How can we understand
Taoism? It appears at first to be a school of philosophy, but then we
learn that ordained Taoist priests, wearing formal robes, perform prescribed
rituals before precisely laid-out altars. It seems firmly rooted in
humanism, but then we discover that it boasts an extensive pantheon
of deities who populate an elaborate network of heavens. It seems to
address in the broadest terms the most general questions, but then we
find that its theories are detailed in volumes of painstaking minutia.
It may appear as a religion, but then it manifests itself as a system
of alchemy, of medicine, of geomancy, of astrology, or in any number
of bewildering forms.
Somewhere the ancient Taoist sages are laughing
at our confusion. "We look but don't see it," says Laozi,
"and call it indistinct" (Daode jing, verse 14).
Let us try to see.
We will review the roots of Taoism in the ancient classics, consider
key Taoist concepts, and then turn our gaze to religious Taoism.
The story begins in the late Bronze Age, with
and the Daode jing
It is written in
the Daode jing (The Way and Virtue), the small classic that
lies at the heart of Taoism and whose authorship is attributed to Laozi
sometime around the sixth century BCE, that "nonexistence makes
it work." How appropriate, then, that Laozi's own existence has
long been the subject of lively debate.
1. Laozi on an Ox, mid 1500s, by Zhang Lu (approx. 1490–1563),
China, Ming dynasty (1368-1644), hanging scroll, ink on paper,
National Palace Museum, Taipei. Laozi
is said to have been traveling in the company of an ox and a
servant boy when he dictated the Daode jing.
According to Sima
Qian (146–86 BCE) in his Shi ji (Records of the Historian),
Laozi was a custodian of the imperial archives, an older contemporary
of Confucius (some say the Lao in Laozi means "old," while
others regard it simply as a family name), who retired to the west in
his old age. At Hanku Pass between the Yellow River and the Chungnan
Mountains, Sima Qian says, Laozi met Yin Xi, the Warden of the Pass,
and revealed to him the text of the Daode jing.
2. Loujuantai. The small knoll beyond the gravel bed of the Tien
River at the foot of the Chungnan Mountains is where Taoists say
Laozi wrote the Daode jing for Yin Xi, the Warden of the Pass.
Photo by Bill Porter.
But the Shi
ji also alludes to a son of Laozi who served as a general of Wei
in 273 BCE. The father of this man could not have been a contemporary
of Confucius (551-479). Some scholars, particularly in mainland China,
have dated Laozi in the fourth or third centuries BCE; others have held
to the traditional dates (usually given as 604-531); and still others
(especially in the West) have insisted that Laozi is a purely legendary
figure who never existed at all. While "what has been transmitted
through the ages about Laozi is of a purely legendary nature,"
according to Kristofer Schipper in the catalogue accompanying the Asian
Art Museum exhibition, "the theory that Lao Tzu [Laozi] never existed
or is merely a legend compounded of ... different accounts is no longer
seriously entertained," says Wing-tsit Chan in his Source Book
in Chinese Philosophy.
Whoever Laozi may have been, "Chinese civilization
and the Chinese character would have been utterly different if the book
Lao Tzu [Laozi; the Daode jing is often referred to by this name]
had never been written.... No one can hope to understand Chinese philosophy,
religion, government, art, medicine—or even cooking—without
a real appreciation of the profound philosophy taught by this little
book" (Wing-tsit Chan).
3. Laozi's Scripture of the Way, Upper Roll (detail), 700s, China,
Dunhuang, Gansu province, Tang dynasy, (618–906), handscroll,
ink on paper, Bibliotèque Nationale de France.
What accounts for
the extraordinary influence of this terse classic of 5000 words (about
the length of this article)? By promoting ideals of nonconformity, individualism,
tranquillity, acceptance, relativity, transcendence, and the primacy
of the natural world, Taoism provided a counterpoint and a corrective
to Confucianism, with its emphasis on social responsibility and hierarchies
of authority. Its open-ended, suggestive style leaves much open to interpretation
(the curmudgeonly British literary historian Herbert Giles once wrote
that from it "little meaning can be extracted except by enthusiasts
who curiously enough disagree absolutely among themselves"). In
the Chinese tradition, the book is usually read with the help of some
of the many commentaries that have been written on it over the centuries.
