20080303-Fanghu Island of Immortals.jpg
Fanghu Island
of the Taoist immortal
Taoism has been a major influence on Chinese art forms such as painting, ritual object making, sculpture, calligraphy and clothing. Taoism can manifest itself in art in two ways: 1) art with Taoist subjects such as immortals and Lao-tze; and 2) art made in a Taoist, made quickly from memory, style. Themes include rituals, cosmology and mountains. Immortality is a central element of Taoism. Famous Taoist painting dealing with immortality include “Immortal Ascending on a Dragon”, “Riding a Dragon”, “Fungus of Immortality”, “Picking Herbs”, and “Preparing Elixirs”.

Taoism (Daoism in pinyin) is a philosophy-turned-religion that preaches living in harmony with nature and simplicity. It began as a philosophical tradition in early China. Its most famous work is the Daodejing, attributed to a person known as Lao-tze (Laozi), who may have existed in the 6th century B.C. It developed into an organized religion by the A.D. 2nd century. Although its practices vary widely, it generally advocates self-discipline and good living as a way to attain immortality, as well as elaborate rituals to purge individuals or communities of evil. Its ideas of harmony with nature underlie many aspects of Chinese culture, from calligraphy and painting to architecture and medicine.

Zhuangzi (Chuang-tzu, “Master Zhuang”) was a late 4th century B.C. Daoist philosopher and is the pivotal figure in Classical Philosophical Daoism. Chow Chung-yan wrote in the South China Morning Post, “While Confucius emphasises social virtues, harmonious order and hierarchy, Zhuangzi's works are far more existential and transcendental. His thinking is individual rather than collective, and his poetic writings have inspired generations of writers. In many ways, Zhuangzi is an artist philosopher in the same vein as Friedrich Nietzsche, deemed eccentric by the mainstream but loved by writers and artists. [Source: Chow Chung-yan, South China Morning Post, December 30, 2012]

According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: “The founders of Daoist philosophy, Laozi (of the Spring and Autumn period) and Zhuangzi (369-286 B.C.), advocated that people should follow "Dao" or the "path" by revering nature and practicing a peaceful and "inactive" way of life. Toward the end of the Eastern Han, Zhang Daoling (A.D. 34-156) and others used the philosophies of Daoism and assimilated ancient beliefs of deities, spirits, and ghosts to form the Daoist religion. They promoted the idea that people could reach enlightenment and become immortals through praying to and summoning gods and spirits. The National Palace Museum has a rich collection of Daoist texts, which are accompanied by many beautiful prints of sages, guardians, deities and immortal. There are also images illustrating loyal and courageous men and women fighting for justice and legends of Daoist priests exorcising devils and evil spirits. These works are presented in a righteous, dignified, and compassionate manner. Their features are lifelike, and the scenes deeply inspiring and moving. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei, npm.gov.tw]

Websites and Sources on Chinese Painting and Calligraphy: China Online Museum chinaonlinemuseum.com ; Painting, University of Washington depts.washington.edu ; Calligraphy, University of Washington depts.washington.edu ; Websites and Sources on Chinese Art: China -Art History Resources art-and-archaeology.com ; Art History Resources on the Web witcombe.sbc.edu ; ;Modern Chinese Literature and Culture (MCLC) Visual Arts/mclc.osu.edu ; Asian Art.com asianart.com ; China Online Museum chinaonlinemuseum.com ; Qing Art learn.columbia.edu Museums with First Rate Collections of Chinese Art National Palace Museum, Taipei npm.gov.tw ; Beijing Palace Museum dpm.org.cn ;Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org ; Sackler Museum in Washington asia.si.edu/collections ; Shanghai Museum shanghaimuseum.net

Taoist Painting

Taoism had a major influence on Chinese art forms such as painting, ritual objects, sculpture, calligraphy and clothing. Themes include rituals, cosmology and mountains. 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. [Source: Birgitta Augustin Institute of Fine Arts, New York University, Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org \^/]

Chinese painting was greatly influenced by Taoism, a mystical religion-philosophy based on the principal that following the rhythms of nature are key to reaching heaven. The Tao tradition brought together past and present, nature and art, and poetry and painting. The best Tao-influenced Chinese art was defined as "divine class" or "marvelous class," terms that describe works by painters who developed their individual capacities to reveal the spirit of heaven and nature found in everyone.” [Source: "The Creators" by Daniel Boorstin]

One of its most important goals of Taoist painting was revealing qi, variously known as the "Breath of Heaven," the "Breath of Nature" or the "Quality of Spirit." According to one painting manual, "qi is as basic as the way [people] are formed and so it is with rocks, which are the framework of the heavens and of earth, and also have qi. That is the reason rocks are sometimes spoken of as 'roots of the clouds.' Rocks without qi are dead rocks, as bones without the same vivifying spirit are dry bare bones. How could a cultivated person paint a lifeless rock...rocks must be alive."

Taoist painting often contained heavenly deities, roaming immortals, guardian figures and protectors of the faith. These images helped propagate Taoism by informing illiterate people though images rather than texts. Among the popular subjects of Taoist paintings are the Eight Immortals, Liu Hai and his golden three-legged toad, deities on flying dragons, guardian figures, protectors of the faithful, "The Three Purities" (three important Taoist deities roaming through heaven), and "Three Officials on an Inspection Tour" (deified officials of heaven, earth and water on a procession through the clouds, land and water).

Taoism and Painting Quickly From Memory

20080303-immortal in splashed inkm by Liang Kai sung, album lead, tap.jpg
Taoist immortal

To paint in a Taoist manner, 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, "one must have it entirely within one. Grasp the brush, look intently [at the paper], then visualize what you are going to paint. Follow you 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."

