Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
July 9, 2002
Stephen Little Taoism and the Arts of China Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000. 352 pp.; 190 color ills.; 50 b/w ills. Paper $39.95 (0520227859)
Art Institute of Chicago, November 4, 2000-January 7, 2001; Asian Art Museum, San Francisco, February 21-May 13, 2001.

Taoism and the Arts of China is a welcome scholarly endeavor. The exhibition and catalogue were organized by Stephen Little, Pritzker Curator at the Art Institute of Chicago, with assistance from Shawn Eichman, exhibition coordinator for the show. Both were well suited to the task, having addressed the topic in previous scholarship. The catalogue, like the exhibition, contains a diverse range of media to delight the eye, stimulate the intellect, and indicate the social and cultural depth of this belief system. A list of no fewer than 151 objects from fifty-eight private and public collections and ten countries worldwide underscores the monumental scale of this international project.

The first part of the catalogue features scholarly essays by leading art historians and historians that thoughtfully explain foundational concepts of Daoism. Little sets out the goals of the exhibition in “Taoism and the Arts of China,” namely, to “examine the role works of art have played in the history of [D]aoism from the late Han (second century) to Qing (1644–1911) dynasties” and “to introduce China’s primary indigenous religion to a Western audience by examining the iconography and function of works of art made in the service of [D]aoism” (13), with an emphasis on its religious aspects. He defines basic principles of the Dao and discusses how numerous belief systems fed into Daoism, outlines the basic history of Daoist texts, and shows how imperial families incorporated Daoist practice into their rule. He then explains his criteria for object selection. In calling attention to the growing interest in Daoism in contemporary communities within both China and the Chinese Diaspora, Little argues that understanding Daoist principles through art will help us understand the historical past and the developing present.

In “Taoism: The Story of the Way,” the prominent Daoist history scholar Kristofer Schipper presents a sturdy historical overview of Daoism in China from its inception to today. He lays the foundations of the belief system, identifying the patron founders and the historical context into which Daoism was born, discusses the dominant folk beliefs that fed into Daoism (prognostication by hexagrams, yin and yang), and cites the importance to Daoism of the consciousness of the individual will, destiny, life purpose, death, and immortality. Schipper reviews the development of Daoist texts and canon and traces how Daoism became transformed into a religion with a pantheon, religious rites, and initiation services. In stressing Daoism’s important political role, he reveals how the closely related theme of a utopia emerged.

What makes this essay especially interesting is Schipper’s examination of the role Daoism played in the Chinese empire, showing how it reached into village life through temples and commerce and how it spread throughout China by means of pilgrimage networks. In contrasting Daoism with Confucianism and Buddhism, he explains how devotees of each interpreted their own belief system in light of the others. Whereas Daoists believe salvation is immortality attained through a fusion of the self with nature, Buddhists hold that sinners endure hell, and salvation comes through pious acts of the self for the self and one’s ancestors.

At the crux of Nancy Shatzman Steinhardt’s essay, “Taoist Architecture,” is the assertion of an “invisibility of external signs” (57) for the architecture of all religions in China, be they Daoism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Christianity, Judaism, or Islam, because of the universality of structural form for religious, domestic, and political uses. Consequently, identification of a Daoist temple is obtained most securely through naming strategies, though most of these, too, are not exclusive to Daoist sites. Similarly, Daoist funerary architecture is just as indistinguishable from that for Confucian and Buddhist burials; mortuary sites also require further textual or visual clues to the dominant beliefs of the owner.

Steinhardt most helpfully identifies the requisite components of Daoist temple complexes, especially during the Song period: a spirit hall for sacrificial rites, a hall for vegetarian feasting prior to the cultivation of perfection through a repository for scriptures, a hall for teaching and spreading the Daoist doctrine, guest halls, and garden architecture. In addition, Daoist complexes ordinarily stand on high platforms, feature long approaches, and occasionally have oversize platforms in front. Few Daoist temple sites have a pagoda, but as this is also true of Confucian complexes and many Buddhist sites, the lack of a pagoda is not a definitive Daoist temple-complex characteristic. Interestingly, when built into a mountain, the complex retains the same relationship between structures mandated for the layout on flat ground.