The Daode jing is a deep, still pool
from which the key tenants of Taoism are drawn. It is a kind of palipsest,
a mirror to the reader, in which one can find the individual truths
most corresponding to one's personal search.
We are on firmer
ground in speaking of the second great figure of early Taoism -- his
uncertainties about his butterfly nature notwithstanding -- than we
are with Laozi. It is generally agreed that Zhuangzi was a historical
figure whose life probably spanned much of the fourth century BCE; he
is said to have been a cleric in a lacquer workshop. According to Sima
Qian, after working as a minor official, he somehow obtained the opportunity
to become a prime minister but declined the offer. Only the first seven
chapters of the book bearing his name, however, are believed likely
to have been written by him; they are known as "the inner chapters."
4. Zhuangzi Dreaming of a Butterfly, mid 1500s, by Lu Zhi (1496–1576),
China, Ming dynasty (1368–1644), leaf from an album of ten
leaves, ink on silk, Palace Museum, Beijing. This painting, by
one of the finest Wu school artists of the sixteenth century,
depicts a famous scene from the Zhuangzi.
for Taoists and non-Taoists alike, Laozi and Zhuangzi are considered
considered a paired set ("Lao-Zhuang"), the twin progenitors
of Taoism. But it was not until several hundred years after Zhuang's
lifetime, in the fourth century CE, that the two began to be joined.
In retrospect, the association seems inevitable, for despite their differences
they share many attitudes, and both can be viewed in counterpoint to
Zhuangzi was as much a literary stylist as a
philosopher. While Laozi's Daode jing is philosophical in tone
and telegraphic and evocative in style, Zhuangzi's work is composed
of what translator David Hinton calls a "collage technique,"
making use of many tones and literary modes. In general it is lively,
humorous, informal, and at times a bit sarcastic, especially when dealing
with the shortcomings of competing Confucian attitudes.
"In Chuang Tzu [Zhuangzi]," writes
Wing-tsit Chan, "differences between Confucianism and Taoism become
much sharper [than with Laozi]. The Confucianists teach full development
of one's nature, fulfillment of one's destiny, and participation in
the creative work of nature. Chuang Tzu, on the other hand, believes
in nourishing nature, returning to destiny, and enjoying Nature. The
Confucianists want people transformed through education, but Chuang
Tzu leaves transformation to things themselves."
Zhuangzi is above all a relativist (and relativism
is anathema to Confucianism). Does he dream of the butterfly, or is
it the butterfly that dreams of him? Once Zhuangzi was walking by a
river with the Confucian philosopher Huizi, and he remarked on the happiness
of the fish sporting in the river. Huizi challenged Zhuangzi: "You
are not a fish. How can you know the happiness of fishes?" "I
know it," Zhuangzi replied, "through the river." Stephen
Little, the exhibition's organizer, explains: "According to Zhuangzi,
true understanding should be acquired intuitively, without the need
for explication. Huizi, a man obsessed with logical explanations, is
unable to grasp this point."
5. The Pleasures of Fishes, 1291, by Zhou Dongqing, Chia, Yuan
dynasty (1260–1368), Zhiyuan reign, handscroll, ink and
light colors on paper, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York,
Purchase, Fletcher Fun (47.18.10). Zhuangzi's famous exchange
with the Confucian philosopher Huizi on the pleasures of fishes
was fodder for Zhou Dongqing, who specialized in paintings of
as much as Laozi sets the tone and the agenda for Taoism. "Just
as Mencius did not merely elaborate on Confucius' doctrines but presented
something new, so Chuang Tzu definitely advanced beyond Lao Tzu"
(Wing-tsit Chan). In the concluding passage of the Inner Chapters, Zhuangzi
offers a parable on the transformative powers of opposites. This process
will be given shape in the familiar Taoist taiji symbol in which yin
and yang, each containing the germ of the other, continually engulf
one another in an ongoing process of transformation. At the same time,
with a nudge to the social activism of the Confucianists, Zhuangzi reminds
us of the value of leaving well enough alone—and the danger of
being caught in the middle:
6. Diagram of the Supreme Ultimate, from the Compendium of Diagrams,
1623, by Zhang Huang, China, Ming dynasty, Tianqi reign (1621–1627),
woodblock printed book, ink on paper, The University of Chicago
Library, East Asian Collection. Taiji ("supreme ultimate")
diagrams such as this one symbolize the interplay of yin and yang
within the Tao; each contains the germ of the other.