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 psychologists G. W. Allport later described as a "visual-memory image [that] revives the earlier optical impression when the eyes are closed...with hallucinatory clearness." [Source: "The Creators" by Daniel Boorstin]

The Chinese were also forced by their materials to paint quickly in one continuous process. Unlike Leonardo da Vinci, who developed oil paints for the Last Supper which could 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 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," 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." To prepare for painting some Chinese artists medited on the rhythms of nature by taking reflective walks in the forest. The goal wrote the Taoist scholar Chang Tzu was to "achieve the goal of self-cultivation" through "sageliness within and kingliness without." [Source: "The Creators" by Daniel Boorstin]

History of Taoist Art

The earliest examples of Taoist art — murals, sculptures and talisman made by shamans and Taoist adepts — have been lost to time. Although works of Taoist art remain from the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.-220 A.D.) none of them are paintings. Taoism spread throughout China during the Six Dynasties Period (220-588 A.D.), when Taoist art was often featured on the walls Taoist monasteries and temples. The father of Taoist painting is regarded as Ku K'ai-chih, a 4th-century sage-painter. Although none of his works remain, we know about him from the Tang Dynasty text “Record of Famous Painting Throughout the Ages”. Ku K'ai-chih is credited with painting images of Illustrious Fairies and Illustrious Immortals.

Taoist painting flourished during the Tang dynasty (618-906) under the generous patronage of the imperial court. Famous Taoist Tang painters include the muralists Wu Tao-tzu (690?-758?) and Yang T'ing-kuang (713-741). Chang Su-ching produced great images of guardian figures during the Five Dynasties period (907-960).

During the Sung dynasty (960-1279), Taoism and Taoist art were lavishly supported by the emperors Chen-tsung (998-1022) and Hui-tsung (1101-1125). The zenith of Taoist painting occurred in the 11th century, when 100 artists, chosen from 3,000 candidates, lead by chief painter Wu Tsung-yuan produced the wall painting “Immortal Protectors of the Dynasty” in the Three Purities temple at Lonyang.

Very few paintings remain from the golden period of Taoist periods. All of the Taoist paintings from the Tang dynasty have been lost but a few from the Sung dynasty survive. The Yung-lo Temple, built during the Yuan dynasty (1279-1368), in Shaanxi Province contains some old Taoist paintings. Most of the Taoist paintings seen in temples and museums come from the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1645-1911) dynasties. Works by the artists Ma Yuan (1190-1224) from the Sung Dynasty and Chang Yü-ch'u from the Ming dynasty can be seen at the National Palace Museum in Taipei.

Examples of Taoist Art


Birgitta Augustin of New York University wrote: “The Daoist sage Laozi is often shown riding on an ox or in an ox cart as he prepared to leave China by way of a pass to the West. Legend has it that he authored the Daodejing, or Scripture of the Way and Virtue, when the guard at the pass asked him to write down his teachings. A small bronze sculpture presents the sage in a full robe, topknot, and a long narrow beard. Images of the other paramount figure of Daoist philosophy, Zhuangzi, are less common, but The Pleasure of Fishes by the late thirteenth-century painter Zhou Dongqing evokes a famous passage from Zhuangzi's writings about recognizing feelings of joy in others. Wu Boli's Dragon Pine presents a Daoist manifestation of qi, or "cosmic energy," as a powerful pine tree that recalls the double-S curve of the cosmic yin-yang diagram. The horizontal landscape Cloudy Mountains by the Daoist abbot Fang Congyi similarly transforms a mountain range into a writhing dragon vein of energy that uncoils out of the distance only to vanish into a misty void. [Source: Birgitta Augustin Institute of Fine Arts, New York University, Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org \^/]

“A superbly crafted gilt-brass sculpture by a fifteenth-century artist may be identified as the Celestial Worthy of the Primordial Beginning, one of the Three Purities—the highest deities in the Daoist Pantheon. The robe of a Daoist dignitary (daoshi), probably worn during Daoist rituals, features numerous auspicious symbols, including sun and moon medallions on the shoulders as well as cranes, deer, and dragons. Beneficent Rain by the Celestial Master Zhang Yucai, the highest dignitary of the Orthodox Unity sect of southern Daoism, illustrates dragons—embodiments of cosmic energy capable of bringing forth clouds and rain. The painting was likely intended to demonstrate Zhang's prowess in rainmaking rituals.\^/

“Two Ming-dynasty paintings depict members of the Daoist pantheon, which resembles a complex bureaucracy made up of deities in the form of stars, officials, marshals, and lords. Star Deities of the Northern and Central Dippers presents two constellations in anthropomorphic form, while Marshal Wang illustrates a protective deity and his retinue. Both images, which recall large-scale temple murals, were created as part of extensive sets of icons used in religious rituals similar to those performed by Buddhists. The Lord of the Northern Palace, Zhenwu, one of the most prominent deities in the Daoist pantheon, can be identified by the serpent coiled around a tortoise that appears at the front of the pedestal on which he sits. The Daoist deity , decorated with yellow, green, black, and white glazes typical of Ming-dynasty Daoist and Buddhist ceramic sculptures, probably represents the Heavenly Marshal Zhao (Zhao Gong Ming), and epitomizes the kind of local gods that were absorbed into the Daoist pantheon. The Investiture of a Daoist Deity, an extraordinary nine-meter-long handscroll, depicts such an appropriation.\^/

“Among the many divinities in the Daoist pantheon, few are as prominent as the Eight Immortals, a group of legendary figures that first became popular in the twelfth century (2006.238). In the fan painting Immortal Lü Dongbin Appearing over the Yueyang Pavilion (17.170.2), one member of this group is seen "flying" through the sky. Lü is said to have received sacred knowledge from Zhongli Quan, another of the Eight Immortals, who is shown framed by clouds on a Ming blue-and-white ceramic bottle (2010.312). Landscape representations often evoke Daoist themes, such as Spring Dawn over the Elixir Terrace (1982.2.2) by the literati artist Lu Guang, or the miniature mountainscape sculpted in jade (02.18.684)—a stone of such hardness and purity that it bears connotations of immortality. Often landscapes allude to Daoist paradises, as is the case in Outing to Zhang Gong's Grotto (1982.126) by the Ming loyalist painter Shitao (1642–1707), who renounced his status as a Buddhist monk late in life and adopted the Daoist identity of Dadizi, "the great purified one."

