Daoism: The Evolution of a Philosophy, a Religion, and an Art

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Is there a difference between Daoism and Taoism? I’m compelled to begin by addressing the multiple spellings of not just these two words, but many of the words that are common when studying Eastern philosophy, religion, art, or history. 
If China is to Eastern philosophy what Greece is to Western philosophy, why is there such a disparity when coming into contact with Eastern words? 
At the risk of over-simplifying this answer, it all comes down to the “eye of the beholder.” Most of us with heritages derived from Western cultures are brought up to see, hear, think, and understand in a fairly similar way. 
That being said, there is basically no difference between the words Daoism and Taoism and both represent the same age old Chinese religious philosophy. Taoism, with a T, is a Romanization of the word that uses the older Wade-Giles system of spelling and pronunciation. Daoism, with a D, and the word is pronounced as a D, is a result of the Romanization of the word that is based upon the Pinyin system of spelling and pronunciation. Pinyin is the modern Romanization system that has been adopted by the Chinese government and the system that is used by most academic institutions in the world today. 
While the Western world is still comfortable with either spelling, Daoism is the spelling and pronunciation preferred by official Chinese texts as authorities believe that the Pinyin system represents Chinese words phonetically and in a  much better system than does the older Wade-Giles Romanization system. It is the system used by the Philadelphia Museum of Art and it is the system I will use in this paper.


“Imagine Daoism as a river into which many streams are flowing.”

– Stephen Little

(1) Snuff Bottle and Stopper, The Eight Symbols of Daoist Immortals, Chinese, Late 18th Century, Qing Dynasty, Philadelphia Museum of Art

(Snuff Bottle and Stopper, The Eight Symbols of Daoist Immortals, Chinese,Opaque White Glass with Enamel Decoration; Gilded Brass Stopper; Ivory Spoon, Late 18th Century, Qing Dynasty, Philadelphia Museum of Art)

In Chinese, Dao is a road or path and it is often translated as meaning “the Way.” Every language, culture, and religion have words that convey more than one simple idea. Even though such words often have several layers of meaning, there is generally never any confusion as to what is being said. Ask a dozen or more people to explain or describe the word “heaven,” and as likely as not, you’ll hear a dozen or more different definitions or descriptions of it. The same is true of the word Dao.

Though there are many definitions of Dao, this one word communicates an entire philosophy and outlook on the fundamental nature of life and the universe. Philosophically, the Dao was conceived as “the void out of which all reality emerged. It so vast that it cannot be described in words. Beyond time and space, the Dao has been called “the structure of being that underlies, or is the cause of, the universe.” The word is nothing less than an expression of the profound unity of the universe and of the path human beings must take in order  to join, rather than disturb, that unity.

The origins of Daoism are uncertain, but people generally attribute its beginnings to a Chinese man called Laozi who lived in the 6th century BCE and worked as an historical archivist in his Emperor’s court. Many, however, are unaware of the fact that the word Laozi is not a name but a designation: it simply means “elder master.” There are no historical, anthropological, or archeological accounts or records of this man’s actual identity. Scholars have come to accept that the sources of his life are probably based on legends and that Laozi, as an individual man, may not have existed as an historical figure.

To follow the legends of Laozi we are compelled to refer to sources written centuries later. According to Sima Qian, a religious historian of the 1st century BCE, Laozi is the person who “cultivated the Dao and its virtue.” He recounts the story of when Laozi was an old man, the dynasty he served under was falling into decline and he decided to depart the court and go to China’s western border. At the city gate, however, a local official stopped him and asked him to “write a book for us” before he would allow him to pass and go on his way. He wanted Laozi to leave his ideas behind so that he might perpetuate his teachings. Laozi, the stories say, produced the work we now call the Daodejing, or The Classic (Book) of the Way and its Power. Unpunctuated and phrased in paradoxes, the Daodejing introduces the concept of the Dao and teaches the importance of living virtuously and in harmony with nature. After he finished writing the Daodejing, Laozi, the man and the legend, departed the city and disappeared forever.

(2) Statue of Laozi, carved from naturally formed rock in Quanzhou, Fukian Province, China, Song Dynasty, 1241 -1252 CE )

(Statue of Laozi, Carved from Naturally Formed Rock in Quanzhou, Fukian Province, China, Song Dynasty, 1241 -1252 CE )

Early Daoist philosophy was profoundly influenced by observations of nature. These philosophers determined that everything in existence has its complementary opposite, and that everything in existence can only be understood by comparing it to its opposite: Day is only day in relation to night; cold is only cold in relation to heat; and soft is only soft in relation to hard. Looking deeper still, these early philosophers realized that these relationships were in a constant state of flux: Day, for example, flowed gradually into night and back again and so on.

Through these observations they concluded that the universe was comprised of an interdependence of all things: Day was dependent on night to be be day; cold was dependent on heat to be cold; soft was dependent on hard to be soft; and as such the reverse of each was also true. All things were interdependent. By observing these processes of nature, the Daoists believed that we could come to some understanding about the meaning of our lives and about our place in the world. These basic concepts are the cornerstone of all Daoist philosophy.

