Interview with Shih-shan Susan Huang about her new book, Picturing the True Form: Daoist Visual Culture in Traditional China
Shih-Shan Susan Huang’s beautiful new book explores visual culture of religious Daoism, focusing on the tenth through the thirteenth centuries. Picturing the True Form: Daoist Visual Culture in Traditional China (Harvard University Asia Center, 2012) is divided into two sections, devoted loosely to esoteric and exoteric realms of knowledge. The “Inner Chapters” of Part I of the book consider esoteric Daoist images associated with meditation, visualization, and breathing practices. These chapters take readers into a world of Daoist cosmography, considering images of the body and the cosmos and the relation between these realms. Ranging from body worms to star voyages, from images of heaven and the underworld to bird forms in True Form Charts, from maps of paradise to forms of writing, the images and objects in Pt. I collectively create an archive of Daoist imagery while being very careful to explain how particular forms of image did very specific types of work. The “Outer Chapters” of Pt. II of the book examine exoteric Daoist works, including the material culture and spatial design of Daoist ritual space, ritual performance, and liturgical paintings. These chapters bring our attention to the materiality and ephemerality of some Daoist images, introducing the production and interpretation of Daoist paintings and offering us a basis for comparing the Daoist context with that of Buddhist imagery. It is an exceptionally rich study that will no doubt influence many fields in East Asian studies. Enjoy!