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

The Origins of Daoist Art

Wang Yi'e
Chinese Daoist Association
White Cloud Temple, Beijing

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As Daoist faith can be traced back to the remotest periods of the China, so Daoist art reflecting Daoist beliefs in the supernatural dates back to a period much earlier than the formal establishment of Daoist religion.

Art, which is a kind of superstructure, has many traits in common with other forms of social ideologies and yet possesses its own specific character. First of all, the form art takes at any given moment can reflect many aspects of life. Looking at art works we are exposed to some vivid and specific circumstances in the life of different historical periods, places and cultures, getting to know both history and reality . Secondly, art, with its particularly brilliant form, can serve the purpose of dissemination and education. As Wang Yanshou (Eastern Han, 25-220), in his poem on the Lu Lingguan Hall, described, "Evil requires admonition [first], then good is expressed afterwards." Fine works of art can imbue viewers with a joyful spirit and harmonious feeling: this is why art possesses an aesthetic value. The Tang writer Zhang Yanyuan (847-874), in Volume One of his Record of Famous Paintings of Successive Dynasties, described the function of art as follows:

As for painting, it perfects education, aids moral principles, transforms the impoverished spirit, and measures the silent and profound. It works in tandem with the Six Classics, harmonizes with the four seasons, and gives rise to nature, all stated effortlessly.

Thus Lu Shichong said: "The joy of the reds and greens [painting] can be compared to the Book of Songs and the fragrance of that beautiful and great undertaking. Proclaiming matters does not ensue from language, and painting is not good for preserving form."

Pictures and painting are the state's greatest treasure - a code that governs chaos.

During prehistoric times, human beings did not know much about the natural world and the rules regulating nature. Thus they believed that nature had mysterious ends and reasons, and was something impossible to comprehend. Things pertaining to the natural world were primitive totems. The worship of primitive totems strongly influenced the material and spiritual life of our ancestors, while natural life influenced their sense of aesthetics. It is thus possible to say that the earliest human works of art cannot be separated from the adoration of totems and would be part of this primitive sense of religious awareness. In this respect we can affirm that the earliest forms of art basically arose at the same time of the adoration of totems. According to old legends, after the mythical emperor Fuxi established the divination on tortoise shells, painting began taking up form and content. It is said that at the time of the Yellow Emperor, there was a time when made pictures, and thus invented painting. In the section on symbols and diagrams in the Daoist classic Book of Clouds, Zhang Junfang (jinshi degree obtained ca. 1004-1008) records:

The Yellow Emperor took four mountains, all of which had aided in his ascendancy, then designated the submerged peaks subordinate to the great peaks. Only then did he forge the mountains, bending the forms and writing their likenesses into the true shape and image of the Five Peaks.

Ying Shao (ca.140-ca.206) in his encyclopedic Comprehensive Meaning of Customs, provides another example:

The two brothers Shenshu and Yulei lived during the time of the Yellow Emperor. They could seize demons. Across the northern mountains, under the peach trees, where lay the depravity of a hundred demons, [the brothers] bound [them] with rope of reeds, seized them and fed them to the tigers. So the Emperor erected a placard of peach wood over [his] gate, [on which were] painted the images of two men resisting demons, and [can] thus be called the art of immortals.

From archaeological finds, we know that the earliest examples of art in China appeared on earthenware, bronzes and other objects, and that only later were painting and sculpture gradually created. Archaeology has shown how during the Neolithic period (10,000-ca.2100 BC), jade objects with aesthetic value--such as gui and hu tablets, round bi, and rings--held a close connection with the worship of spirits and to society in general. As for extant earthenware pieces and plastic arts of this period, the earliest examples are vessels of gray pottery with surface rope-shaped and blue patterns discovered in the area at the border of Shanxi, Shaanxi, and Henan provinces. Later, colored pottery, one of the most important types of evidence for Yangshao Culture, was created by firing vessels made of loess mixed with fine sand, then painted with yellow or red motifs. The artistic technique of is very high, with sinuous and elegant lines. These earthenware objects, outside of those for daily use, were also used as ritual and sacrificial vessels.

A further development in this type of colored earthenware is represented by the black pottery of Longshan Culture. These objects were made with a lustrous and intensely dark pigment, a glossy black, in a variety of beautiful shapes and in a simple style reaching the first high peak of our ancient art.

After the Shang dynasty (ca.1600-ca.1100 BC), bronzes emerge, to attain a pinnacle of production in the Spring and Autumn (770-476 BC) and Warring States (476-221 BC) periods. The artistic form of the bronzes occupies a very important position in the early history of plastic arts in China. There are a high number of surviving bronzes possessing delicate shapes, elegant proportions, and terse decorative motifs of sinuous and concentric patterns and mythical animals such as the mask-like taotie, the Green Dragon , the White Tiger, and other divine beasts.