Early Daoists emphasized the importance that what happened in nature was effortless. They certainly did not mean that no struggle occurred within nature, but that events in nature just occurred without premeditation.

Consider the life of a plant: A seed falls onto the ground; if the soil is fertile, and if it receives warmth, light, and water, it may emerge as a seedling. The seedling does not require instruction, or outside interference, to know how to take nourishment in through its roots or how to photosynthesize light and unfold into a mature plant. Given the knowledge it contains, the plant is complete within its own nature.

The Daoists asked: “Why should life be different for people?” Why not allow situations to unfold as they may rather than trying to manipulate others and orchestrate events? This concept in Daoist philosophy, known as Wu-Wei, is the doctrine of doing-by-not-doing and it lies at the heart of Daoist practice.

Daoism believes that nature is complete without us. The philosophy teaches that we must recognize this fact and begin to participate with nature as a partner in the universal scheme. Our mission, according to Daoist philosophy, is to return to a natural way of life unencumbered by complicated social institutions and intellectual ideas. This contact with what is innately pure will, in turn, strengthen our spirit, the source of which is nature. By doing so, Daoism teaches, we, too, will return to a state of natural grace: the Dao.

Throughout its history and evolution, Daoism exercised a deep and lasting influence on Chinese painting, calligraphy, poetry, medicine, political theory, and personal conduct. While Confucianism emphasized ritual conduct and the fixed hierarchies of family and state, philosophical Daoism, which focused primarily on the individual’s relationship to nature, inspired the early development of landscape painting, nature poetry, garden culture, and the literate arts in China. Later in its history, as it began to develop into a religion, Daoism incorporated iconography into its painting, sculpture, temple architecture, calligraphy, printing, ritual objects, and textiles.

Daoists saw the natural landscape as a sacred and welcoming place. Often in a Daoist landscape, people, like poets, musicians and scholar-officials, are depicted as “retiring from the court to seek enlightenment in the countryside”.

Since these were men of the world, earthly and mortal, their retreat was understood to be temporary. Daoist landscapes, which can seem very familiar to Western eyes, generally depict mankind at peace with nature, but man is, in fact, just a very tiny part of it. Daoist philosophy, like virtually every philosophy since antiquity, strove to create an order out of a chaotic universe with the goal of helping people live their lives in it.

(3) A Daoist Figure, China, Late 19th Century

(A Daoist Figure, Hanging Scroll, China, Late 19th Century, Qing Dynasty, Philadelphia Museum of Art)

Because Daoism emphasizes the concept of Wu Wei, the flow of nature and the importance of going along with the flow of nature rather than opposing it, that influence can be seen in the emphasis of the vastness of nature and by the smallness of people and man-made structures in many of its landscape paintings. Emphasis is placed on the importance of interactions and balance of the universe’s positive and negative forces. The use of negative space in Daoist paintings are as significant as the positive space. It is not uncommon for unpainted white spaces being used to define the paintings and having natural elements like clouds and water flow into one another.

(4) Landscape, China, 18th Century

(Landscape, China, Hanging Scroll, 18th Century, Qing Dynasty, Philadelphia Museum of Art)

(Note the vastness of the plain empty, or negative, spaces in this landscape punctuated only in the foreground and background, positive space, by natural elements. Man’s only presence is the small homestead at the base of the mountains … almost a part of the natural landscape itself.)

The act of creating Chinese brush paintings, which involve long, flowing strokes that cannot be painted over also involves a meditative sense of allowing the painting to flow through the painter without hindrance, something which is also true of Chinese calligraphy. Daoism lent a simplicity to much of Chinese art.

There is a calmness of inaction or gentle motion and flowing movements, rather than harsh contrasts or portrayals of drama.

In Western credence, the Christian Bible’s Old Testament tells us that man has dominion over the rest of creation, and the 8th Psalm, echoing a similar attitude, states that the Lord made man “a little lower than the angels,” and, “Thou madest him to have dominion over the works of thy hands and has out all things under his feet.”  In Chinese art, particularly landscape paintings, Daoist philosophy suggests a very different relationship between humans and nature. Daoists speak of a harmony among all aspects of nature, and say “Heaven and earth and I live together.” 

(5) Summer Mountains, China, Late 18th Century)

(Summer Mountains, Ink and Color on Silk; Mounted as an Album Leaf, China, Late 18th Century, Qing Dynasty, Philadelphia Museum of Art)

(Note how this painting, full of much more positive space, or natural elements, than the previous image, weaves the manmade village into its landscape effortlessly, coexisting with it harmoniously and without either being dominant.)

Harmony in nature in Chinese painting is illustrated in the balance between such things as mountains and water. In fact, the Chinese word for “landscape” literally means “mountains and water,” and the many geographical features of the natural world – its rocks and streams, valleys and peaks, rising and falling movements were believed to be material embodiments of positive and negative, or yin and yang, energy.

