Daoism first appeared as a philosophy during the Bronze Age and developed into a religious belief system by the Han dynasty (206 BC–AD 220). Over the ensuing two thousand years, it gained both popular and imperial support, finally peaking in status under the Ming emperor Jiajing (r. 1522–1566).
Daoism, or the belief in the Dao (the underlying order of the universe), is chiefly concerned with cultivating virtue (de) in one’s life, living in balance with the natural world, and, by doing so, achieving immortality. Immortal deities, the most recognizable of Daoist images, were either local gods or historical figures who had elevated themselves to the status of immortals through self-cultivation and living in accordance with the Dao. Worship of these deities was an integral part of the practice of religious Daoism, and, as a result, the quest for longevity—and by extension, immortality—became a major theme in Daoist art.
Ming dynasty imperial leaders looked to Daoist deities for legitimization and protection of their power and position. The Yongle emperor (r. 1403–1424) was the first to adopt a Daoist god, Zhenwu (the Perfected Warrior), as his personal protector, while the Jiajing emperor (r. 1522–1566), preoccupied for much of his reign with the search for immortality, was infamous for his attempts at concocting elixirs which would enable him to live forever. The double-gourd shape, images of peaches and blossoming peach trees, the moon, the lotus, the pine tree, and the Big Dipper are all images found throughout Daoist art, and all refer to the Daoist ideal of everlasting life. Paintings of mountain landscapes referenced Daoism in different ways, often showing clouds and cave grottoes. Clouds symbolized mystical vapors, and often emanated from caves, which were believed to be gateways between the human realm and immortal paradise. Qing dynasty rulers, Manchu invaders from the northern regions above China’s borders, appreciated the value of Daoism as a tool for the legitimization of their rule, and adopted these traditional images for use on their imperial works.
The study of Daoist art is still a relatively new field in the West, particularly in comparison to the breadth of study devoted to Buddhist art. This exhibition, drawn from the Museum’s collection of Chinese art, provides a glimpse into this complex philosophy and the artwork it inspired.