Wu Hung’s goal in “Mapping Early Taoist Art: The Visual Culture of Wuduomi Dao” is to reconstruct a Daoist art tradition at its earliest stage of development in terms of visual culture (that is, the individual objects, pictorial programs, intellectual discourse, and cultural identity). His focus is on discovering visual evidence for the early branch of religious Daoism called “Wuduomi Dao” (Five Pecks of Rice Daoism) or “Gui Dao” (Ghost Daoism) active in the second to early third centuries in the Sichuan and southern Shaanxi regions. Wu persuasively provides fascinating and substantive archaeological and art-historical evidence to support his new and important analyses. Among his findings are that the sheng motif located at the entrances to tombs in prosperous Wuduomi Dao regions comes from the Queen Mother of the West’s headdress and that it indicates tomb ownership of Wuduomi Daoists. The motif of an umbrella over a turtle is persuasively reasoned to be an aniconic image of the deified Laozi. Representations of the Buddha are related to Wuduomi Dao and not Buddhism, as no evidence links the large numbers of accurate Buddha representations in Sichuan to actual Buddhist practice in this region at this time.

Patricia Ebrey examines Emperor Huizong’s patronage of art and Daoism in considering the relationships between art, religious Daoism, and an emperor’s politics in “Taoism and Art at the Court of Song Huizong.” She contemplates how our understanding of the objects sponsored by Huizong as a Daoist devotee is enhanced by fitting them into a Daoist “agenda.” Because Huizong is well recognized for his Daoist patronage and practice, she calls to task those scholars who have neglected the Daoist aspects of these works on the basis that “there was nothing exclusively [D]aoist about them” (97). As Huizong was concerned with potency and efficacy for both the arts and Daoism, she thoughtfully observes, “In the spheres we label [D]aoist and those we label art the techniques of gaining power by naming or embodying seem to have played rather similar roles, and skills Huizong learned in one arena he could carry over to the other” (97–98).

Catalogue entries follow the scholarly essays. Organized by topic, each section (The Formation of the Taoist Tradition, The Taoist Church, and The Taoist Renaissance) begins with its own brief but informative introduction directed to the general reader. Objects relating to the formation of the Daoist tradition explain the identity of Laozi and the origins of Daoism, the Daoist cosmology, and the importance of sacred mountains and cults of the immortals. Objects relating to the Daoist Church reveal the beginnings of Daoist religion, ritual, and pantheon.

Entries explaining the Daoist Renaissance explore “the fluid boundary between orthodox [D]aoism and Chinese popular religion, and between [D]aoist gods and popular gods” (255). Among these deities are goddesses and female saints. This subsection is particularly noteworthy, as it makes an important contribution to general scholarship on the fundamental and historical role of women within the Daoist faith. Male deities are also featured, as are Daoist immortals, who, we learn, were worshipped for their help and served as role models for humanity in the cultivation of moral, spiritual, and bodily perfection.

Of the two concluding subsections, one focuses on the meditational practice of inner alchemy and its symbolism, developed to help the adept to visualize the inner landscape of his or her own body. The second delves into the sacred landscapes that reflect “the inherently divine structure of both the cosmos and the inner human body” (357).

The catalogue images are well chosen, and each entry is supported with excellent color reproductions. Many objects, such as Wen Zhengming’s Seven Junipers (cat. no. 147), are familiar to the specialist, but because of their newly affirmed Daoist context they are understood afresh. Others, such as Liu Sheng’s Mountain-shaped Censer (cat. no. 20) caused visiting scholars at the exhibition to exclaim gratefully on the rare opportunity to see them in person.

Throughout, the quality of scholarship in Taoism and the Arts of China is topnotch, the methodology sound. The essays are well written, conceptually clear, and of a length suitable to content and purpose. As an exhibition catalogue, this study at once addresses a general interest audience and that of the serious scholar. Clear and comprehensive, this text will no doubt provide fodder for many future studies and dissertations. Many of the objects selected for this museum exhibition successfully respond to visual culturists’ urging to contemplate pictorial material typically excluded from aesthetic studies, such as charts, diagrams, and painting outside the category of “high art” (for example, The Pace of Yu from Secret Essentials on Assembling the Perfected of the Most High for the Relief of the State and Deliverance of the People [cat. no. 52]; Miraculous Manifestations of Zhenwu at Wudang Shan [cat. no. 111]; and Illustration of Inner Circulation [cat. no. 133]). We are the better for it.

Katharine P. Burnett
Assistant Professor, Department of Art and Art History, University of California, Davis