Daoist cosmology was shaped by the way in which the Chinese traditionally understood the world. They believe that when the world began, there was only the Dao, a featureless, empty void pregnant with the potential of all things. At this point, the Dao generated swirling patterns of cloud-like energy, called qi (pronounced “chee”). This energy eventually developed two complementary aspects: yin, which is dark, heavy, and feminine, and yang, which is light, airy, and masculine. Yin energy sank to form the earth, yang energy rose to form the heavens, and both energies harmonized to form human beings. Consequently, the human body holds within it the energies of both the earth and the heavens, making it a microcosm of the universe. Chinese artists saw it as their task to make Dao visible to the world at large. The tàiji diagram of these concepts, so recognizable to Westerners, however, did not appear until centuries later during the Song Dynasty (960-1279 CE). 

(6) Tàiji Diagram    (6a) Vase, China, 19th Century

(Tàiji Diagram ⬆︎)
(Vase with Tàiji Diagram and Trigrams, Glazed Porcelain, China, 19th Century, Qing Dynasty, Philadelphia of Art ⬆︎)

By the Song dynasty, the tàiji diagram, commonly known in the West as “the yin-yang symbol,” came to represent yin and yang in the East as well. The diagram illustrates the unity and interdependence of the positive and negative, or yin and yang, forces within the Dao. A small yin dot is centered within the body of the yang on one side and a small yang dot is centered within the body of the yin on the other side. This is meant to illustrate that yin energy will begin to rise from its lowest level when yang is at its height; likewise, yang energy will begin to rise when yin is at its height. In Daoist art, this is most evident in the cyclical movements of the seasons: the first signs of spring begin to appear immediately after winter has peaked and begun to subside.

(7) Autumn Landscape, Formerly attributed to Lan Ying, China, 19th Century               (8) Birds in Winter Landscape, China, 1271-1368 or later

(⬆︎Autumn Landscape, Hanging Scroll, Formerly attributed to Lan Ying, China, 19th Century, Qing Dynasty, Philadelphia Museum of Art )
(Birds in Winter Landscape, Ink and color on silk; mounted as an album leaf, China, 1271-1368 or later, Yuan Dynasty, Philadelphia Museum of Art ⬆︎)

(Note how the trees in Autumn Landscape hold on to their summer leaves amid their bare branches. The farther up the mountain your eye goes, the bleaker the scene appears as winter approaches, and see how the branches in Birds in Winter Landscape, still lightly covered in snow on the trees, form a canopy over the birds, harbingers of spring, framing them as the focal point of the painting).

Waterfalls and mountain peaks make up much of Chinese landscape painting, and people seeking to understand the secrets of the power of nature, the Dao, often contemplate on those paintings when they cannot go the countryside and view an actual mountain or waterfall. In many, if not most, landscape paintings, humans have a place: They are participants in the natural scene, but they do not dominate it.

As such, landscape paintings did not just depict the outer forms of nature, but were equally concerned with the movements of the energies that infuse the natural world with life. All of the patterns of nature, from the loftiest cliff face to the smallest rock and from violent ocean to intimate stream, were viewed as outward signs of qi, the vital energy that formed the basis for all matter. 

(9) Landscape, Liu Du, China, 1670

(Liu Du, Landscape, Ink and Color on Silk; Mounted as an Album leaf, China, Qing Dynasty, 1670, Philadelphia Museum of Art)

(Note how the quick brush strokes and monochromatic color scheme animate the landscape giving it a sense of innate energy).

Daoist painters had to paint quickly in an attempt to capture nature in its true state. “To paint the bamboo,” the poet and painter Su Shih wrote in the 11th century CE, “one must have it entirely within one. Grasp the brush, look intently [at the paper], then visualize what you are going to paint. Follow your vision quickly, lift your brush and pursue directly that which you see, as a falcon dives on a springing hare … the least slackening and it will escape you.”

(10) Bamboo under Spring Rain, After Xia Chang, China, 19th or 20th Century

(Bamboo under Spring Rain, After Xia Chang, Ink on Paper; Mounted as a Handscroll, China, 19th or 20th Century, Qing Dynasty, Philadelphia Museum of Art)

Chinese painters were expected to paint from memory rather than depicting a landscape that lay before them. The artist was expected to have a kind of “photographic memory” which psychologist G. W. Allport later described as a “visual-memory image [that] revives the earlier optical impression when the eyes are closed…with hallucinatory clearness.”

The rapidity in which they were compelled to paint from their own memory and impressions resulted in these artists creating a landscape quickly in one continuous process. Unlike a Western artist like Leonardo da Vinci who developed oil paints for the Last Supper which could be applied at a rate of only a few strokes a day, Chinese painters used quick drying ink and absorbent paper which could not be erased or retouched. In the 11th century CE landscape painter Kuo His wrote: “In painting any view the artist must concentrate his powers to unify the work. Otherwise it will not bear the peculiar imprint of his soul … If a painter forces himself to work when he feels lazy his productions will be weak and spiritless, without decision.”

“As the arts of the calligraphy and painting developed,” historian Daniel Boorstin wrote, “these arts developed a discipline to assure a calm mind, a cultivated memory. All the scholars’ activities were acts of reverence for nature, or as a metaphor for the nobility of man.”

