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19th century Taoist ritual
Taoism has both a philosophical and a religious tradition in China. Although philosophical Taoism flourished early in the fifth century B.C., Taoism as a religion did not develop until the first century A.D. Next to Confucianism, it ranks as the second major belief system in traditional Chinese thought. The philosophy of Taoism outlined in the Tao Te Ching, attributed Lao Tze, offers a practical way of life.

Organized Taoism has traditionally been focused around localized communities and cults. The idea of having temples and monasteries came into being primarily as a response to competition from Buddhism. There are still elements of secrecy to Taoism. Many rituals are performed in secret and many of the secret societies that have popped up in Chinese history had a Taoist underpinnings.

In Taoism's long history there have been a number of weird sects and cults that performed strange rituals and did things like give up all their possessions and fight battles thinking they could not be harmed by weapons. There have also been Taoist sects that established charities and orphanages and performed other good works. The Universal Red Swastika Society acted much like the Red Cross.

Different Taoist orders include the formalized Qen Zhen order, which borrows some elements of Buddhism, and the less formalized Zheng Yi order. Throughout its history Taoism has been very fluid. There have been several efforts to unify Taoism with Buddhism and Confucianism and even Christianity and Islam.

Good Websites and Sources on Taoism: Robert Eno, Indiana University; Religion Facts Religion Facts Religious Tolerance ; Stanford Education ; Taoist Texts Chinese Text Project ; Taoism ; Chad Hansen’s Chinese Philisophy

Good Websites and Sources on Religion in China: Chinese Government White Paper on Religion ; United States Commission on International Religious Freedom; Articles on Religion in China ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Council of Foreign Relations ; Brooklyn College ; Religion Facts; Religious Tolerance ; Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy ; Academic Info ; Internet Guide to Chinese Studies

Taoist Practices and Rituals

Magic, alchemy, divination, astrology, incantations, charms, secret mantras, special diets, meditation, scripture reading, secret finger signs, exorcism, communication with mediums, special potions and elixirs have all traditionally been key elements of Taoism. Incense sticks are an important component of Taoist religious practice. Worshippers believe the smoke helps waft prayers towards their deities.

Many Taoist practices seem like they are straight out of a spiritual self-help book. Followers are told they can reach paradise if they follow a careful program of dieting, breathing, abstinence, drug taking, confession and atonement. They are also given tips on how to pray to the dead, earn merit, escape from the underworld and use Taoist alchemy to turn bones to gold and skin to jade.

Many practices in the old days were geared towards the achievement of immortality. Taoists ate pine needles, cones and resin in the belief they made their body parts more durable. They avoided eating grain because it was believed that grain nourished death-causing demons in the heart, brain and stomach. Taoist drugs and breathing exercises often were intended to suppress these same demons.

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Burning incense at Baiyuan Temple in Beijing

Taoist Rituals and Festivals

So-called crude rituals perfomed by esoteric Taoist sects have included rolling in the mud, smearing one’s face with dirt and having group sex. In Taoist exorcisms priests have confronted troublemaking spirits and attempted to control their dangerous yin forces by evoking powerful yang forces to bring about cosmic and personal harmony. Many of these rituals have been performed by small rural cult-like communities that had been declared illegal and heretical.

In healing ceremonies still practiced today patients are treated through atonement rituals and penitence. Minor sins such as drunkenness are absolved by writing down a confession and making three copies: one addressed to heaven and placed on a mountaintop; the second buried in the earth; and the third submerged underwater.

Describing a ghost placation ritual, Maggie Farely wrote in the Los Angeles Times, ‘sweating under their robes, the priests circuit the area’s temple, horns whining, cymbals crashing, then pause for breath....As the processions glides up the hill, chanting prayers.”

During the Taoist pai pai temple festival shaved pig carcasses with fish and pineapples stuffed in their mouths are paraded through the streets on decorated bamboo platforms, followed by itinerant opera troupes and puppeteers singing in high pitched voices and dancing to shrill flute music and gongs. The larger the pig the more honor received by a family. It is not unusual for a single pig to weigh a half a ton or more. To make the carcases look nice the eyebrows are plucked, the hoofs are manicured and red stamps are placed all over the hide. [Source: National Geographic, Helen and Frank Shreider, January 1969]

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Taoist priest robe

Taoist Priests, Ascetics and Monks

Rituals are sometimes presided over by officials referred to as priests. They often wear red robes. Red is the Chinese color of good fortune. Many are laymen. In the past there were Taoist priests who did not marry, followed strict vegetarian diets and lived in monasteries but there were never very many them.

