Taoism and the Arts of China

Submitted by Komjathy on Thu, 02/12/2009 - 20:27
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TAOISM AND THE ARTS OF CHINA. By Stephen Little, with Shawn Eichman. Chicago/Berkeley: The Art Institute of Chicago/University of California Press, 2000. Pp. 415; maps; plates; illustrations; glossary; index. Cloth, $65.00, ISBN 0-520-22784-0; Paper, $39.95, ISBN 0-520-22785-9.


Taoism and the Arts of China is a beautifully and profusely illustrated art catalogue that is supplemented with historical essays of high erudition. This book was published in conjunction with the exhibition "Taoism and the Arts of China," which was organized by The Art Institute of Chicago under the direction Stephen Little (then Pritzker Curator of Asian Art at the institute). The exhibition itself was presented in the museum's Regenstein Hall from November 4, 2000, to January 7, 2001; it was then transferred to the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, where it ran from February 21 to May 12, 2001 (though with a slightly different collection). Gathering together over 150 works from museums and personal collections throughout China, Europe, Japan, and North America (see 407 for a list of lenders to the exhibition), "Taoism and the Arts of China" was the first major exhibition on the theme of Daoism and its influence on Chinese art (6). One cannot but be grateful to Stephen Little (as well as his assistants and supporters) for the exhibition and its related catalogue, Taoism and the Arts of China. 


In addition to the prefatory material, the book contains five introductory essays, followed by the catalogue of the exhibition proper. The introductory essays include "Taoism and the Arts of China" (13-31) by Stephen Little, "Taoism: The Story of the Way" (33-55) by Kristofer Schipper, "Taoist Architecture" (57-75) by Nancy Shatzman Steinhardt, "Mapping Early Taoist Art: The Visual Culture of Wudoumi Dao" (77-93) by Wu Hung, and "Taoism and Art at the Court of Song Huizong" (95-111) by Patricia Ebrey. According to Little, "[t]he purpose of this exhibition is to examine the role works of art have played in the history of Taoism from the late Han (second century) to Qing (1644-1911) dynasties….This exhibition examines the way works of art function in a religious context" (13). In addition, Little and the book's contributors frequently refer to "Daoist art." The repeated use of the category "Daoist art," without an explicit definition, leaves the reader wondering what characteristics lead to such a designation. Does any work of art made by a Daoist qualify as "Daoist art"? If a painting is housed and interpreted in a Daoist monastery, is this sufficient? Does a painting depicting a Daoist deity or immortal made by a Confucian artist qualify? Although one can begin to construct an answer by culling through the historical essays (see 18, 21, 57, 73-74, 77, 91-92), further theoretical clarification is required if the category is to be historically and heuristically viable. The "Catalogue of the Exhibition" (115-383) is, in turn, divided into three parts with a variety of sub-divisions: (I) "The Formation of the Taoist Tradition," including "Laozi and the Origins of Taoism," "Heaven and Earth: Taoist Cosmology," and "Sacred Mountains and the Cults of the Immortals"; (II) "The Taoist Church," including "The Beginnings of Religious Taoism," "Taoist Ritual," and "The Taoist Pantheon"; and (III) "The Taoist Renaissance," including "Taoism and Popular Religion," "Divine Manifestations of Yin: Goddesses and Female Saints," "Zhenwu, the Perfect Warrior," "Taoist Immortals," "Inner Alchemy and Its Symbolism," and "The Sacred Landscape." 


Containing 151 plates with accompanying descriptions/discussions written by Stephen Little and/or Shawn Eichman, these entries provide excellent information on the relevant historical and religious contexts. The book offers a welcomed opportunity to view and study the "material culture" of Daoism. Moreover, the superb print quality gives the reader/viewer access to the diversity of Daoist religious objects (paintings, swords, robes, stele inscriptions, talismans, calligraphy, sacred diagrams), an experience only surpassed in experiencing the art exhibition firsthand or observing the objects in a lived religious context (see 228-31 for a group of paintings from Baiyun guan [White Cloud Monastery]). The book is especially helpful for identifying the iconography and understanding the historical development of Daoist "gods." An excellent addition to any library or personal collection. Art historians, Sinologists, scholars of Daoism, and general readers interested in Daoism and/or Chinese art should have this book. One agrees with Little when he comments, "It is hoped that this exhibition will succeed in opening a door onto an ancient and vital tradition in Chinese art history that has all too long remained hidden" (30). (See also Journal of Chinese Religions 29 [2001]: 332-34; Religious Studies Review 27.2 [2001]: 200).


Louis Komjathy

Boston University

Jan 1, 2003