(11) A Multitude of Mountains and Accumulated Snow, Jin Jie, China, 18th Century              (12) Autumn Landscape, Wu Da, China, Late 17th - early 18th Century

(⬆︎Jin Jie, A Multitude of Mountains and Accumulated Snow, Ink and Color on Silk; Mounted as a Hanging Scroll, China, 18th Century, Qing Dynasty, Philadelphia Museum of Art)
(Wu Da, Autumn Landscape, Hanging Scroll; Ink and Colors on Silk, China, Late 17th – early 18th Century, Qing Dynasty, Philadelphia Museum of Art ⬆︎)

The shift from philosophical to religious Daoism began regionally throughout China in the 2nd to 3rd centuries CE during the Han Dynasty. In the second century CE, as the Han dynasty gradually began to lose control of China, large-scale religious movements, primarily Buddhism, began making their way into the country. Han leaders began to make adaptations to Daoist philosophy creating ceremonial rites similar to those of Buddhism that were associated with Laozi’s teachings, and, in turn, the Chinese people, under local pressure, began to adopt them as well.

The earliest rituals involved funerary pictorials and rituals where tombs for people of all social classes and occupations were carved or painted with scenes of Daoist philosophy. This tomb art was meant to serve as a realization of attaining postmortem immortality. Granted, Chinese burial rituals involving immortality and the afterlife are far more ancient than this and predate the Han Dynasty Era, however, it is here where we first find funerary images directly related to Daoist philosophy. It was during the Han Dynasty that many local officials were replaced by newly appointed Daoist priests.

(13) Liu Yang, Ink Rubbings of Reliefs on Two Gables of Wuliangci at Jiaxang, Shandong, Showing the Paradis of Xi Wangmu and Dong Wnaggong, Eastern Han Period (1)  (14) Liu Yang, Ink Rubbings of Reliefs on Two Gables of Wuliangci at Jiaxang, Shandong, Showing the Paradis of Xi Wangmu and Dong Wnaggong, Eastern Han Period (2)

(Liu Yang, Ink Rubbings of Reliefs on Two Gables of Wuliangci at Jiaxang, Shandong, Showing the Paradis of Xi Wangmu and Dong Wnaggong, Eastern Han Period)

(Dongwanggong was revered as the “King Father of the East”. Xiwangmu was revered as the “Queen Mother of the West”. They were two of the highest immortals of Daoism during the time of the Wu family clan’s rule in the Han Dynasty).

At some point in the second century CE, Laozi was deified as the Celestial Worthy of the Way and Its Power, becoming one of the highest gods of the Daoist pantheon. He was seen as a direct embodiment of the Dao itself. Gradually over time, religious Daoism would develop a vast pantheon of deities and immortals and a large compendium of sacred texts and elaborate ceremonial rituals would appear evolving Daoism into a fully realized religion. It is significant to note that religious Daoism has no supreme being; each god in the pantheon of religious Daoism merely gives a face to the endlessly changing Way. The immortals we see in Daoist paintings are not real beings but merely ethereal stuff that exists to put a recognizable human face on the Dao.

A polytheistic religion with three levels of immortals, Daoism ranks its gods in a descending order according to their closeness to the Dao and they depict them in different ways:

The First, and highest, level belongs to those who were immortal before the earth was created. It is believed that they formed spontaneously out of the primordial energies at the beginning of the world. These are the highest gods of Daoism who hold titles like “Celestial Worthy” or “Emperor.” These gods hold court in celestial paradises and govern a complex hierarchy of lesser gods similar to the hierarchy of an emperor and high officials on earth. Many of the most fundamental gods of this category developed between the second and sixth centuries CE and were consolidated into a well-defined pantheon by the Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE).

The immortals who dwell in the highest level of the Dao are Laozi and a trinity of deities known as the “Three Purities.” Chief among this tripartite group is Yuánshǐ Tīanzūn, the “Jade Emperor,” the supreme deity of Daoism who presides over Heaven. It is believed that he came into being at the beginning of the universe as a result of the merging of pure breaths where he then created Heaven and Earth. He is often depicted as a fat man holding a magic fan that can revive people who have died. The second Purity in this trio is Shàngqīng who controls the relations between the universal principals of yin and yang. He is the god responsible as the custodian of the sacred book that calculates time and divides it into different epochs. The third god of the Three Purities is Tàiqīng who is known as the treasurer of spirits. He is a most eminent and aged ruler which is why he is the only Pure One depicted with pure white hair and a pure white  beard.

The Second Level of immortals in Daoism are those who, after the creation of the earth, were once mortal and transcended earth to become one with the Dao: They are known as the Eight Immortals. As pure embodiments of the Way, these Daoist gods are abstract figures defined more by their rank than by their personal history or legend. They are meant to represent all aspects of life and society signifying the ability that anyone can achieve the Dao.

The Eight Immortals do not accept sacrifices of food or alcohol and can only be contacted through official requests written by Daoist priests. Their depictions come from all walks of life and include, among others, a scholar, an actor, a gardener, a musician, and a doctor, but the Eight also includes one woman, Hé Xiāngū, who is usually depicted carrying a lotus, the symbol of purity. Among the powers these immortals possess is having extraordinary bodies that do not age and which are capable of amazing physical feats; the ability to transform into different creatures and objects; the gift of healing; the ability to predict the future; and the skills for controlling people, animals and objects through the control of qi.

