"Taoism and the Arts of China," the first major U.S. exhibition of art in service of Taoism (pronounced "Daoism") presents 151 scroll paintings, sculptures, calligraphic works, textiles, ritual objects and books borrowed from more than 50 lenders in nine countries. Thirty-three works come from Mainland China, and all but two of these have never been seen in the West before.
Organized by Stephen L. Little, curator of Asian art at the Art Institute of Chicago, "Taoism" debuted in Chicago (it closed on Jan. 7, 2001) and also appears at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, Feb. 21-May 13, 2001.
"Taoism" is a profound encounter with one of history's great civilizations. Utterly absorbing, it challenges us to understand an unfamiliar religion and its visual vocabulary -- and to accept them on their own terms. To get the most from "Taoism," read the exhibition catalogue and see the show more than once.
Tao: The Way
Tao means a road or path and is often translated as "the Way." According to Little, the Tao is conceived as "the void out of which all reality emerges, so vast that it cannot be described in words." Beyond time and space, Tao has been called "the structure of being that underlies the universe."
Taoism has no Supreme Being. Instead there is the Tao itself, underlying and permeating reality. The gods we see in Taoist paintings are not real beings, but merely ethereal stuff that exists to put a recognizable human face on the Tao.
Believing that all things are connected to each other, Taoists seek a life of simplicity and balance. Taoist art is based on this principle, which underlies practices that are well known in the West. These include Chinese herbal medicine, which restores health by realigning the balance of vital energy (qi) in the body; Tai Chi, the meditative and physical discipline; and Feng shui (geomancy), the harmonious arrangement of objects and interior spaces.
Westerners also know the Taiji Diagram, which dates back to the 9th or 10th century. According to Little, it "symbolizes the fundamental Taoist view of the structure of reality, namely that beyond the duality of phenomenal existence, created through the interaction of yin and yang, is the unity of the Tao, which exists beyond time and space."
Laozi and the Daode jing
Taoism originated with Laozi (Lao-tzu), a royal archivist who is said to have lived in the 6th century before Christ. According to Sima Qian, a religious historian of the 1st century BC, Laozi "cultivated the Tao and its virtue." When Laozi was an old man, the dynasty he served went into decline and he departed for China's western border. There, a local official asked him to "write a book for us" to perpetuate his teachings.
Laozi produced the work we now call The Classic of the Way [Tao] and its Power (Daode jing). Unpunctuated and phrased in paradoxes, the Daode jing introduces the concept of the Tao and teaches the importance of living virtuously and in harmony with nature. Laozi disappeared after he finished writing the Daode jing.
Between Laozi's time and the Tang Dynasty (618-906 AD), Taoism evolved from a simple philosophy into a highly structured religion with temples, priests, monks, holy sites, a pantheon of deities and more than 1,500 sacred texts. Neither dogmatic nor missionary, the Taoist religion has absorbed numerous influences. At different times, Taoism has passed through periods of ascendancy, decline, corruption and persecution. Different Taoist sects and schools of Taoist art have come and gone.
Taoism Loses Visibility
Prior to the 17th century, Taoism was the religion of most Chinese, including the Emperor. When the Manchu conquered China and established the Qing dynasty (1644-1911), Tantric Buddhism became the Emperor's religion and Taoism lost visibility at the highest levels of the court.
The Manchu -- and later the Chinese Republic and the Communists -- marginalized Taoism. Westerners were told that it was peasant superstition. Until the 1970s, the basic texts of Taoism had been out of print for almost 500 years. Despite all this, Taoism thrived in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore.
"Taoism" introduces this little-known faith to Westerners, terming it both a religion and a philosophy -- and fundamental to Chinese culture. "We only had room to show 151 objects," says Little. "Imagine trying to tell the history of Christianity with that number of works."
The Taoist objects date from the late Han (ca. 200 AD) to the Qing dynasties -- a period of roughly 1,700 years. The exhibition illuminates Taoist theology and history, but tells us little about the place of the objects in Chinese art history, their formal qualities and the artists who made them.
Who Were the Artists?
To fill in the blanks, we talked to Wu Hung, professor of Chinese art history at the University of Chicago and Tzu Chang, a Chinese-born painter, calligrapher and Tai Chi master.
Hung explains that Taoist art observes conventions, which initially were flexible, but slowly became formalized. Some Taoist artists had public reputations, but most were anonymous artisans who worked for a patron or temple. Some workshops employed families, which passed control from generation to generation. Artists learned by apprenticing themselves to a master.
Taoist artists visualized entire scenes before they painted them, says Chang. They used a brush to sketch in figures with light ink, then went over the outlines with dark ink. "Sketching is quick," he says. "The brush moves very fast."
Artists mixed varying amounts of water with soluble pigment to make opaque or transparent colors. According to Chang, art-making technique changed little over time because Taoists are intuitive people, who believe that technology can retard personal growth. Even crushing physical work is seen as a means to realizing one's potential.
