Friday, 06. July 2007
Taoism and the Arts of China

The Beginnings of Religious Taoism

In the second century A.D., as the Han dynasty gradually lost control of China, large-scale religious movements sprang up all over the country. Between the second and sixth centuries, religious Taoism developed out of these movements, coming into maturity in the Tang dynasty. The most important of these early movements was the Way of the Celestial Masters, which began in Sichuan province. Zhang Daoling, founder of the Way of the Celestial Masters, supposedly received divine revelations from Laozi himself. Following this experience, Zhang developed a distinct system of religious beliefs based on the Classic of the Way and Its Power.

In the centuries after the fall of the Han dynasty, China was often fragmented politically. Non-Chinese rulers eventually took control of the north, while Chinese rulers still governed the south. This was a fruitful period for both Buddhism and religious Taoism, which developed in response to the increasing spiritual needs of the people during this unstable time. The beliefs that developed during this period would form the core of the Taoist worldview.


Click the picture for a larger view


Heaven and Earth:
Taoist Cosmology

Mirrors, believed to reflect the true nature of the world, served as symbolic sources of light for the dead on their journey through the underworld. As a result, the backs of mirrors were often decorated with cosmological designs and symbolic maps of the universe.

Around the central knob of this mirror are the animal symbols of the four cardinal directions: the green dragon of the east (yang); the vermilion bird of the south (yang); the white tiger of the west (yin); and the "dark warrior" of the north, an entwined tortoise and snake (yin). These animals represent the division of space into four directions and the division of time into four seasons.

In a wide band around the edge of the mirror, the 12 animals of the Chinese zodiac are arranged clockwise: rat, ox, tiger, hare, dragon, snake, horse, ram, monkey, cock, dog, and boar. Each represents a section of the sky through which Jupiter passes during its 12-year rotation around the sun.

These symbols were traditionally used by the Chinese to mark not only the passage of years but also the parts of the day, which was divided into 12 sections.

Taken as a whole, the decorations on the back of the mirror represent traditional divisions of time and space, thus serving as a map and a calendar. These concepts were among the most important foundations of Taoist cosmology.

Taoist Ritual Sword

Swords were used in Taoist rituals to purify the sacred altar of negative energies. As such, they were primarily tools of exorcism. Swords were symbolic rather than real weapons and were probably never actually sharpened. However, this sword was constructed and balanced in exactly the same way as a combat sword, and the ritual dances in which it was used resembled forms of martial arts.

One side of the blade bears an inscription modeled after that on a sword given to Emperor Xuanzong (r. 712?756) of the Tang dynasty approximately one thousand years earlier. On the other side of the blade are inlaid images of important constellations in the Taoist heavens: the 28 Lunar Mansions and the Northern Dipper (Big Dipper). Taoists believed that the sword contained the energies of these constellations, especially the Northern Dipper, which was a powerful symbol of exorcism. The scabbard is decorated with the scaly skin of a ray dyed mineral green. Upon it are two dragons, symbols of yang energy.


The Taoist Pantheon

This and the following painting, the Celestial Worthy of the Way and Its Power, were originally part of a triptych depicting the Three Purities, the highest gods of Taoism. Such a triptych would have been made to serve as the central object of worship in the most revered place in a Taoist temple.


This painting shows the second of the Three Purities, the Celestial Worthy of Numinous Treasure. His name comes from the scriptures written in response to the growing influence of Buddhism in the early fifth century. These writings eventually formed the basis for the second section of the Taoist Canon, which is dedicated to the Celestial Worthy of Numinous Treasure. Like the Celestial Worthy of Primordial Beginning, he is considered a source of Taoist knowledge and scripture. He is often described as the attendant of the Celestial Worthy of Primordial Beginning, who gives him the task of revealing the scriptures to lesser gods and humans. As such, he is the principal disseminator of Taoist teachings. He is depicted here sitting on a throne in his celestial realm and holding his identifying attribute, a scepter in the shape of a mushroom?called a ruyi. The hierarchic scale of his two attendants emphasizes the superiority of this lofty god.

Taoism and the Arts of China by The Art Institute of Chicago. This is the first major exhibition of Taoist art in the United States, showcasing 151 works of art illustrating many facets of the Taoist religion. The exhibition includes paintings, calligraphy, sculpture, porcelain, lacquer, and ritual robes and implements from museums and private collections in the United States, Europe, Japan, China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong. (English)
Highly recommended!
Category: Art & Visions | Religion & Early Cultures |

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