Picturing the True Form: Daoist Visual Culture in Traditional China

Submitted by Shihshan Huang on Sat, 08/25/2012 - 21:53
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TitlePicturing the True Form: Daoist Visual Culture in Traditional China
Publication TypeBook
Year of Publication2012
AuthorsHuang, S. -shan S.
Refereed DesignationRefereed
Date Published2012
PublisherHarvard Asia Center
Type of Work(monography): art history; art and religion; Daoism; Daoist art; Daoist visual culture
KeywordsDaoist visual culture; medieval Daoism; inner alchemy; art, religion and science; Daoist Canon; Daoist illsutrations

Picturing the True Form investigates the long-neglected visual culture of Daoism, China’s primary indigenous religion, from the tenth through thirteenth centuries with references to earlier and later times. In this richly illustrated book, Susan Huang provides a comprehensive mapping of Daoist images in various media, including Dunhuang manuscripts, funerary artifacts, paintings, and other charts, illustrations, and talismans preserved in the fifteenth-century Daoist Canon. True form (zhenxing), the key concept behind Daoist visuality, is not a static picture but entails an active journey of “seeing” underlying and secret phenomena through a series of metamorphoses.

The book’s structure mirrors the two-part Daoist journey from inner to outer. Part I focuses on inner images associated with meditation and visualization practices for self-cultivation and longevity. Part II investigates the visual and material dimensions of Daoist ritual. Interwoven through these discussions is the idea that the inner and outer mirror each other and the boundary demarcating the two is fluent. Huang also reveals three central modes of Daoist symbolism—aniconic, immaterial, and ephemeral—and shows how Daoist image-making goes beyond the traditional dichotomy of text and image to incorporate writings in image design. These particular features distinguish Daoist visual culture from its Buddhist counterpart.