The Gods of Taoism
Taoism ranks its gods in descending order, according to their closeness to the Tao, but they depict them in different ways. One of the highest gods is Taiyi (Supreme Unity), a creator of the universe.
In The God Taiyi and Attending Deities, a silk scroll painting made in about 1460, Taiyi walks at the center of a martial entourage, his hands clenched before him. The group of six figures is very tightly composed with such rhythmical draftsmanship and color that the bodies seem almost locked together. Taiyi has a placid expression, but three among his attendants look quite fierce and watchful.
Emperor Guan, a Qing dynasty silk scroll painting, depicts the celestial patron of the military. Emperor Guan is the deified Guan Yu, a heroic warrior of the early third century who was killed in battle.
The fearsome Guan and his two attendants, all clad in armor, stand on a brilliant green field with swirling, multi-colored clouds beneath their feet and piled up behind them. A breeze coming from the left lifts Guan's garments around his calves and flutters banners above the group, framing it. Guan carries a ferocious-looking weapon on a pole. The smallest attendant, whose hands are clasped together, is the only figure to communicate religious feeling.
Female Goddess or Immortal, a 15th-century scroll painting in ink, is a strikingly different depiction of a deity. The goddess, whom the artist presents standing alone in an empty place, is dignified and aristocratic, but nothing about her suggests divinity.
The Dipper Mother, an 18th-century white porcelain, blends Taoist and Buddhist iconography. This ten-inch-high work shows the mother of the seven stars of the Northern Dipper (Ursa Major). She has nine pairs of arms -- one for each of her children and the remainder for Violet Tenuity and Celestial August, two important stars in the central northern sky. The Dipper Mother sits on a lotus throne with two of her many hands clasped in prayer.
Zhenwu, Supreme Emperor of the Dark Heaven (1439) is a gilt bronze sculpture intended for personal devotion. Zhenwu, a warrior god, was originally the symbol of the north and assumed a number of different identities over the centuries, reaching his peak of popularity during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) when this sculpture was made. In keeping with Taoist iconography, Zhenwu is clad in armor, but with bare feet. He rests his right hand on his knee and makes a sacred gesture with his left.
The Practice of Taoism
"Imagine Taoism as a river into which many streams are flowing," says Little. "Many of the streams are not Taoist." Chinese cosmology existed before Taoism did and was absorbed into it. Some practices, like alchemy, intertwine with Taoism.
Taoist Ritual at the Imperial Court (c. 1723-1726), a hanging silk scroll, shows a scene that may take place in the tiled courtyard of the Emperor's house. We see an altar made of three sets of tables stacked on top of each other.
On the highest table, a young relative of the Emperor kneels before an altar, which is covered with a canopy that symbolizes the heavens. A red- and blue-robed Taoist priest prays that the young man's father will recover from an illness. Ten musicians, standing on the ground, accompany the ceremony.
This is a very Western kind of painting with great attention paid to perspective. All elements in the image are neatly arranged in space, with the grid of the floor tying everything together. The only suggestion of landscape in this work is a few clouds and part of a tree branch in the lower right corner.
The Emperor Yu, an ancient mythical figure, is said to have paced the boundaries of the terrestrial world, while the god Taiyi paced the heavens. Taoist priests honor him with a ritual dance called the Pace of Yu. Pages from a woodblock-printed book published in 1444 show how this is done.
Taoists believe that sacred mountains are filled with supernatural energy (qi) and function as axes connecting heaven and earth. Many have made pilgrimages to these mountains, where they meditated, prayed, and collected minerals for alchemy. During the Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 AD), Taoist artists produced bronze and ceramic incense burners like the Mountain-shaped Censer, which shows a sacred peak inhabited by animals and transcendent beings.
Taoist funeral ceremonies often included prayers to release the soul of the deceased from hell and send it direct to heaven or to the wheel of reincarnation. Now and then, a soul would return to its corpse and bring it back to life. According to early Taoist manuscripts, some reanimated corpses burst out of their coffins when they were unearthed during public works projects.
One Taoist is said to have reanimated his corpse, which terrified a living person who set it on fire. Ignoring this provocation, the skeleton rose straight up to heaven. "Taoism" includes no images of these remarkable events.
Taoists saw the natural landscape as a sacred and welcoming place. The Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove (ca. 1540-50) is a fan painting that shows poets, musicians and scholar-officials who retired from the court to seek enlightenment in the countryside. Since these were men of the world, their retreat may have been temporary.
Seeking the Tao in a Cavern-Heaven, a 15th century silk scroll, is one of many landscapes in "Taoism." These works, which seem very familiar to our eyes, depict mankind at peace with nature, but a very tiny part of it.
"Taoism helps people live their lives," says Stephen Little. "It creates order out of a chaotic universe. Our hope in this exhibition is that visitors will recognize something from their own experience which overcomes the gap between themselves and Taoism."