Song and Yuan Dynasty Taoist Paintings

During the Song dynasty Taoism and Taoist art were lavishly supported by the emperors Chen-tsung (998-1022) and Hui-tsung (1101-1125). The zenith of Taoist painting occurred in the 11th century, when 100 artists, chosen from 3,000 candidates, lead by chief painter Wu Tsung-yuan, were commissioned to paint the wall mural Immortal Protectors of the Dynasty in the Three Purities temple at Lonyang.

“Immortal in Splashed Ink” by Liang Kai is an early 13th century album leaf painting, ink on paper, measuring 48.7 x 27.7 centimeters): According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: In this painting, the second leaf from the album "Assorted Gems of Famous Paintings," is a squinting immortal chuckling as he walks along. With his chest and abdomen exposed, he seems to be shuffling forward. Except for the fine outlines of his head and facial features, nearly all of the clothing was done with wet applications of monochrome ink. The brush was freely handled to bring out everything in the thoroughly drunken appearance of this immortal. This type of unrestrained painting by Liang Kai, with its abbreviated brushwork rich in Chan overtones, was highly favored by Japanese monks and laymen, later having a great influence on Zen painting in Japan. Liang Kai was a native of Dongping in Shandong who settled in Qiantang (modern Hangzhou, Zhejiang). In the Jiatai era (1201-1204) he served as Painter-in-Attendance. He refused the prestigious Golden Belt, however, leaving it hanging at the imperial court. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei, npm.gov.tw]

“Lao-tzu Riding a Blue Ox” by an anonymous Song Dynasty painter is hanging scroll, silk tapestry, measuring 108 x 51.7 centimeters. Tapestries, also known as k'o-ssu ("cut silk") in Chinese, is a refined and artistic form of traditional craftwork in China. According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: ““In this hanging scroll is Lao-tzu, originally named Li Erh and style named Tan. He was from the state of Ch'u in the Spring and Autumn period during the 6th century B.C.. In Taoism, he is considered an incarnation of the "Senior Lord of the Supreme". It is said that when Lao-tzu went through Han Valley Pass, the official Pass Commissioner Yin Hsi felt the presence of a purple mist suddenly appearing in the air. He surmised that a great sage was passing through the area. Not long thereafter appeared Lao-tzu riding on his blue ox emanating from the east. Yin Hsi implored Lao-tzu to write down a book for later generations. Lao-tzu consented and left behind at Han Valley Pass the famous Tao-te-ching in 5,000 characters. After finishing it, he got on his ox and rode off to the west, never to be heard from again.,”

Civil unrest erupted in the Jiangnan area of east-central China after the mid-1350s, and many scholars chose or were forced into reclusion or devoted themselves to Taoism. Of like mind, they formed close-knit circles in the Suzhou, Hangzhou and Sungkiang areas. "Dwelling in the Fu-ch'un Mountains" by Huang Kung-wang (1269-1354) records the scenery in the artist's life of countryside reclusion. "Twin Pines (Junipers)" and "Bamboo and Rock" by Wu Chen (1280-1354) reflect the lofty and secluded nature of this scholar. Ni Zan (1301-1374) used barren and lonely landscapes, such as in "Riverside Pavilion by Mountains", as a statement of psychological state at the time. "Spring Plowing at the Mouth of a Valley" and "Fishing in Reclusion at Cha-hsi" by Wang Meng (?-1385) both praise his friends' life of reclusion. Such Taoist painters and calligraphers as Fang Ts'ung-i (ca. 1302-1393) and Chang Yu (1283-1350) used either a simple and direct or a free and liberated approach, much in the Taoist philosophy of following nature. These artists did not seek to please others with their art, but instead focused on expressing their own emotions to create the definitive mode of literati painting and calligraphy.

Ming Taoist Paintings

Queen Mother of the West rding Foo Dog

“Fang-hu Mountain” by Wen Po-jen (1502-1575), Ming Dynasty, is a hanging scroll, ink and colors on paper, measuring 120.6 x 31.8 centimeters. According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: “Wen Po-jen, a native of Suzhou, was a nephew of the famous artist Wen Cheng-ming. In painting, Po-jen excelled at depicting figures and landscapes, which usually have dense forests and mountains like those of Wang Meng. The precision and strength of his brushwork, however, was still in the Wen family style. Wen Po-jen was also a gifted poet. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei, npm.gov.tw]

“In the middle of a vast sea of waves, mountains of the immortals tower up and reach the clouds. Taoist temples can be seen nestled among the peaks, and the world within seems to represent a sort of idyllic paradise. In fact, according to Taoist legend, Fang-hu Mountain (the subject of this work) is one of the five mountains of the immortals and is located somewhere far east of the Po Sea. Since this painting adopts a Taoist subject, the title in the upper right and the inscription in the lower left are both written within rectangular frames in the convention of early Taoist and Buddhist paintings. The patternistic waves, floating clouds, triangular peaks, and tree groves here were all executed with extremely fine brushwork and bright yet elegant colors for an otherworldly effect.