Taoism has traditionally extolled those who lived like recluses and communed alone with nature. Sennin were Taoist mountain ascetics who lived in caves. Through rigorous training and frugal living, it was said, they obtained full understanding of the Tao, achieved immortality and were able to call up the wind and move between heaven and earth. The tradition lives on in Japan in the Yamabushi cult. Taoist texts did not have much nice to say about those who challenged nature. One line from the Tao Te Ching reads: "Those who would take over the earth and shape it to their will, never, I notice, succeed."

Taoist monks and nuns can still be found. There are 5,500 Queen Zhen order monks. They live in temples and wear blue cotton jackets and white spats. They are not allowed to eat meat or cut their long hair which is held up in elaborate topknots. Zheng Yi order monks are allowed to get married and live in houses with their families. Taoist nuns in Jiangsu wear black pants, bright blue work smocks and coil their hair above their heads. They spend their time praying, doing chores, reciting passages from ancient Taoist texts, practicing calligraphy, playing ancient instruments, and performing acts of self-cultivation.

In July 2006, a farmer killed an abbot of Taoist temple and nine other people at the temple because he thought the abbot flirted with his wife.

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Taoist Temples

Taoist temples usually have black pillars while Buddhist temples have red ones. Around the courtyard or courtyards are different shrines (known as "departments" or "halls") dedicated to different deities or legendary figures. The temples usually feature elements linked to nature worship and ancestor worship and have symbols---often animals such as cranes, bats or monkeys---that are supposed to bring good luck.

Within the Dong Yue Temple in Beijing are 76 office-like "departments," each containing sculptures of gods and spirits that can help people with particular ailments or problems. They include the Department for the Promotion of 15 Kinds of Decent Lifestyles, the Department of Timely Retribution, the Department of Suppressing Schemes, the Department of Flying Birds and the Department of Wandering Ghosts.

The main halls are usually dedicated to the Three Immortals, each shown riding a different animal (a crane, tiger and deer), which represent the three levels of the Taoism. A statue of Guanyin, the multi-armed Buddhist Goddess of Mercy, is usually also present. Other figures that are often present include the Yellow Emperor; the Eight Immortals; Wen Cheng, who is said to bring good luck for those taking exams; Zhue Liang and other legendary heros form the ancient story Three Kingdoms; and Guan Yu, the red-faced god of war and healing.

Taoists believe that their gods live lives that are similar to those of people. Shrines in Taoist temples often have bedrooms and food for the gods they house. Many Taoist temples feature deities associated with certain trades or aspects of life that are worshiped and treated like patron saints. See Taoist Gods.

At Baiyun Gong Temples in Beijing the Hall of the Gods of Wealth is the busiest shrine. The eastern and western halls contain collections of Taoist relics, including paintings of the horrors of hell, where sinners are sawn in half and meet other punishments. In a western courtyard there is a shrine with twelve deities, each dedicated to a sign of the zodiac. Many Taoist temples have three gates at the entrance’symbolizing the three states of Taoism, desire, substance and emptiness.

Many Taoist temples have hanging brass coins with a hole in the middle. Women wait in line to throw tokens through the holes. Those who succeed, the legend goes, will bear a son. Tapist temples also often contain shiny, well-worn bronze mule statues. Rubbing these is said to bring good health.

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Taoism, the Arts and Sports

Taoism has been a major influence on Chinese art forms such as painting, ritual object making, sculpture, calligraphy and clothing. Themes include rituals, cosmology and mountains.

Although tai chi is secular its spiritual underpinnings are deeply Taoist. The gentle, slow movements and abdominal breathing all come from Taoist health and longevity exercises. The slow movements are believed to stimulate the flow of qi ("vital energy"), control the balance of yin and yang and produce harmony with the universe.

The origins of tai chi are unclear. It wasn't widely practiced by the Chinese public until the mid-19th century when the master Yang Lu Chan taught the martial art to the Manchu Imperial Guard and later to mandarin scholars.

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 \^/]

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 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).

Immortality was 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.

Books: 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.\^/

Taoism and Painting Quickly From Memory

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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

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Early Spring by Guo Xi
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 \^/]

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Fanghu Island
of the Taoist immortal
“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.

National Palace Museum, Taipei description of “Immortal in Splashed Ink” by Liang Kai, early 13th century (album leaf, ink on paper, 48.7 x 27.7 centimeters): 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 \=/ ]

On painting by Taoists and recluses, “Civil unrest erupted in the Kiangnan 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 Soochow, Hangchow, 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 Tsan (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. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei \=/ [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei \=/]

Image Sources: 1) Taoist ritual,; 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 2016

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