(15) Octogonal Jar with Eight Immortals, China, Mid-14th Century (1)    (16) Octogonal Jar with Eight Immortals (Inset), China, Mid-14th Century (2)

(17) Octogonal Jar with Eight Immortals (Inset), China, Mid-14th Century (3)     (18) Octogonal Jar with Eight Immortals (Inset), China, Mid-14th Century (4)
(Octogonal Jar with Eight Immortals, Glazed Stoneware with Mold-Impressed Relief Decoration (Longquan Ware), China, Mid-14th Century, Yuan Dynasty, Philadelphia Museum of Art)

While the highest gods of Daoism appeared spontaneously from the energies underlying all matter, it is possible for a human being to reach such a state of spiritual purity and these eight immortals signify that with a place in the hierarchy of celestial beings. Human beings, who through learning, self-discipline, alchemy, and/or other means that have purified themselves of mortal imperfections can become gods: A transformation often described as “ascending to the heavens in broad daylight.” To achieve such immortality is the ultimate goal of most Daoist spiritual practices. Humans who become immortal become not only gods to be worshiped, but also models whose lives are emulated by Daoist practitioners who hope to become gods themselves.

(19) Eight Daoist Immortals Crossing the Sea, Senrei Hata, Japan, 1912-26 (1)

(20) Eight Daoist Immortals Crossing the Sea, Senrei Hata, Japan, 1912-26 (2)(Senrei Hata, Eight Daoist Immortals Crossing the Sea, Two Six-Fold Screens, Japan, Taishō Period, 1915, Philadelphia Museum of Art)

(21) The Daoist Immortal, Li Tieguai, China, 19th Century    (22) The Daoist Immortal Lü Dongbin, China, 16th Century

(⬆︎ The Daoist Immortal Li Tieguai, Porcelain, China, 19th Century, Qing Dynasty, Philadelphia Museum of Art)
(The Daoist Immortal Lü Dongbin, Hanging Scroll; Ink and Color on Silk, China, 16th Century, Ming Dynasty, Philadelphia Museum of Art ⬆︎)

(Li Tiěguai, the most beloved Immortal and patron of Chinese herbal doctors. He was the first mortal to become an Immortal.)

(Lu Dongbin, the patron of scholars. He is usually depicted as a carrying the evil-destroying sword on his back and a fly whisk that enables him to fly through the air and walk on clouds representing his mastery over space.)

The third and lowest level of Immortals are the domestic gods that protect the hearth and family. The most popular of these is Zào Jūn, the Kitchen god whose name literally translates as “stove master.”

According to custom, it is believed he visits every home to observe the good and evil done by each person in a Chinese household. A piece of red paper decorated with his picture, or a long red banner inscribed with his name, is hung in a shrine over the kitchen stove, and offerings are made to him several times a month. At the end of each year, the Kitchen God travels to Heaven to make his report to the Jade Emperor, the supreme God of Heaven, on what has happened on Earth during the year. The Kitchen God is still venerated by many people today.

Zào Jūn, the Kitchen god, with offerings, Photograph courtesy of tydao, China, 2014

(Zào Jūn, The Kitchen God, with Offerings, Photograph Courtesy of Tydao, China, 2014)

(Chinese New Year is when the Kitchen God returns to Heaven to report the good and bad deeds every household has committed over the past year, and the Jade Emperor will reward or punish each household accordingly. When families send the Kitchen God off, they prepare candy, water, straw, and other necessities for the God himself and his horse, and put these offerings in front of his statue or image. In order to make the Kitchen God sugar-lipped, they melt sugar then apply it on the Kitchen God lips so he could say nice things about them in front of the Emperor).

Different Daoist sects and schools had come and gone, but by the Tang Dynasty (618 – 906 CE), Daoism had 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 by being neither dogmatic nor missionary but by becoming a cumulative religion, Daoism evolved by absorbing numerous cultural influences and readily adapting to them and by integrating those beliefs from these different religions into its own. It is interesting to note that Daoism has successfully coexisted for centuries with Confucianism and Buddhism as one of the three main religions or philosophies of China and that all three of its accredited founders, Laozi, Prince Siddhartha, and Confucius historically lived at roughly the same time, within a generation or so of each other, at their respective beginnings.

(23) Pillow with Confucian Scholar, Buddhist Monk, and Daoist Priest, China, Dading Period (1161-89), 1178

(Pillow with Confucian Scholar, Buddhist Monk, and Daoist Priest, Stoneware with Underglaze Slip Decoration (Cizhou Ware), China, Dading Period (1161-89), Song Dynasty, 1178, Philadelphia Museum of Art)

Ancient China, reaching back to the beginnings of philosophical Daoism, believed that matter and energy, or qi, were fundamentally the same. With their forms thrusting up toward the heavens, mountains were the most visible examples of energy converted into matter, and as such they have always played an important role in the religious beliefs of the Chinese. Consequently,  mountains, being filled with supernatural energy, or qi, are sacred and are seen as axes connecting heaven and earth.