“Four Immortals Pay Homage to the God of Longevity” by Shang Hsi (mid-15th century), Ming Dynasty, is hanging scroll, ink and colors on silk, measuring 98.3 x 143.8 centimeters. Shang Hsi, a native of Henan, excelled at painting landscapes, figures, flowers, and birds as he copied the style of the Sung masters. He entered the imperial painting academy during the Hsuan-te era (1426-1435) and became an honored painter at court especially noted for historical subjects.

“As they walk across the sea, four legendary Buddhist and Taoist figures happen upon the God of Immortality riding a crane. The four are Liu Hai-ch'an (one of the Five Patriarchs of the Ch'uan-chen sect of Taoism) sitting on his three-legged toad; Li T'ieh-kuai (one of the Eight Taoist immortals) standing on a cane holding a gourd; and Han-shan and Shih-te (two Ch'an Buddhist monks of the Tang) standing on a banana leaf and a broom. Shang Hsi adopted the Tang style of Wu Tao-tzu but also incorporated the abbreviated brushwork of Sung and Yuan Ch'an painting. The animated figures interact as drapery folds fly and twist like broken reeds. Furthermore, the decorative trembling brushwork for the waves complements the auspicious subject matter.

Legendary Taoist Figures

“Laozi: the Supreme Lord” is in “Sancai Tuhui” “(Assembled Illustrations of the Three Realms of Heaven, Earth and Man”), written by Wang Qi (1529-1612), a Ming imprint of the 37th year the Wanli reign (1609) with handwritten supplements, measuring 28.5 x 31 centimeters. According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: “Laozi, whose name was Lier and style name was Poyang, and also called Laodan, was a philosopher in the late of Spring and Autumn Period. He was the founder of Daoism school, where he is called "The Supreme Lord", and is regarded as the father of religious Daoism. He was the author of Daodejing. According to the "Sancai Tuhui", he started to reincarnate since the Three Sovereigns period. It is said that he was born from his mother's armpit under a plum tree, with an appearance of an immortal. When King Wen of Zhou was still the Xipo feudal prince, Laozi was offered a position as a librarian in the royal library. In the time of King Wu, he was the manager of decrees and relics and later he retired as a hermit in the time of King Zhou. It is said that after retired, when Laozi was going to leave through the Hangu Gate by a cattle wagon, the guard saw a purple cloud came from the east, and he knew a sage was going to pass there. He met Laozi and asked him to write a book, the famous Daodejing. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei, npm.gov.tw]

“Ge Hong Moving His Residence” by Ming Dynasty artist Zheng Zhong (early 17th century) is an ink and colors on paper hanging scroll, measuring 135.8 x 29.1 centimeters. This work depicts the famous Daoist Ge Hong (283-343) moving home. Native to Jurong, Ge learned the art of alchemy from Zheng Yin. Later he heard of cinnabar in Jiaozhi in the far south, so he took his family to Mt. Luofu in Guangdong to make the elixir of transcendence. Here, he is on an ox behind his wife (née Bao) and child. An attendant leads an ox, one has the furniture, and another holds a goose and a gourd of medicine. There is also a ram and two dogs. The layers of peaks were done with dense brushwork, much in Wang Meng's (1308-1385) style, as the figures add life to the work.

“Zhang Daoling” is in “Xianfo qizong” (“Adventures of the Deities”), written by by Hong Yingming, Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), a reprint by Yuedantang of Wujin in the Republic era (1912 to date), measuring 29.8x30.6 centimeters. “Zhang Daoling from the Easter Han dynasty was also called Zhang ling, who is the founder of the Daoist sect Tienshidao. People called him Daoist Master Zhang. It is said that he has already mastered Laozi' s Daodejing when he was seven. Later, he became a distinguished student in the five canons, pills refining technique, and ancient magic. Many people came and studied with him. His life was full of legends and miracles. This painting describes that Master Zhang has an awe-inspiring appearance from "Xianfo qizong" by Hong Yingming.

“Xu Zhenjun” is in “Xiuxiang liexienzhuan” (Re-engraved Embroidered Eminent Daoist Saints), edited by Hong Zicheng, Ming dynasty (1368-1644), a Qing Imprint of the Zaizitang Printhouse in the 13th year of the Daoguang reign (1833), measuring 25.8x26 centimeters. “Xu Zhengjun, whose real name was Xu Xun (239-374CE), was a famous Daoist priest in the Easter Jin dynasty. It is said that he lived for 135 years. He studied religious Daoism from Wu Meng, and was called Xu Jingyang for governing the Jingyang prefecture. He was honored as "Genuine Person with Godly Power and a Merciful Heart who Understand the Ultimate Dao" by Emperor Huizong of the Song dynasty, so people call him "Genuine Person Xu". Stories of him are very brilliant and he is also one of the four great guardians in religious Daoism. It is said that his mother, in a full-moon night, dreamt of a legendary creature "Fenghuang" with a pearl in her hand, and then the pearl was swallowed by her and then Xu was born. He mastered history and canons, especially knowledge of immortality. He also helped people killing a giant snake and other evil creatures. It is said that he forged an iron columns and chains to conquer an evil dragon. His Daoist magic was distinguished, it is said that at 135, he ascended to immortality with dozens of immortals attending him. This painting depicts that he holds a banana leaf with a tiger beside, which is related a legend about healing a tiger's throat soar.

