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Magazine Volume 2, Issue 3 (October 2000)
Daoist Art Table of Contents

An Outline of Daoist Art

Liu Jianlong
Research Section
Liaoning Provincial Museum


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Daoism is based on the ancient Chinese practice of worshiping deities, ghosts, and immortals. Daoist worship relies not only on the belief that these beings exist, but also on the belief that they could grant wishes. The religion is also characterized by stratagems to pursue immortality or to become spirits roaming the heavens, or involves sacrifices seeking blessings or to avoid calamities. Along with these practices and pursuits, there is a component of mysticism in Daoist philosophy, in the principles of yin/yang and the five primary elements, and in various Confucian prophecies. Daoism is a polytheistic religion, and propagates that all things are imbued with life force.

Art in the service of Daoism therefore necessarily relates to Daoist doctrines, the belief in its gods, and its ceremonial observances. Since Daoism has a long history, its teachings differ from one period to another, and also from one sect to another, for example, the orthodox Daoism of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), or the extended Daoism of the Wanli period (1573-1620). Judging from their sacred texts, the pantheon of gods is enormous and cannot be easily comprehended. Often, these later sects also combined ancient mythologies with folk beliefs.

The important influence of Daoism on Chinese art has been widely recognized both in the realm of artistic creativity and in art criticism. Yet, compared to scholarly inquiries of Buddhist art, Daoist art has been somewhat neglected. Admittedly, this is because Daoist art has not reached the independence and glory of Buddhist art. In the study of Daoist art, one needs to recognize its existence in actual space and time, and as it relates solely to religious concepts. Therefore, one should distinguish between broad and narrow definitions of Daoist art in their inquiries.

From the perspective of history, religious Daoism should be distinguished from Daoist philosophies of the Warring States period (476-221 BC). It is thought that Daoism had its beginnings in the Taiping and Wudoumi sects of the Han dynasty (206 BC - AD 220). It was not until the Eastern Jin dynasty (317-420), around the time of Ge Hong, that Wei Boyang's cult of immortality combined occultism, alchemy, and polytheism to create what is now recognized as Daoism. Two opposing strains developed. The first one was more analytical, based on the belief in immortals, and was associated with aristocratic practices of Daoism. The second one involved popular application of magic charms. At this time, an established pantheon of immortals and deities had not yet been established. Strictly speaking, it was not a religion of "idol worship." Therefore, one cannot speak of a form of Daoist art that produced images of idols during this period. As for surviving images of the Supreme Emperor, King Father of the East, Queen Mother of the West, immortals, nymphs, and deities of the four directions from the pre-Qin (221-206 BC) and Han dynasties, these were closely related to the worship of deities, alchemy, and witchcraft of the pre-Qin era, rather than to Daoism.

During the Northern and Southern Dynasties period (317-581), religious sects such as Louguan, Nanbei Tianshi, and Maoshan brought together two important aspects of Daoism. On one hand, it drew from the Daoist sage Laozi's mystical thoughts, establishing the "Taishang Laojun" or Supreme Laozi as the center of Daoist mystical thinking. On the other hand, it borrowed the Buddhist concept of idol worship and established its own pantheon of deities, immortals, and spirits. As a result, Daoism became a religion of idol worship. During this process, mythologies and historical figures from the past were incorporated as an integral part of Daoism. The tenet of Daoism was recognized to be: "The Dao gives rise to deities; the Dao is omnipresent; the deities are also omnipresent." After the polytheistic aspect of Daoism merged with folk religions, Daoist pantheism became larger and larger, and the iconography of Daoist art also became more complex.

Based on functional principles, the subject matter of Daoist art should reflect its religion in temple architecture, sculpture, and painting. I propose employing a narrow definition of Daoist art, restricting it to works that relate to Daoism only. As for those works of art that have exceeded the function and parameters of religious Daoism in society, especially ones which cannot be readily categorized, I propose these should be considered within a broader definition of Daoist art.

The high Tang period marked the efflorescence of Daoism because it was the favored religion of the imperial family. Not only did its religious doctrine become increasingly rational under imperial patronage; the Daoist order also extended its powers and constructed many temples. By the Northern Song dynasty (960-1127), particularly between the reigns of Emperors Zhenzong (r. 998-1022) and Huizong (r. 1101-1125), when the emperors were faithful Daoists, Daoist influence on politics was strengthened even further. Later, in the Yuan dynasty (1271-1368), rulers utilized religion to legitimize imperial power. At that time, Daoism followed only Buddhism and Lamaism in terms of its influence. It was during the Ming and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties that the Daoist religious order lost its imperial favor. Its influence shrunk and became a part of folk religion in society. As a result, the periods of robust development in Daoist religious art are concentrated in the Tang, Song, and Yuan dynasties. Textual and visual documentation also testify to this hypothesis. In the following section, I shall introduce the history of Daoist art during its height, and briefly discuss its development and changes during the Ming and Qing dynasties.