The Warring States
period of the Western Zhou dynasty, when Zhuangzi lived, was a time
of political turmoil but also a golden age of Chinese philosophy characterized
by a "Hundred Schools of Thought." Each school had its own
tao or "way." The word tao refers to a road or path (as in
such English words as driveway, pathway, roadway, byway), and by extension,
a way of doing something or regarding something (if it were not a familiar
English word based on an earlier system of transliteration it would
be spelled, and pronounced, dao).
Why were the teachings of Laozi and Zhuangzi
so powerful that Taoism was able to coopt such a common word to define
its own system of belief? Wing-tsit Chan explains:
7. Seeking the Tao in the Autumn Mountains, 900–1000, by
Juran, China, Northern Song dynasty (960–1126), hanging
scroll, ink on silk, National Palace Museum, Taipei. "The
title of Juran's Seeking the Tao in the Autumn Mountains fully
expresses the meaning of this remote and dynamic landscape. Situated
in a ravine, sitting under the eave of a thatched dwelling and
entertaining a guest, a recluse contemplates the vital energy
(qi) of the mountains that visibly swirls around his retreat.
The landscape in this painting is a symbol of cosmic process,
and simultaneously a symbol of the inner spirit-landscape of the
human body. 'Seeking the Tao' here suggests that the adept is
aware of the numinous life-force that creates and gives form to
the terrestial landscape, and of the fact that what seems solid
s actually in flux—a flux generated by the flow of qi through
the earth. these ideas lay at the heart of the Chinese discipline
known as fengshui (geomancy)" (Stephen Little).
For Taoists, the
Tao is the undifferentiated primal void that underlies and pervades
all being. It is the unspeakable and unknowable that lies beyond human
"In the Taoist
vision of cosmogenesis, there was first the Tao, empty and still,"
writes Stephen Little. "Then, gradually, primal energy (yuan qi)
was spontaneously generated out of the Tao."
The primal energy, qi (pronounced "chee")
is always in a state of flux -- in fact the only constant in the universe
is the persistence of change. The material world is but a manifestation
of the operations of qi, as the Taoists anticipated quantum physics
in exploring the nexus of energy and matter. Qi was considered
to manifest itself particularly strongly in certain areas, such as mountains
and caves. Feng shui is essentially the art of directing qi, or at least
of responding to its directions.
In terms of the inner alchemy of the human body,
qi was seen as governed by the vital force of breath. (This is
analogous to the Western concept of inspiration, which also derives
from the concept of breathing.) Traditional Chinese medicine views illness
as caused by blockages in the flow of qi. Acupuncture is one
technique for removing such blockages and releasing the backed-up qi,
thereby restoring the balance of yin and yang.
8. Illustration of Inner Circulation, 1800–1900, China,
Qing dynasty (1644-1911), ink rubbing, ink on paper, Richard Rosenblum
Family Collection, Newton Center, Massachusetts. This rubbing
expresses the Taoist notion of the transformation of things, for
the same forces that manifest themselves as mountains, rivers,
celestial bodies, animals, and plants are also viewed as operating
within the microcosm of the human body. "The rubbing consists
of a diagram of the head and torso, seen from the side. The entire
diagram is framed on the right by the spinal cord, which connects
the lower torso with the cranial cavity. Within the three major
sections of the body—the head, the upper torso, and the
lower torso, the areas of the three 'cinnabar fields' (dantian)—complementary
images of yin and yang energy are shown intermingling" (Shawn
Eichman, in the exhibition catalogue).
According to Taoist
belief, the vital force, qi, initially manifested itself in a kind of
undifferentiated noumenon called hundun (what David Hinton rendered
as "PrimalDark" in his translation of Zhuangzi's parable,
above). Out of this vague, swirling, massless mass, yin and yang
emerged, like substances separated in a centrifuge. The interplay of
these two opposing qualities gave birth to the material world in all
its many forms.
Yin is dark, female, and subtle; yang
is bright, male, and overt. Winter is yin, summer is yang;
the moon is yin, the sun is yang. In a commentary on the
Daode jing presented to the emperor in 1078, Lu Hui-ch'ing wrote
of the verses quoted above: "Dark and unfathomable is yin.