“Daoist Priest of Zichuan” in “Sanshisan Jianketu” (“Portraits of Thirty-Three Swordsmen”), illustrated by Ren Xong, Qing dynasty (1644-1912), is a Qing imprint of the 6th year of the Xianfeng Reign (1856), measuring 31.3x30.1 centimeters. According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: “This woodcut is from the "Sanshisan Jianketu" by the famous painter Ren Xong in the Qing dynasty, portraying the characters from the stories in "Jianxiazhuan (Tales of Celebrated Swordsmen)". The story of "Daoist Priest of Zichuan" is a romance about an intellectual Jiang Lianfu and a gorgeous swordswoman immortal. In the story, the swordswoman already has a boyfriend, who is another swordsman immortal. But she still falls in love with Mr. Jiang, and so the swordsman comes to kill him. A Daoist Priest of Zichuan knows this and comes to transform the swordsman immortal into a skeleton, and then transform him again into water. The author wanted to express that even as immortals, they still cannot escape complicated romance. The Daoist priest in the painting is relaxed and confident, his supernatural power and martial art are superb.

Taoist Gods

Eight Daoist immortals

“Riding a Dragon” by Ma Yuan (fl. 1190-1224), Song dynasty, is a hanging scroll, ink and colors on silk, measuring 108.1 x 52.6 centimeters. According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: Ma Yuan, a native of Hezhong (modern Yongji in Shanxi), moved to Qiantang in Zhejiang. He served as a Painter-in-Attendance at the Painting Academy during the reigns of Guangzong and Ningzong in the Southern Song and excelled at landscape, figural, and bird-and-flower subjects. Deities and immortals in Taoism are unrestricted by time or space, being free to roam at will by so-called "riding on the clouds and flying on a dragon, touring to and fro beyond the Four Seas." The billowing layers of clouds in this painting employ monochrome ink washes that seem to sparkle everywhere. Wind and clouds rise with a thunderclap as the immortal rides a dragon ascending on the gust, his wide sleeves and sashes billowing in the blast of air to suggest spiritual force, an attendant at his service. The brushwork features "trembling strokes" characteristic of Ma Yuan's style, being hoary and mature, its refinement having not diminished in the least despite the fading colors over the centuries. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei, npm.gov.tw]

“Gods of Happiness, Prosperity, and Longevity” by Ming Dynasty artist Chen Hongshou (1598-1652), Ming Dynasty is an ink and colors on silk hanging scroll, measuring 125.3 x 52.2 centimeters. In Taoism, the gods of happiness, prosperity, and longevity are most popular. This work shows the three looking at each other in conversation. At the left is the Heavenly Official of Happiness with a belt, high cap, and a sprig of plum blossoms in an elegant, poised manner. To the right is the God of Prosperity with plum blossoms like a scholar. In between is the God of Longevity with his balding head and spirit fungus and cane. The work features light colors, the drapery patterns in archaic "gossamer strands" with lines free and flowing.

“Three Officials Out on an Inspection” attributed to Ma Lin (fl. 1195-1264), Song dynasty, is a hanging scroll, ink and colors on silk, measuring 174.2 x 122.9 centimeters. The "Three Officials" in Taoism refer to the Official of the Heavens bestowing blessings, the Official of the Land who pardons sins, and the Official of the Waters alleviating hardships. Together they are known as the Three Primes, with their rank being only lower than the Great Jade Emperor. The reason why they make an inspection tour is to observe good and evil in the land and take care of all living beings. The arrangement here is similar to that in a wall painting with the Three Officials divided into three levels and riding on the clouds or waters below. Each accompanied by a retinue, they are covered by a carriage or parasols for a very majestic effect. The followers include not only immortals of the heavens and waters but also demons of various forms, their interesting expressions quite lively and deserving closer examination. This work was originally attributed to Ma Lin, son of the court artist Ma Yuan (fl. 1190-1224). Ma Lin followed in the family style, becoming Attendant in the Painting Academy under Emperor Ningzong (r. 1195-1224). The style here, however, is different from his, the brushwork in the landscape forms being closer to that of a Ming dynasty (1368-1644) artist.

“Nuwa” in “Tienwentu” (“Illustrations of Heavenly Questions”), illustrated by Xiao Yuncong (1596-1673), is an imprint of the Qing dynasty (1644-1912), measuring 23.2x26 centimeters. “That Nuwa patched the sky and molded human is one of the remote Chinese myths. It circulated widely as folk literature before the Warring States period. In the picture of Lisaotu ("Illustrations of Encountering Sorrow"), Nuwa is depicted as a goddess with a snake body and a human head. It can transform into seventy different forms in a day. Sometimes Nuwa and Fuxi together are called "the Two Emperors". Fuxi was described as having a body of dragon and holding the sun in his hand, and Nuwa holding the moon. The folk calls her Empress Nuwa, and regarded her as the founder of marriage and the inventor of reed pipes. The story of Nuwa's moulding human and patching sky is told in Taipingyulan and Huainanzi. This painting is from "Tienwentu (Illustrations of Heavenly Questions)", depicting the scenes of Nuwa entwining on a pillar with her snake body and patching the sky with the five-color stones in her hand. This scene is adopted from the chapter of “Heavenly Questions" in Quyuan's Li-Sao("Encountering Sorrow"). [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei, npm.gov.tw]

“Hebo” in “Lisaotu” (“Illustrations of Encountering Sorrow”), illustrated by Xiao Yuncong (1596-1673), is an imprint of the 2nd year of the Shuanzhi reign (1645), Qing dynasty, measuring 26.5x27.5 centimeters. “Hebo is the god of the Yellow River, and the god of river can also be called by the same name. It is said that Hebo has a human head and a fish body, but sometimes it was also described as having a human head and either a snake body or the body of a bird. Turtles in the river are his messengers. "Hebo's marriage" is a well-known story describing a custom of sacrificing a young girl to the God of River. In this story Hebo is described as a handsome and romantic man. "Jiuge" in Chuci (Songs of Chu) is a collection of poems praising gods from Heaven and Earth, humans, and ghosts, but Hebo is also mentioned. In this poem, Hebo falls in love with the Goddess from the river Lo and records the scenes of their travels. The illustration is from "Jiugetu" in " Lisaotu", which depicts Hebo rides on dragons and turtles, and is going back to his palace.