Central to the worship of mountains was the belief that there were Five Sacred Peaks, in the north, south, east, west, and center of China, that were directly linked to the heavens. Because of their special energy, mountains were believed to nurture the magical herbs and fungi used in elixirs of immortality. Considered fitting places for meditation and spiritual retreat, mountains also served as the earthly homes of the Daoist Immortals and gods.

(24) Sun, Moon, and Five Peaks, 19th Century (Joseon Dynasty), Korea, PMA

(Sun, Moon, and Five Peaks, Eight-Fold Screen; Colors on Paper, 19th Century, Joseon Dynasty, Korea, Private Collection)

(The Sun, Moon, and Five Peaks symbolizes the universe in microcosm. The sun and moon represent the interrelated dualistic forces of yin and yang, the tàiji. The Sun is yang: the light and masculine side. The moon in yin: the dark and feminine side. The five mountain peaks correspond to the five elements, or wu yun: wood, earth, fire, metal, and water, that represent the various stages, or cycles, of emptiness and fulfillment tàiji goes through. The water cascading into the pool of waves represents qi and the constant circulation of those elements).

(25) Snuff Bottle - God of Longevity, China, 1644-1911    (26) Snuff Bottle and Stopper - Daoist Immortal with Fly Whisk (Two Children and Bird with Fungus)

( ⬆︎ Snuff Bottle: God of Longevity, Agate with Carved Decoration in High Relief; Coral Stopper; Ivory Spoon, China, Qing Dynasty, 1644-1911, Philadelphia Museum of Art)
(Snuff Bottle and Stopper: Daoist Immortal with Fly Whisk (Two Children and Bird with Fungus), Translucent Light Brown Amber with Carved Decoration; White and Green Jade Stopper with Ivory Spoon, China, Qianlong Period, Qing Dynasty, 1736-1795, Philadelphia Museum of Art ⬆︎)

As a medium, Daoist art didn’t actually come into its own until the 5th century CE. Since emerging as a dominant religion, it has been a major influence on Chinese art forms such as painting, ritual object making, sculpture, calligraphy, and clothing throughout its evolution and China’s history. Landscape painting in particular connects to Daoism in both its depiction of either a mystical sacred mountain populated by immortals or a real mountain known for its Daoist temples. In fact, many Daoist priests spent a great deal of time in the mountains and became accomplished landscape painters themselves. 

Birgitta Augustin of New York University wrote: “Daoist art reflects the broad timespan and the diverse regions, constituencies, and practices of its creators. The artists – commissioned professionals, but also leading Daoist masters, adepts, scholar-amateurs, and even emperors – working in written, painted, sewn, sculpted, or modeled media, created an astonishingly eclectic body of works ranging from sublime evocations of cosmic principles to elaborate visions of immortal realms and paradises as well as visualizations of the Daoist pantheon, medicinal charts, and ritual implements.”

   (28) Daoist Immortals in Landscape, China, 18th Century    (28) Immortals Watching Bats, China, 19th Century

( ⬆︎ Daoist Immortals in Landscape, Ink and Color on Silk; Mounted as a Hanging Scroll, China, 18th Century, Qing Dynasty, Philadelphia Museum of Art)
(Immortals Watching Bats, Formerly attributed to Zhu Derun, Chinese, 1294 – 1365, Hanging Scroll; Ink and Color on Silk, China, 19th Century, Qing Dynasty, Philadelphia Museum of Art ⬆︎)

Chinese landscape painting was, even in its nascent form, a blending, a manifestation, of the Daoist and Buddhist principles that shaped the minds of China’s Confucian artist-intellectuals in the East. Just a cursory glance at one here will confirm that Chinese landscape paintings are fundamentally different from their Western equivalents … especially in the former’s abundance of empty, or negative, space and lack of realistic representation. This is why understanding these images requires some knowledge of the conceptual framework within which they operate. To view a Chinese landscape without this understanding would be like looking at a Renaissance painting with no knowledge of Christianity. 

In a Chinese landscape painting, empty space depicts Absence, the generative emptiness, from which the landscape elements, or Presence, are seemingly just emerging into existence or vanishing back into the void. The Dao is an ongoing cosmological process, an ontological* pathway, by which things come into existence, evolve throughout their lives, and then go out of existence, only to be transformed and reemerge again in a new form. At its deepest level, the core of Dao is described by that cosmology in terms of these two fundamental elements: Absence and Presence.

Presence is simply the empirical universe, the “ten thousand things,” as they’re referred to, in constant transformation, and Absence is the generative void from which this ever-changing realm of Presence perpetually emerges. The Dao is the process through which all things arise and pass away as Absence burgeons forth into the great transformation of Presence. This is simply an ontological description of a natural process. Consider the cycles of the seasons: The pregnant emptiness of Absence is at its peak in winter followed by Presence’s burgeoning forth in spring. Presence comes to its peak with the fullness of its flourishing in summer but then reverts back into Absence with dying of autumn.