According to Zhang Yanyuan's Lidai minghua ji (Record of Famous Painters of Successive Dynasties, mid-9th century), Daoist temples were built on a large scale in the capitals of Luoyang and Chang'an in the early and high Tang (7th-9th centuries). Despite the fact that Daoist temples were not as numerous as Buddhist ones, the quality of the mural paintings and sculptures were not outshone by its Buddhist counterparts. The rate of production of Daoist art was in fact slightly higher than the number of statuary steles produced during the Six Dynasties. These works of art also benefited from the achievements in figural art during the Tang dynasty. Many famous painters of the time were commissioned to paint Daoist murals. By this time, the mainstream of Daoism was extended to the general population, and the iconography of these works was as a result enriched and expanded.

Notable murals painted at this time achieved unprecedented quality. Five Saints and A Thousand Celestial Officials by Wu Daozi (active ca.710-760) was a masterpiece of large-scale horizontal composition with myriad figures, pushing the quality of Daoist murals to a higher pinnacle. His paintings of Laozi in the Taiqing Temple, the Guardian of the East in the Hongdao Temple, and Realized Beings in the Xianyi Temple were also enormously influential. Other subjects also appeared in abundance and were instantly popular, such as portrayals of the Dragon and Tiger Kings, the Five Sacred Peaks, and the Five Star Gods, Eight Diagrams, and Twenty-Eight Constellations.

In the Five Dynasties period (907-960), Daoist paintings inherited Tang traditions, with new developments in subject matter. Zhang Suqing of the western Shu region was a famous Daoist painter. His Nine Kings, Five Star Gods, Old Man Star God, Twenty-Four Incarnations of Realized Beings, Pilgrimage to the Five Sacred Mountains, and other mural paintings in Zhenjun Hall in the Zhangren Temple, located at Qingcheng Mountain in Chengdu, were famous. Pilgrimage to the Ziwei Star God by Zhang Tu of the Central Plains region was also very influential. Despite the brevity of the Five Dynasties period, Daoist iconography maintained the Tang system, focusing on the core deities "Sanqing siyu" (Three Pure Ones and Four Heavenly Kings).

The Song and the Yuan dynasties continued previous traditions. The most notable Daoist architecture and artistic endeavor was the Zhaoying Palace of Yuqing, constructed during Emperor Zhenzong's reign. Its decorations gained instant renown. According to textual records, the emperor commissioned Wang Daozhen and the painter Gao Wenjin (active 11th c.) as the project planners, Wu Zongyuan and Wang Zhuo as master painters, and three thousand other painters. The project was enormous in scale, and took seven years to finish. Other Song dynasty Daoist mural decorating projects included the Tianqing Temple in Chengdu, the Songyue Temple in Henan, the Southern Palace in Luoyang, and the Dai Temple in Shandong. Sculptural projects representative of the Song period included the Jade Emperor and Jin Temples in Shanxi, the Shucheng Cliff in Dazu (Sichuan), and the statue of Laozi at Beiqingyuan Mountain in Quanzhou, Fujian. Yuan dynasty Daoist art concentrated mainly on mural paintings. Other than the well-preserved murals at the Yongle Palace, there were also those in the Daoist temple in Pingyang Prefecture in Shanxi and the Southern Palace in Yao County. These followed the subject matter and style of Tang and Song periods. In sum, other than architecture and sculpture, mural paintings dating from the Tang to the Yuan periods are most representative of pure Daoist art in subject matter and function.

Later, in the Ming and Qing dynasties, the building of large-scale Daoist temples gradually ceased. As a result, mural paintings for purely Daoist subjects also decreased. This coincided with the intensified blending of Daoism, Buddhism, and folk religions. Daoist images appeared in the frontispieces of mass-produced woodblock prints of religious texts, reflecting parallel developments in Buddhist texts. With the popularity of folk religions, murals in shrines and temples conformed to popular taste for Shuilu (Water and Land) paintings. These images, dominated by woodblock images, took the place of purely Daoist murals. Although these mural paintings more or less retained traces of Daoist belief and its pantheon of deities, they have deterred from the core of the religion, and should not be regarded as the same. Therefore, the study of Ming and Qing Daoist art should be expanded from a narrow to a broad definition.

In conclusion, I would like to stress the importance of separating the boundaries between Daoism, ancient mythology, and folk religions, so that the study of Daoist art is raised to a level of criticality. Moreover, preliminary studies of Daoist art should concentrate on the "true Daoist art" in the temples. This would aid in our efforts to clarify a point of view in the bewildering array of images, thus coincide with the research in other related disciplines. It is my hope that this essay provides the reader with a framework to understand the history of Daoist art.IL

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