“The Lord of the Clouds” (Yun Zhongjun) in “Chenzhangho xiuxiang chuci” (“Chen Zhangho's Embroidered Portraits of the Songs of Chu”), illustrated by Chen Hongshou (1598-1652), is an imprint of the 11th year of the Congzhen reign (1638), Ming dynasty, measuring 26.1x29.5 centimeters Yun Zhongjun is the lord of clouds and also called Fenglong, or Pingi in mythology. In "Jiuge" of Chuci, there is a poem named Yun Zhongjun, which is for rituals praying to the lord of cloud. He is described as wearing the cloths of the emperor and looks very attractive. Yun Zhung-chun rides on a dragon wagon and travels to all over the world; he can go over a thousand miles in a second. This painting is from the "Chenzhangho xiuxiang chuci" and Chen Zhangho is actually Chen Hongshou, also called "Laolian (Old Lotus)". He was a painter in the late Ming and the early Qing period, who has outstanding contributions to the history of Chinese woodcut. In this woodcut Yun Zhungjun is depicted as daring and energetic, concentrated on seeing forward. In addition, in folklore, he is said to be a young and attractive goddess who is the wife of the god of the sun; and that's why the sun always comes with clouds.


According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: “The Daoist religion pursues immortality, and encourages people to become immortals by following the "path" and achieving "Dao". Beginning since the Wei and Jin dynasties (265-420 CE), Daoism and the legends of deities and immortals have become deeply intertwined. People believe that through using methods like alchemy, guiding the flow of "qi" through the body, regulation of breathing, mediation, and accumulating virtue by performing good deeds, they can reach immortality. Many of these stories are accompanied by illustrations, such as Chuci ("Songs of Chu"), Lisaotu ("Illustrations of Encountering Sorrow"), Xianfo qizong ("Adventures of the Deities"), Liexian Jiupai ("Drinking Menus of Eminent of Daotist Saints"), and Xinjuan xianyuan jishi ("Chronicles of Faeries"). These creative and imaginative imageries are both lifelike and animated. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei, npm.gov.tw]

Taoist immortal Magu

“Maonu” attributed to Li Gonglin (ca. 1049-1106), Song dynasty, is a hanging scroll, ink on silk, measuring 156.4 x 81.6 centimeters. According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: Maonu ("Hirsute Maiden") is a legendary figure of the Huayin Mountains. Reportedly with hair over her body and clothed in vegetation (like a crane's plumage), she claimed to be from the palaces of Qin Shihuang (First Emperor of China). After the fall of the Qin, she went into the mountains, where she learned how to eat pine needles and thus avoid starvation (her body also becoming so light she reportedly could fly). The book Extensive Records of the Taiping Era says that in the Dazhong era (847-859) of the Tang dynasty, two elders (Tao Taibo and Yin Zixu) became friends and traveled the peaks of Song and Hua. There they met Maonu and another recluse of the Qin dynasty. Receiving the pine resin and pine nuts of immortality, they turned to bid farewell, only to find them gone.

“Portrait of the Immortal Hemp Maiden” attributed to Ma Hezhi (fl. 1131-1189), Song dynasty, is a hanging scroll, ink and colors on paper, measuring 124.4 x 62 centimeters. This painting of the Hemp Maiden (Magu) shows her as a youth with slender fingers and carrying over her shoulder gourds and a basket brimming with spirit fungus and flowers, reflecting a description of her in Biographies of Deities and Immortals by Ge Hong (284-363) of the Eastern Jin. Hemp Maiden was invited to the home of Cai Jing by the immortal Wang Yuan and conducted a ritual of casting rice into cinnabar. She is said to have the appearance of a fair maiden about 18 or 19 years old but with hands in the form of bird claws. She witnessed the Eastern Sea become mulberry fields and inundated three times, a symbol of her longevity. The famous Tang dynasty calligrapher Yan Zhenqing (709-785) composed "Record of the Altar for the Immortal Hemp Maiden," the first part of which cites from Biographies of Deities and Immortals, while the latter records an altar dedicated to Hemp Maiden at Nancheng County in Fuzhou, the place where she cultivated the Way. Emperor Gaozong (1711-1799) of the Qing dynasty inscribed this text on the painting here. This work was originally attributed to Ma Hezhi of the Southern Song, but the style is closer to that of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), differing from the light and untrammeled fluid manner for which Ma was known. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei, npm.gov.tw]

“Liu Haichan” attributed to Wu Wei (1459-1508), Ming dynasty, is a hanging scroll, ink on silk, measuring 49.2 x 51.2 centimeters. Liu Haichan (Daoist name Haichanzi) lived in the tenth century. He gave up officialdom to study Daoism and said to have become an immortal. The story of "Liu Hai and a Golden Toad" (Liu Hai xi jinchan), popular since the Song dynasty, was abbreviated to "Liu Haichan." One story says he commanded the toad of immortality to spew forth gold coins, which he used to aid the poor. Another says his father was a greedy official who was reincarnated as a three-legged toad thrown into a sea of filth. Upon achieving the Dao, Liu fished him out with a string of gold coins. In the lower right of this painting is the name "Xiaoxian" of Wu Wei, but it is probably a later addition. The tree, cliff, and waterfall all differ from Wu's rough style, and the drapery is unlike his fine brush style (baimiao), suggesting a late Ming date (first half of the seventeenth century).