The terracotta soldiers, generals, and war horses excavated from the burial ground of Emperor Qin Shihuang's army are characterized by beautiful sculptural forms, a high artistic level, and a grand scale, to the point of being considered one of the sculptural wonders of the world. It is thus clear how before the formal establishment of Daoist religion, Chinese plastic arts had already achieved a relatively high level.

The art of painting also boasts a long history. According to the textual and archaeological record, during the Spring and Autumn and the Warring States Periods, painting in China had already developed artistic standards. Apart from the decoration found on the surface of objects, there was also rock painting, murals, and painting on cloth. In the Stanzas from the Songs of the South, Wang Yi (fl. 89-158) says that Qu Yuan (ca.343-ca.277 BC) was inspired to write the Tianwen (Celestial Questions) section after seeing "images of the great earth, mountains and rivers, spirits and shades, rare treasures, cunning sages, and strange creatures in the temples of former kings and the ancestral shrines of nobles" during the state of Chu (?-223). Wang Su (195-256) recorded in Words from the Confucian School, "Confucius saw the Mingtang (Bright Palace) and gazed upon the four gates and walls, on which were the visages of Emperors Yao and Shun." This means that wall paintings at the time must already have reached a relatively high quality. In the Annotations to the Book of Waterways, the author Li Daoyuan (d. 527) refers to the story in which Lu Ban used his feet to draw the image of the spirit Cunliu in water because of its ugly appearance.

The Chu-period silk paintings A Woman, a Phoenix, and a Dragon and A Gentleman Riding on a Dragon, excavated in the modern era and currently in the collection of the Hunan Provincial Museum, reflect legends of the immortals. A Woman, a Phoenix, and a Dragon is the oldest existing cloth painting in China, executed by line drawing filled in with color. The painting represents a lady rising to heaven under the guidance of a phoenix and a dragon. The composition is refined, with fluid lines and careful application of color. A Gentleman Riding on a Dragon represents a male astride a huge dragon ascending to heaven: both the human figure and the great dragon are painted extremely vividly. In the painting, the composition is achieved with ink drawing while the coloring is created by filling the areas with flat colors, faint washes, and a silver-white pigment , the first work known in China to employ this technique. It is evident from these examples how early Chinese works of art began to be related to beliefs in the supernatural and how people had already begun to imagine spirits and immortals much before the historical founding of the Daoist religion.

During the Han dynasty (206 BC-AD 220), a major development took place, as Zhang Yanyuan mentions in the Record of Famous Paintings of Successive Dynasties:

Emperor Wu (r. 140-86 BC) created the Secret Pavilion to collect pictures and calligraphy. Emperor Ming (r. AD 58-76) loved the reds and greens [painting] and founded the Portraiture Office, as well as establishing the School at the Great Capital to gather the rare arts and all artistic talents under heaven.

The biography of the general Huo Guang in the Han dynastic history records a "Portraiture Office" in the imperial Han palace. It was a government bureau with a yellow door, fitted with painting instruments, functioning by imperial decree, and can be considered the predecessor of the Painting Academy. Likewise, the Secret Pavilion under Emperor Wu was the forerunner to later imperial collections of paintings and calligraphy.

Surviving works from the Han dynasty appear mostly on wall paintings, textiles, tiles, stone and other applied arts. Buildings with wall paintings recorded in historical texts, such as the Chengming Hall, the Sweet Spring Palace, the Qilin Pavilion, the Jiaguan Painting Room, and the Cloud Platform of the Southern Palace, attest to the popularity of this medium in the Han. The Record of Sacrifices to Heaven and Earth in the Records of the Grand Historian Sima Qian (ca.145-86 BC) contains a reference that "the platforms and chambers of the Sweet Spring Palace held paintings of Heaven, Earth, all the demons and gods of the Dao, from the ritual implements to the heavenly gods" during the reign of Emperor Wu. The Dictionary of Han Officials edited by Cai Zhi (19th c.) says: "All over Mingguang Hall, foreign pigments were daubed on the walls, with purple and green for the boundary lines, and paintings of meritorious officials of old. Repeated lines [of calligraphy] have sung [their] praises." In his poem on the Lu Lingguan Hall, Wang Yanshou wrote of the wall painting in the Hall constructed by Wang Liuyu of Lugong during the reign of Emperor Jing (r. 156-140 BC) of the Western Han. The painting is described as such:

Immortals and mountains between the beams, jade women peeping out windows to gaze below. Suddenly the portraits emerge, and I exclaim at their resemblance to [actual] demons and spirits. Among the painted illustrations were Heaven and Earth, all types of living beings, various strange beasts, spirits of the mountains and the seas. [The painting] records the appearance, supported by reds and greens, of a thousand changes and ten thousand transformations, all substance united in form, and colors [applied] according to type, [conveying the proper] sentiment. The upper register opens with the beginning of history: five dragons flying intertwined, the nine emperors, Fuxi's fish body and Nuwa's snake body, and the scheme of all matter in the vast chaos. I gaze at astonishment at its shape, aflame with brilliance. [Depicted is the] Golden Age of the Yellow Emperor, with royal carriages and robes and extraordinary raiment. The next register shows the Three Kings Yu, Tang, and Wenwang, licentious wives and unruly lords, loyal ministers and filial sons, meritorious officials and upright women, and the failures of the wise and foolish, There is nothing that is not conveyed in its proper place. Evil requires admonition [first], then good is expressed afterwards. (See Chapter 58 of the Complete Texts of the Later Han.)

This excerpt describes the immense scope of the wall painting, realized with a superb painting technique Its subject matter encompasses all types of figures and phenomena, among these spirits and immortals, saints, loyal officials, and filial sons. At the end, the author points out the purpose of the wall painting. His comment is akin to a line recorded in the Southern Barbarians section of the Eastern Han dynastic history: "Whether civil or military, from the grandest to the meanest abode, each is adorned accordingly. Painted are the mountain gods and sea spirits, strange birds and unusual beasts in admonition, all the more for barbarians [to gaze] in fear and dread!"

Han painting style rests principally on delineation of forms through single lines, or line-drawn designs on either tile, stone, and a some works in bas-relief. The technique is simple yet sophisticated, its style quite distinctive. The subject matter, for the most part, deals with human figures; of these, the works representing supernatural beings constitute the largest number. "Now to be good at painting, [one must] love to paint spirits," according to the "General Discussion" section of the Huainanzi (Book of the King of Huainan), presented to the emperor in 139 BC. In the "No Form" section of his Doctrines Evaluated, Wang Chong (27-ca.100) also observed paintings relating to immortals: "Immortals depicted in human forms whose bodies gives rise to fur, whose arms are wings, who walk on clouds, and with the passing of the years, will not die in a thousand years." From the records cited above we can see how mythical subjects recurred in Han dynasty art, such as representations of Fuxi, Nuwa, King Father of the East, Queen Mother of the West, their attendants, and Daoist priests. There were also representations of the Moon, the Sun, the Thunder God, the Mother of Lightning , the Plough, the North Star, and other divinities of nature, as well as the Scarlet Bird (guardian spirit of the South), the Black Warrior (guardian spirit of the North), the Green Dragon (guardian spirit of the East), the White Tiger (guardian spirit of the West), and other divinities signifying compass points, dragons, phoenixes, and other strange mythical beasts. These figures were either shown frontally or in profile, and rarely in other poses.

Extant works of Han art are mainly tomb murals, cloth paintings, stones reliefs, pictorial tiles, and decorative motifs on bronze, lacquer and other objects. The murals in the Bu Qianqiu tomb in Shaogou Village, at the southern foot of Mount Mang near Luoyang, contains the image of Ascending Divinities, and belongs to the period of the Emperor Xuan (r. 73-48 BC) of the Western Han. The mural depicts a scene of the deceased ascending to heaven in the company of supernatural beings. Also represented in the painting are Fuxi, Nuwa, the Sun, the Moon, other divinities, a flying dragon, and a red leopard, winding in the sky. The murals are made with line drawings filled in with color, with sure drawing, forceful and continuous lines--a natural and unrestrained style. At Yingzi, in Jin County, Liaoning Province, an excavated Eastern Han tomb has a mural portraying a Daoist priest with a big head and hairy arms, one of whose hands holds a red grass. An immortal stands atop the clouds, a kerchief on his head and a feather fan in his hand.

The mural depicts the scene of the master of the tomb is ascending to heaven in the company of supernatural beings. In the painting are also represented Fu Xi, Nu Wa, the Sun, the Moon, divinities, a flying dragon and a red leopard, moving in the sky with a winding movement . The murals are realized by line drawings filled in with colors, with a fine drawing, forceful and continuous lines, a natural and unrestrained style . In Yingzi city, Jin county of Liaoning Province a Eastern Han tomb was discovered , with a mural portraying a Taoist priest with a big head and hairy arms, one of whose hands is holding a red grass and an Immortal standing on the top of the clouds, with a kerchief on his head and a feather fan in his hand.