Bright and perceptible is yang. As soon as we are born, we all
turn our backs on the dark and unfathomable yin and turn toward the
bright and perceptible yang. Fortunately, we keep ourselves in harmony
with the breath between." To some extent, Taoism can be viewed
as championing of the virtues of yin in the face of Confucianism's
emphasis on yang.
Today the symbol of yin/yang is the taiji
diagram (fig. 6), but it did not appear in a Taoist context until the
Song dynasty (960–1279). Before that time, yin was represented
by the tiger and yang by the dragon; this convention dates at
least from the Zhou dynasty (approx. 1050–256 BCE) and probably
from the Neolithic. The tiger and dragon are often found as a paired
motif in Taoist iconography. "In addition to symbolizing yin
and yang, the tiger and dragon also symbolize west and east,
and the elements (or phases) fire and metal. In Taoist chemical alchemy
(waidan, or "outer" alchemy), the tiger and dragon
also represent two of the most powerful elixir ingredients known, lead
and mercury, while in the Inner Alchemy (neidan) tradition, the
two animals symbolize yin and yang as they are brought together in the
inner (human) body through visualization and transformed to create a
divine embryonic form of the practitioner" (Stephen Little).
9. Two Panels from a Sarcophagus: Tiger and Dragon, approx. 500–534,
China, Northern Wei dynasty (386–534), limestone with traces
of pigment and gilding, private collection. The tiger and dragon
are ancient symbols of the forces of yin and yang respectively.
From its ancient
beginnings as a philosophy, a guide to conduct, and a commentary on
governance and ritual, Taoism developed over the centuries into an organized
religion, changing significantly in the process.
Under Emperor Wu (reigned 140–87 BCE)
of the Han dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE), Confucianism began its long
tenure as China's official state ideology. But Taoist ideals remained
strong, particularly among commoners. In 142 ce, a Taoist hermit named
Zhang Ling (or Zhang Daoling) was visited by a vision of Laozi. Laozi,
now calling himself the "Celestial Master," revealed to the
devout hermit a "new testament," prohibiting sacrifice and
rejecting the old gods and spirits who accepted sacrifices. In their
place, Laozi presented Three Heavens. "The Three Heavens each contained
one cosmic energy (qi), called, respectively, 'Mystery,' 'Principle,'
and 'Origin' (xuan, yuan, and shi). They had three colors—blue,
yellow, and white—and constituted the roots of Heaven, Earth,
and Water. Each had its own virtue: Heaven (in the sense of the sky)
gave forth blessings; Earth forgave sins; and Water averted calamities.
Three officials (Sanguan), pure emanations of the Tao, performed
these functions," explains Kristofer Schipper in the exhibition
catalogue, adding that "Here we find for the first time a true
Taoist pantheon ... distinct from the ephemeral gods, spirits, and ancestors
of ancient China."
Zhang Daoling is credited with establishing
the first organized Taoist communities, although it was not until the
Six Dynasties period (420-589) that Taoism became fully formed as a
religion. As the religion developed, Laozi became deified and a new
pantheon of gods, goddesses, and immortals emerged, among them Taiyi
(Supreme Unity), Queen Mother of the West (Xiwangmu), Celestial Worthy
of Primordial Beginning, Marshal Wen, the Dipper Mother (fig. 12), Zhongli
Quan (fig. 11), and countless more; even Buddhist figures such as Guan
Yin were welcomed into the Taost pantheon. Still, "the high gods
of Taoism ... are ultimately mere pneuma who exist to put a recognizable
face on the Tao itself" (Stephen Little).
10. The Realm of All Mountain Kings and the Six Spirits of the
Household, approx. 1600, China, Ming dynasty (1368-1644), hanging
scroll, ink, colors, and gold on silk, Musée National des
Arts Asiatiques Guimet, Paris, EO742. In its later elaborations,
Taoism produced a staggering multitude of deities. Among those
shown here are the Stove God, the Door God, the Kitchen Door God,
the Well God, and the Earth God (the sixth household god alluded
to in the title, the Lattrine Goddess, is missing), along with
several mountain deities.