“Jiangfei Ernu” (“Two Fairies”) in “Xinjuan xianyuan jishi” (“Chronicles of Fairies”), written by by Yang Erzeng (17th century), is an imprint of the 30th year of the Wanli reign (1602) by the Caoxuanju Printhouse of the Yang family of Qiantang, measuring 30.5x29.5 centimeters. “This painting is from "Xinjuan xianyuan jishi". The main character is Zheng Jiaofu, who met two immortal women Jiang and Fei near a river by chance. They expressed their admiration to each other, and asked for jade pendants as gifts. The story is simple and the scene is graceful; especially the touching scene in which they sings the local songs from Chu to each other. And the ending is also mystical and intensely interesting.

“Qingao” in “Liehxian Jiupai” (“Drinking Menus of Eminent of Daotist Saints”), illustrated by Ren Xong, Qing dynasty and carved by Cai Rongzhuang, Qing dynasty (1644-1912), is a Qing imprint of the 6th year of the Xianfeng reign (1856), Qing dynasty, measuring 30.9x30.1 centimeters. “Immortal Qingao has such name because of his superb skill in play guqin (a Chinese instrument). He followed the Daoist ways of Juanzi and Pengzu, and travelled near Jizhou and Zhoujun in Hobei County for over two hundred years. One day, he promised his student to catch a young dragon in the Cho River. At the time promised, he rode on a red carp and came out from the water, and then he sat back in temple. Many people witnessed this event and later he went back into the water after a month. In Daoist story, immortals often attended by beasts and other creatures, meaning that they can go wherever they want, and be one with Heaven. This painting was in "Liehxian Jiupai" in which Qingao is depicted as riding on a fish in water freely.

Dwelling Places of Immortals

“Towers and Pavilions in Mountains of the Immortals” by “Qiu Ying (ca. 1494-1552), Ming dynasty is a hanging scroll, ink and colors on paper, measuring 110.5 x 42.1 centimeters. According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: Halls and pavilions are interspersed in a mountain valley with a cluster of pine trees in the foreground. In the tower at the right, a scholar gazes towards the distance as two phoenix-like birds stand on the terrace. In the pavilion at the left, two scholars sit facing each other as if in conversation. Peaks rise in background layers and are wrapped in bands of clouds as waterfalls cascade from the heights. At the top of the painting is a transcription in regular script of Cai Yu's (1457-1541) "Ode on Mountains of the Immortals" by Lu Shidao (1517-1580) from 1550. It speaks of the eternal mountains of the immortals and the pursuit of immortality among people to enter this utopian realm of everlasting and unlimited joy. The clouds in this painting were outlined with delicate brushwork in an attempt to hark back to the blue-and-green landscape tradition of Li Sixun (653-718) of the Tang dynasty. Text and image complement each other here and concretely reflect the yearning for a realm of the immortals among literati in the middle Ming dynasty.

Huashan, sacred Taoist mountain

“Jade Cave in the Mountains of the Immortals” by Lu Chih (1496-1576), Ming Dynasty is a hanging scroll, ink and colors on silk, measuring 150 x 80 centimeters. In southeast I-hsing county, Jiangsu, lies Master Chang Mountain, wherein lies the Master Chang Caves. Legend has it that Zhang Daoling, traditionally considered the founder of Taoism, once lived there (hence the name). Lu Chih made a trip to this site and was impressed by the fantastic scenery there. Judging from the contents of the inscription, this is a painting of the scenery there and a reflection on his trip as well as his life of reclusion. Lu has placed the cave in the lower middle, and the scene is dominated by projecting peaks and clouds above for a mysterious effect. Combining imagery of the place and the mind, Lu shows the cave as infinite and blank, giving it a transcendental quality reminiscent of the Taoist master after whom it was named. The towering composition follows after the monumental landscape manner of Song artists, while the angular lines and texturing are completely in Lu's own style. Therefore, Lu was at the stage of assimilating elements of previous styles and developing his own manner, transforming the old to create something refreshing and new.

“Mountains of the Immortals” attributed to Wang Shen (ca. 1048-1122), Song dynasty, is a handscroll, ink and colors on silk, measuring 24.5 x 145.1 centimeters. This painting of lofty ranges and a flowing river features thatched village buildings in the mountains with distant waters and level shoals as well as scattered boats. The artist's inscription at the end above a distant peak states he had a dream one day about wandering in the mountains of immortals, which inspired him to do this work. The hills and valleys are done in a blue-and-green manner with meticulous brushwork, imparting an archaic elegance fully conveying the dream-like scene. The "blue-and-green" landscape technique here was done in simple outlines to which colors were added for an archaic feeling very similar to the method used in this type of work by the Yuan painter Qian Xuan (1239-1301) but also differing from other surviving works by Wang Shen.,

“Gathering of Immortals at Penglai” attributed to Hu Tinghui (ca. late 13th century), Yuan dynasty is a hanging scroll, ink and colors and gold on silk, measuring 201.5 x 121.8 centimeters. This work depicts a land of immortals, where a waterfall echoes among mountains. Buildings and pavilions rise in tiers above rushing waters. An immortal in Taoist garb holds a flywhisk and sits on a daybed. On the path and in the buildings are other immortals. The artist used coarse brushwork to first broadly outline the rocks and mountains, then adding details with a finer brush. After applying blue and green washes, he also used gold ink, giving the landscape a glittering atmosphere suiting this realm of the immortals. “The former attribution of this painting is to the Yuan dynasty artist Hu Tinghui. Despite a signature at the right to this effect, it is probably a spurious addition. The style overall, however, is actually closer to that of the middle to late Ming dynasty, making this a fine painting later assigned to Hu Tinghui.