This makes philosophical sense because the concepts of Absence and Presence are simply an approach to the fundamental nature of things, and in the end, they are the same thing: Presence grows out of and returns to Absence and is therefore always a manifestation of it. It is the balance of opposing forces. Absence and Presence are simply different ways of seeing the Dao: One can contemplate on either the Absence, a single formless tissue that is magically generative, or the Presence, that tissue in its “ten thousand” distinct and always changing forms.

Within this philosophical framework emptiness expands to include larger portions of the composition: river and sky, mist, cloud, lake water … all rendered, not in realistic colors, but as a single blank background of only a pale wash on raw silk or paper. The “ten thousand things” of empirical reality appear as rivers-and-mountains emerging from that emptiness of mist and cloud, water and sky … merging and hovering there, seemingly on the verge of vanishing back into it. Sometimes the mountains can seem suffused with that generative emptiness, but the way the pinnacles tower up makes the whole feel as though it is seething with dynamic energy. 

These landscapes can seem to be made of that emptiness while still maintaining an overall effect of brightness, but they can also render a mindscape of stark serenity: The empty mind of an old sage-master somehow includes all the joy and sorrow of life and each work renders that cosmology in its own particular way.

Whispers of Trees - Denudata, Chu Chu, China, 2011-17    Whispers of Trees - Diospyros, Chu Chu, China, 2011-17

( ⬆︎ Chu Chu, Whispers of Trees – Magnolia Denudata, Photograph, China, 2011-17, Philadelphia Museum of Art)
(Chu Chu, Whispers of Trees – Denudata, Photograph, China, 2011-17, Philadelphia Museum of Art ⬆︎)

Chinese landscape paintings serve as perhaps the most dramatic and immediate form of the Daoist, as well as Buddhist, spiritual practice of merging one’s consciousness with the landscape and Cosmos. The human element in these paintings is almost always small, though well-integrated, in the landscape, or there is no trace of a human presence at all. The lack of linear perspective in Chinese landscape paintings makes the viewer feel somehow inside the work’s cosmology and able to wander there inside it rather than being a center of identity looking at it from a single viewpoint outside the painting. In a landscape scroll, the rollers are held in each hand, and the scroll is viewed by slowly rolling it from one side to the other creating the effect of one walking through the landscape himself.

However, the most important way these paintings weave consciousness into the existence-tissue of landscape relates to the way they were actually meant to be experienced: Proper viewing of this art was determined by the meditation practice which was common among ancient China’s artist-intellectuals and is often referenced in landscape paintings where mountain monasteries appear. In meditation, the stream of thought falls silent and practitioners inhabit an empty-mind. It is a way of looking, or a way to focus one’s attention, on the truth of one’s own life. Viewing a landscape painting in ancient China was a meditative practice in which one might stand in front of a single work or sit in meditation at its base for hours absorbed in its depths. In Classical Chinese the word for both “mind” and “heart” were the same. Meditating on a landscape painting meant one was cultivating the inexhaustible complexity of possessing both an empty mind and a full heart.

Daoist philosophy also permeated Chinese architecture as well as painting. Dating back several thousand years, the Chinese discipline of integrating the philosophical concepts of balance and harmony among opposing forces into their living environments existed as well. First, developed as a way for people settling onto land to farm animals and grow crops, it was initially used to identify safe dwelling places where families would be able to flourish and to determine the best burial sites for their relatives. This practice of looking at our manmade environments and adapting them to exist in harmony with the principles of the natural world developed centuries ago and was called Kan Yu. In the Han Dynasty, around the third century BCE, the name of the process changed to feng shui which simply translates as “wind and water” in Chinese. This new name was taken from an ancient Chinese poem that reflected upon how human life could be ideal if man connected with and lived in flow with the environment around him. The Chinese have a deep belief in qi, the animating life force that is everywhere. It “ … permeates [one’s] home, physical surroundings, the rivers roads, trees, and all people.” Both wind and water convey a sense of invisible energy which flows in certain directions. This, again, is the Dao, the way of nature, and it aimed to ensure that people could live in harmony with their surroundings.  

Later, as China grew and evolved, it was used to site palaces, government buildings and other public monuments. Even whole cities were designed and built according to core feng shui concepts. These architects had to understand how environmental factors influenced buildings externally and internally and how to place them so that each building had a comfortable physical environment. In ancient China a city was planned in concentric rectangles surrounded by walls surrounded by lakes, hills, valleys, gardens, courtyards and parks. The Chinese tried to ensure that both the natural and the built environment were planned to enhance positive energy.

Feng shui teaches that the earth is a living thing and has life and energy. The earth was then landscaped according to the Daoist ideas of yin and yang, void and solid, water, and hill. The elements of the landscape were placed in such a way that the yin, or negative space, and the yang, or positive space, were in harmony, had balance, and maintained a continuity of balance. These spaces were incomplete without water and hills, a contrast between yin and yang, fluidity and solidity. The gardens, too, had to be a contrast between openness and closeness and curved and straight lines. When a structure was built both the yin and yang had to be balanced, and if the building leaned more towards any one of these two principles, then there was imbalance and thus improper. 