In January 1972, a polychrome painted banner on silk, often defined as the finest example of Han painting, was unearthed from the No. 1 tomb at Mawangdui, Changsha. The upper part of the painting shows the sky, the moon, the sun, and two dragons. Within the sun is a silver bird, and within the moon is the fabled Toad and Jade Hare. The legend "On the fifth day of the fourth month, the toad and the hare conceal [the moon]" from the Han poem "Cold air from the first month of the winter" in the early sixth-century compilation Nineteen Ancient Poems is hereby represented in painting. A portrait of Lady Dai occupies the center of the painting. In the lower part depicts the mythic tale of a giant supporting the underworld. The painting employs a mixture of realistic and fantastic forms of expression, the composition is careful and precise, and the technique is very skillful and practiced. These paintings of supernatural beings provide a visual description of the legend of the immortals mentioned in Qu Yuan's Tianwen.

Most extant figurative examples are those found on Han stone carving , carved on the flat surface of the stone, easily preserved and generally accepted as representative of painterly themes and style. Shandong, Henan, and Sichuan provinces yielded the richest finds. For instance, the stone engravings discovered in Beizhai, Shandong, south of the river Yi, bear images of the Heavenly Emperor, Fuxi, Nuwa, the Queen Mother of the West, the King Father of the East, and figures portraying the recurrent subject of a long-lived Daoist priest whose spirit ascends to heaven as an immortal on newly sprouted wings. Other carvings depict the immortal brothers Shenshu and Yulei, the guardians of the four directions, etc. At the Museum of Han Pictorial Stone Carvings in Nanyang, Henan, there are various forms of Fuxi and Nuwa. The archaeologist Chang Renxia eloquently described the stone carvings of the Wu Liang Shrine in Shandong in his "To Know Classical Art, Develop Patriotism": "in the sea and in the air the myriad spirits contend, clouds race and the seas arise, the magical, the strange, the licentious; transformations abound and assemble, with no perceptible beginning and end." Images of the King Father of the East and another Gentleman Riding on a Dragon also appear on Western Han carved bricks discovered in Zhengzhou, Henan. All these representations show ancient mythical legends.

Many bronze vessels of the Western Han period are engraved with decorative motifs referring to stories of immortal beings, such as on the back of the bronze "Immortals" mirror belonging to a Master Gai. Two of four sections contain images of two immortals and four attendants; another section depicts sacrificial offerings in reverse relief with two figures kneeling at either side; the last section bears a magic dragon in a flying dance. The back of the Queen Mother of the West mirror is divided into six sections: in one section, a seated girl listens to the chords of a qin, and on the side are the three characters "Xi Wangmu," or Queen Mother of the West; another section shows a girl strumming the guqin; three other sections show a girl dancing, a dragon, and the horned qilin, respectively; and the final section bears the image of a spirit with two long wings in the act of striking a ball. All the figures of the spirits are carved in a particularly lively mode.

Belief in the Yellow Emperor prevailed in the Han. Even then, images of Laozi as the founder of the Daoist religion had already emerged, such as in the carving representing the meeting of Confucius and Laozi. On the right side Confucius holds a wild goose, and on the left Laozi grasps a curved bamboo stick. A carriage occupies the background. This event is portrayed vividly, and provides a referent for later visual representations of Laozi. Likewise, the two largest images carved into the stone cliffs at Mount Kongwang at Lianyungang describe the encounter of Laozi with the Yellow Emperor.

We can see from the many works reflecting beliefs in the supernatural that these beliefs -- later forming the core of the Daoist faith -- already turned into one of the most recurring subjects of Han and pre-Han art, far earlier than the formal establishment of Daoism. Not only does the art reflect the rich imaginative force and the aesthetic aspirations of the Chinese people, but from the point of view of subject matter, these beliefs greatly enlarged the scope of artistic expression, engendering a particularly exquisite yet hyperbolic style. Naturally, the works of art of this period representing supernatural beings are even more simple, unadorned, and rich in inventiveness, without the slightest limitation, and thereby actually enlarging the scope for creative freedom. These works are not to be equated with is somehow Daoist art created after the establishment of Daoism, but it can be said that these images of supernatural beings are images of saints unhindered and unsheltered by the Daoist temple.FdL

This excerpt appears in the author's introduction to On the History of Daoist Art (Beijing, 1994), pp. 8-12, available through Wang Yi'e also contributed to A General Overview of Daoism (Beijing, 1997) and Album for Taoist Deities and Divine Immortals (Beijing, 1995), a full-color catalogue of works in the collection of the White Cloud Temple in Beijing.

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