China, Daoism arose as a secular school of thought with a strong metaphysical foundation around 500 B.C., during a time when fundamental spiritual ideas were emerging in both the East and the West. Two core texts form the basis of Daoism: the Laozi and the Zhuangzi, attributed to the two eponymous masters, whose historical identity, like the circumstances surrounding the compilation of their texts, remains uncertain. The Laozi—also called the Daodejing, or Scripture of the Way and Virtue—has been understood as a set of instructions for virtuous rulership or for self-cultivation. It stresses the concept of nonaction or noninterference with the natural order of things. Dao, usually translated as the Way, may be understood as the path to achieving a state of enlightenment resulting in longevity or even immortality. But Dao, as something ineffable, shapeless, and conceived of as an infinite void, may also be understood as the unfathomable origin of the world and as the progenitor of the dualistic forces yin and yang. Yin, associated with shade, water, west, and the tiger, and yang, associated with light, fire, east, and the dragon, are the two alternating phases of cosmic energy; their dynamic balance brings cosmic harmony.


Over time, Daoism developed into an organized religion—largely in response to the institutional structure of Buddhism—with an ever-growing canon of texts and pantheon of gods, and a significant number of schools with often distinctly different ideas and approaches.

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Over time, Daoism developed into an organized religion—largely in response to the institutional structure of Buddhism—with an ever-growing canon of texts and pantheon of gods, and a significant number of schools with often distinctly different ideas and approaches. At times, some of these schools were also politically active. Along with Buddhism, Daoism today is one of the two dominant religions in the Chinese-speaking world. Although the attainment of immortality appears to be a rather esoteric and challenging objective, Daoism, with its popular and cultic elements, continues to provide practical guidance through codes of behavior and physical regimens, as well as talismans and ritual services that help regulate the everyday life of its many followers.


By the twelfth century, Daoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism—known as the three doctrines—were seen as mutually complementary, although at times they competed for influence at court. Indeed, from that time forward, the pantheons of these doctrines often overlapped and their rituals, architecture, and art appeared similar, often as a consequence of commissioning the same artisans to create images and edifices. Daoist art reflects the broad timespan and the diverse regions, constituencies, and practices of its creators. The artists—commissioned professionals, but also leading Daoist masters, adepts, scholar-amateurs, and even emperors—working in written, painted, sewn, sculpted, or modeled media, created an astonishingly eclectic body of works ranging from sublime evocations of cosmic principles to elaborate visions of immortal realms and paradises as well as visualizations of the Daoist pantheon, medicinal charts, and ritual implements.


The Museum's collection illustrates the many facets of Daoist art, but is especially strong in the pictorial arts of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, when many members of the educated elite, unable to find employment as government officials under the Mongol Yuan dynasty (1271–1368), found places in the alternate hierarchy of the Daoist ecclesia. Other works have a clear liturgical purpose, while the religious function of a third category of art objects is more ambiguous, reflecting the widespread assimilation of Daoist concepts and auspicious imagery in Chinese popular culture.


The Daoist sage Laozi is often shown riding on an ox or in an ox cart as he prepared to leave China by way of a pass to the West. Legend has it that he authored the Daodejing, or Scripture of the Way and Virtue, when the guard at the pass asked him to write down his teachings. A small bronze sculpture (42.25.19) presents the sage in a full robe, topknot, and a long narrow beard. Images of the other paramount figure of Daoist philosophy, Zhuangzi, are less common, but The Pleasure of Fishes (47.18.10) by the late thirteenth-century painter Zhou Dongqing evokes a famous passage from Zhuangzi's writings about recognizing feelings of joy in others. Wu Boli's Dragon Pine (1984.475.3) presents a Daoist manifestation of qi, or "cosmic energy," as a powerful pine tree that recalls the double-S curve of the cosmic yin-yang diagram. The horizontal landscape Cloudy Mountains (1973.121.4) by the Daoist abbot Fang Congyi similarly transforms a mountain range into a writhing dragon vein of energy that uncoils out of the distance only to vanish into a misty void.


A superbly crafted gilt-brass sculpture by a fifteenth-century artist (1997.139) may be identified as the Celestial Worthy of the Primordial Beginning, one of the Three Purities—the highest deities in the Daoist Pantheon. The robe of a Daoist dignitary (daoshi) (30.75.3), probably worn during Daoist rituals, features numerous auspicious symbols, including sun and moon medallions on the shoulders as well as cranes, deer, and dragons. Beneficent Rain (1985.227.2) by the Celestial Master Zhang Yucai, the highest dignitary of the Orthodox Unity sect of southern Daoism, illustrates dragons—embodiments of cosmic energy capable of bringing forth clouds and rain. The painting was likely intended to demonstrate Zhang's prowess in rainmaking rituals.


Two Ming-dynasty paintings depict members of the Daoist pantheon, which resembles a complex bureaucracy made up of deities in the form of stars, officials, marshals, and lords. Star Deities of the Northern and Central Dippers (L.1999.108) presents two constellations in anthropomorphic form, while Marshal Wang (1989.155) illustrates a protective deity and his retinue. Both images, which recall large-scale temple murals, were created as part of extensive sets of icons used in religious rituals similar to those performed by Buddhists. The Lord of the Northern Palace, Zhenwu (79.2.481), one of the most prominent deities in the Daoist pantheon, can be identified by the serpent coiled around a tortoise that appears at the front of the pedestal on which he sits. The Daoist deity (1971.163), decorated with yellow, green, black, and white glazes typical of Ming-dynasty Daoist and Buddhist ceramic sculptures, probably represents the Heavenly Marshal Zhao (Zhao Gong Ming), and epitomizes the kind of local gods that were absorbed into the Daoist pantheon. The Investiture of a Daoist Deity (38.31.1), an extraordinary nine-meter-long handscroll, depicts such an appropriation.


Among the many divinities in the Daoist pantheon, few are as prominent as the Eight Immortals, a group of legendary figures that first became popular in the twelfth century (2006.238). In the fan painting Immortal Lü Dongbin Appearing over the Yueyang Pavilion (17.170.2), one member of this group is seen "flying" through the sky. Lü is said to have received sacred knowledge from Zhongli Quan, another of the Eight Immortals, who is shown framed by clouds on a Ming blue-and-white ceramic bottle (2010.312). Landscape representations often evoke Daoist themes, such as Spring Dawn over the Elixir Terrace (1982.2.2) by the literati artist Lu Guang, or the miniature mountainscape sculpted in jade (02.18.684)—a stone of such hardness and purity that it bears connotations of immortality. Often landscapes allude to Daoist paradises, as is the case in Outing to Zhang Gong's Grotto (1982.126) by the Ming loyalist painter Shitao (1642–1707), who renounced his status as a Buddhist monk late in life and adopted the Daoist identity of Dadizi, "the great purified one."

Birgitta Augustin
Institute of Fine Arts, New York University