An Outline of Daoist Art
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
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
Contact us if you wish to submit comments.
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