11. The Immortal Zhongli Quan, late 1400s, attributed to Zhao
Qi, China, Ming dynasty (1368-1644), hanging scroll, ink and colors
on silk, The Cleveland Museum of Art, Purchase from the J.H. Wade
Fund, 76.13. Zhongli Quan is considered the leader of the Eight
Immortals. The immortals, or adepts, were individuals who had
achieved unity with the Tao through the cultivation of virtue
and understanding. The popular figures, analogous to saints, reflect
Taoism's spiritual striving. Zhongli Quan was a patron of Inner
Alchemy (healing), and the double gourd he holds no doubt has
an alchemical application.
12. The Dipper Mother, 1700–1800, China, Qing dynasty (1644–1911),
dehua porcelain, Asian Art Museum, The Avery Brundage Collection,
B60P1362. The Dipper Mother is the mother of the stars of Ursa
Major, the Big Dipper. Thought to derive from one of the devas
(inhabitants of the heavenly realms) of Buddhism, she is associated
with healing and childbirth. In this remarkable porcelain from
the museum's collection, she is sitting on a lotus throne and
wearing a crown. She has a third eye in her forehead, and her
eighteen arms hold a variety of sacred weapons and vessels.
Little describes a typical Taoist ritual:
is a public event, designed to serve the needs of a community. The
central figure in any Taoist ritual is the priest (daoshi),
who petitions the gods ion behalf of the community he serves. Incorporating
words, music, and dance, Taoist ritual is a performance closely linked
to theater and may last from several hours to several days. In the
course of a ritual, the priest visualizes his own return to the Tao,
the source of all things. Among the sacred dance forms in Taoist ritual
is the symbolic pacing of the stars of the Northern Dipper (the Big
Dipper), the seat of the celestial bureaucracy of the gods.
The Taoist ritual space, or altar (daochang
or daotan), reflects the structure of the cosmos, and is visualized
as a sacred mountain connecting the human and divine realms. The altar
may be installed anywhere, and is taken apart when the ritual is complete.
13. Taoist Priest's Robe, mid-1800s, China, Qing dynasty (1644–1911),
embroidered silk tapestry, The Minneapolis Institute of Arts,
the John R. Van Derlip Fund, 42.8.118. Taoist priest robes are
often visually spectacular, rich in Taoist iconography. Several
appear in the exhibition. Among the symbols on this colorful robe
are the taiji diagram, the yin/yang tiger and dragon, the Five
Sacred Peaks, andf many more.
14. Taoist Ritual at the Imperial Court, approx. 1723–1726,
by Jing Bingzhen, China, Qing dynasty (1644–1911), hanging
scroll, ink and colors on silk. Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian
Institution, Washington, DC; Purchase Smithsonian Collections
Acquisitions Program, and Partial Gift of Richard G. Pritzslaff,
S1991.99. This painting depicts a Taoist ritual being performed
on an altar made of three stacked tables. The verticality of the
altar is probably a metaphor for the mountain, considered a sacred
space where qi is strongly manifested.
The long story of
the evolution of religious Taoism across the millennia is beyond the
scope of this article, but a sense of its many changes can be obtained
through the more than 150 objects on exhibit, including paintings, sculpture,
calligraphy, textiles, ritual objects, and rare books borrowed from
nearly seventy lenders in more than ten countries (significantly, thirty-three
works will be borrowed from institutions in the People’s Republic
of China, only two of which have been previously exhibited in the West).
For artists, Taoism offered a rich repertoire
of subjects, as the sampling of illustrations presented here suggests.
But it also offered a way of seeing, and a way of doing: a tao
of art. The first of the "six laws of painting" set down by
the scholar Xie He in the early sixth century CE reads qiyun shendong:
"convey movement through harmony of spirit." [curators: translation
okay?] Taoist artists, understanding that existence is fluid, typically
created lively works full of movement, as they sought to transmit the
essence of their vision by serving as a vehicle for the expression of
qi. The result is a marvel: we need only to look -- and to see.
asian art and culture
a. Laozi and the Daode jing
a. The Tao
b. Qi, the Vital Energy
III. Religious Taoism
article was written for Treasures,
the member's magazine of the Asian Art
Museum, where the exhibition Taoism and the Arts of China, organized
by the Art Institute of
Chicago, was presented from February 21 through May 13, 2001. The
article is offered here in support of the museum's nonprofit educational
Basic admission to San Francisco's Asian Art Museum
is currently $12. Membership is a good value, and the first Tuesday of
each month is free.