Things Associated with Immortality

“Training a Crane and Picking Flowers of Immortality” attributed to an anonymous Song dynasty painter, is a hanging scroll, ink and colors on silk, measuring 140.4 x 78.1 centimeters. According to National Palace Museum, Taipei: By cliffs with wisteria is an immortal maiden with hair over her body and a leafy gown, probably representing Maonu ("Hirsute Maiden"). Below is a ram cart with knotted vines for wheels, thus creating an otherworldly scene. Texts indicate that paintings on the subject of Maonu appeared by the late Southern Song (1127-1279), and four works of her attributed to the Yuan artist Qian Xuan (ca. 1235-before 1307) circulated in late Ming dynasty (1368-1644) collections. In them, she is shown carrying something accompanied by such animals as a crane and deer, indicating that different images of her appeared by that time.

“A Hundred Deer of Prosperity” by an anonymous, Ming dynasty painter is a handscroll, ink and colors on silk, measuring 45.6 x 290 centimeters. At the scroll's beginning on the right are peaks and running water with pines and rocks shading the banks. Depicted there is a herd of deer frolicking, feeding, and resting in various poses, filling the work with great vitality. In the scenery are several leaf-clad youths picking spirit fungus and holding bamboo wicker baskets as they proceed through the hills. It is said that spirit fungus ("immortal grass") extends life. Here, "hundred" is also a term signifying "many" and the word for "deer" in Chinese a homonym for "prosperity." Meaning literally "great fortune," it is an auspicious theme conveying wishes for joy and good luck. This work is unsigned, but the subject and style suggest the hand of a court painter of the middle Ming dynasty.

“Portrait of the Immortal Magu” attributed to Ma Hezhi (fl. ca. 1140-1190), Song dynasty, is a hanging scroll, ink and colors on paper, measuring 124.4 x 62 centimeters. The first part of Yan Zhenqing's (709-785) "Record on the Altar of the Immortal Magu" quotes Ge Hong's (283-343) Biographies of Deities and Immortals, telling how the immortal Wang Yuan invited Magu ("Hemp Maiden") to Cai Jing's home, where she changed rice into pills of immortality. The latter part of Yan's text records the Altar's location where she achieved the Dao (Fuzhou, Nancheng County). Here Magu is shown with long fingernails, as in Ge's description of her as "18 or 19 (years old). Her hair was tied up, some strands falling about" and with "hands as if bird claws." Her basket has a gourd, spirit fungus, and flowers, associating her with fortune, longevity, and auspiciousness. The style reveals an early Qing dynasty (1644-1911) date, so the earlier Yuan and Ming collector seals are most likely spurious.

“Flowers from a Garden Immortalized” by Lu Chih (1496-1576), Ming Dynasty, is a handscroll, ink and colors on silk, measuring 30.4 x 266.9 centimeters. Lu Chih not only excelled at landscape painting but also at the subject of birds-and-flowers. His surviving works in the latter category include both the fine-line and "sketching ideas" manners. In reclusion after the age of around 50, gardening was an important part of Lu's life. According to a record by Lu's friend Wang Shih-chen, Lu enjoyed gardening and grew many plants and trees at Chih-hsing Mountain. After spending a considerable amount of time observing the appearance and growth of these plants, he was able to capture them with his mature brushwork and his fine sense of coloring, thus giving them "immortality" with this scroll of silk.

Books and Articles: Augustin, Birgitta “Eight Daoist Immortals in the Yuan Dynasty: Note on the Origin of the Group and Its Iconography” Orientations 41 (September 2010), pp. 81–87.. Augustin, Birgitta “The Daoist Image—Portrait of the Immortal.” In The World of Khublai Khan: Chinese Art in the Yuan Dynasty, by James C. Y. Watt et al., pp. 128–57.. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010; Eichman, Shawn “Immortals of the Wine Cup: Religious Images on Seventeenth Century Chinese Porcelain.” Orientations 34, no. 3 (2003), pp. 86–92.. Eichman, Shawn “The Art of Taoist Scriptures.” Orientations 31, no. 10 (2000), pp. 36–44. Fong, Wen C. Beyond Representation: Chinese Painting and Calligraphy, 8th–14th Century. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1992; Hay, Jonathan Shitao: Painting and Modernity in Early Qing China. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001; Katz, Paul R. Images of the Immortal: The Cult of Lü Dongbin at the Palace of Eternal Joy. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 1999; Kohn, Livia Daoism and Chinese Culture. Cambridge, Mass.: Three Pines Press, 2001; Little, Stephen “What is Taoist Art?” Orientations 31, no. 10(2000), pp. 26–35. Little, Stephen; Eichman, Shawn, et al. Taoism and the Arts of China. Chicago: Art Institute of Chicago, 2000; Pregadio, Fabrizio, ed. The Encyclopedia of Taoism. 2 vols.. London: Routledge, 2008; Robinet, Isabelle Taoism: Growth of a Religion. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1997.

Image Sources: 1) Taoist ritual, artmuseum.gov; 2) Taoism Baiyuan Temple in Beijing, China Hiking; 3) Taoist Priest Robe Chicago art museum; 4) Temple, Taoist Sacred Sites ; 5) Taoist martial arts, China Hiking; 6) Painting, Chicago art museum; Asia Obscura

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2021

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been authorized by the copyright owner. Such material is made available in an effort to advance understanding of country or topic discussed in the article. This constitutes 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. If you are the copyright owner and would like this content removed from factsanddetails.com, please contact me.