Take for example a room or a residence in an imperial structure like a Chinese Reception Hall. The Daoist principles of feng shui incorporate the Chinese compass of north, south, east and west, in which south is located on the top, and in the center of this compass is the “Middle Kingdom” where a great bed, sofa, or central piece of furniture would be located. A reception hall is a yang house, a house for the living, as opposed to a tomb, a yin house, or a house for the dead.

Through concepts of geomancy, placing or arranging buildings or other sites auspiciously, along with ancestral cult practices, yin houses and yang houses are closely connected in Chinese thought. In their original setting, they could be located quite far apart. However, the princes who lived in the palace of which the reception hall was a part, would have made offerings several times a year at an ancestral tomb complex within his domain.

(29) South View - Reception Hall from the Palace of Duke Zhao (Zhaogongfu), Ching, First Half of 17th Century (1)

(South View – Reception Hall from the Palace of Duke Zhao (Zhaogongfu), China, First Half of 17th Century, Ming Dynasty, Philadelphia Museum of Art)

While official-style architecture changed considerably during the thousand years before the Ming dynasty (1368-1644 CE), virtually nothing changed after 1368 CE, when the official-style became codified and buildings of the same type were built and rebuilt following a modular plan. Chinese buildings are always entered from the south. Northern entrances were believed to be bad luck, perhaps not in small part due to the Mongol and other invasions that threatened China from the north throughout much of its history.

Qi, positive energy, runs from south to north, and the direction of south corresponds with summer, warmth, heat, and vitality. Its symbolic animal is the red phoenix which represents beauty and goodness. From the north, however, comes winter, cold snow, and darkness. Its symbolic animal is the black tortoise which represents long life and endurance. 

To the east, of the “Middle Kingdom, the room’s center, which is located on the left side of the Chinese compass, are the things that correspond to springtime, blue seas, and new growth. Its symbolic animal is the azure dragon which represents majesty and magnificence. Finally, to the west of the room, are those things which correspond to autumn. Its symbolic animal is the white tiger which exemplifies bravery and strength. These elements are used for the correct arrangement of furniture and the furnishings of rooms. 

(30) West View - Reception Hall from the Palace of Duke Zhao (Zhaogongfu), Ching, First Half of 17th Century (2)  (31) East View - Reception Hall from the Palace of Duke Zhao (Zhaogongfu), Ching, First Half of 17th Century (3)

(⬆︎ West View – Reception Hall from the Palace of Duke Zhao (Zhaogongfu), China, First Half of 17th Century, Ming Dynasty, Philadelphia Museum of Art)
(Reception Hall from the Palace of Duke Zhao (Zhaogongfu), China, First Half of 17th Century, Ming Dynasty, Philadelphia Museum of Art ⬆︎)

(Notice the flowers, symbolic of these four directions, painted on the ceiling in the room: South, summer: a lotus; north, winter, a plum blossom – blooming through the snow, east, spring, a peony; and west, autumn, a chrysanthemum – sturdy against the cold.)

Throughout China’s long and rich history, Daoism has passed through periods of ascendancy, decline, corruption and persecution. Prior to the 17th century, it was the religion of most Chinese people, including the Emperor. At the end of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644 CE) when the Manchu conquered China and established the Qing dynasty (1644-1911 CE), Tantric Buddhism became the Emperor’s religion and Daoism lost visibility at the highest levels of the court. The Manchu, and later the Chinese Republic along with its adoption of Communism, marginalized Daoism. It was denigrated and considered nothing more than a peasant superstition. Until the 1970’s the basic texts of Daoism had been out of print in China for over three hundred years. However despite all this, Daoism continued to thrive in places like Hong Kong, Macao, Taiwan, and Singapore. Today about three hundred Daoist Temples are scattered around China in which about thirty-thousand Taoist-practitioners live. Five Daoist schools are said to exist in the country and approximately twelve million people claim to again practice the religion. Worldwide, it is believed that over one hundred million people have taken part in some form of Daoist ritual in their lifetime.

In conclusion, let us consider the Daoist concept of “Pu,” or the Uncarved Block: 

(32) Scholar's Rock, China, 19th Century

(Scholar’s Rock, Limestone (Lingbi Type); Wood Stand, China, 19th Century, Qing Dynasty, Philadelphia Museum of Art)

An uncarved block is nothing but potential. It can be anything, everything, or nothing. It is a state of pure potential which is the primordial condition of the mind before the arising of experience. 

It points to perception without prejudice and beyond dualistic distinctions such as right and wrong, good and bad, black and white, or beautiful and ugly. It is a state of mental unity which places the Daoist into alignment with the Dao. 

This is how the Daoist views the world and humanity and depicts it in his art. It was always here; it was never here; it is here now.

– Richard Di Via



* Ontology: a branch of metaphysics, it is the philosophical study of the nature of being, becoming, existence, or reality. Ontology deals with questions about what things exist or can be said to exist and how such entities can be grouped according to similarities and differences.
* All images are courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art unless otherwise noted.



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