Iconography: Daoist Iconography

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Like Daoism, Daoist iconography is not easily described as a unity. The focus in this entry will be on the visual expressions of the organized religion whose origins can be traced to the second century ce, but this religion and its iconography cannot be understood without reference to the intellectual and religious developments that formed its background.


Many of the tenets that the Daoist religion came to embrace evolved during the last four centuries bce, the period that forged the worldview of imperial China. A chief concern for the competing rulers of the late Warring States period (403221 bce) and the founders of the succeeding Qin (221206 bce) and Han (206 bce220 ce) dynasties was the sanction of political power, based on the previous conception of a mandate (ming, also meaning "destiny" and "life") bestowed by heaven (tian ) on one who possessed perfect virtue or "inner power" (De ). From the fourth century bce on, Chinese thinkers speculated about the relationships between this inner power, the concept of an ineffable way (Dao) underlying the functions of the cosmos as a whole, and the notion of ming in its double sense as heaven's mandate to rule and as the mandate of life granted by heaven to each individual. To many of these philosophers, de or inner power, believed to derive from the ability of aligning oneself with the Dao, was the prerequisite quality of both the sage ruler and the saint capable of preserving his life. In the Dao de jing (Scripture on the way and inner power), attributed to the paradigmatic figure of the "Old Master," Laozi, the saint and sage ruler are equivalent. This also holds for the texts Guanzi (compiled between the fourth and the second centuries bce) and Huainanzi (submitted to the Han emperor Wu in 139 bce). The book Zhuangzi (the earliest parts are attributed to the fourth-century bce philosopher Zhuang Zhou), however, envisages the ideal, "fully realized person" (zhenren )whether female or malegaining boundless freedom by forsaking all political aspirations.

While some Warring States rulers quickly caught on to the idea of a direct connection between heaven-endowed power and longevity or immortality, a dialogue between various court professionals (astrologers, calendarologists, and health specialists) and philosophers led to the systematization of a theoretical framework by which the cosmic functions of the great Dao could at least approximately be understood and controlled. Modern Western scholars have termed the resulting systembased on the theories of yin and yang, of qi (the vital pneuma and material basis of the universe), and of the five cosmic driving forces (wuxing ; also rendered five elements, phases, or agents)Chinese correlative cosmology. Its symbolic expressions included animal figures (e.g., the tiger and the dragon standing for yin and yang), color schemes, and trigrams derived from the ancient Yi jing (Book of changes). The system, which united the divine, natural, social, and moral orders into one interconnected whole, henceforth became the mainstay not only of traditional Chinese cosmo-political thought, but also of the gamut of Chinese sciences, including medicine and the immortality arts, and of Chinese religion in general.

Just as, according to correlative cosmology, the order of the cosmos was manifest in the human realm in the form of administrative structures, the universe as a whole came to be viewed as administered by a bureaucracy of divine forces. The figure of the Yellow Emperor took the central position, analogous to the elemental force of "yellow" earth, among a group of five celestial thearchs correlated with the wuxing. By the early Han dynasty, the Yellow Emperor was the paradigm for the sage ruler. Believed to have not only civilized the world, but also succeeded in the cultivation of life, he became the model for Emperor Wu's (r. 14087 bce) quest for universal rule and immortality. But some two hundred years later, the emperors of the declining Han dynasty pleaded their hopes for longevity, male posterity, and the dynasty's survival before a far more powerful divinity: Laozi, who by then was seen as the very embodiment of the eternal Dao itself.

Demonstrative of the experience that for ordinary humans immortality is attainable only in an afterlife, most artifacts testifying to ancient Chinese beliefs about the cultivation of life have been discovered in tombs. A second-century bce Han tomb in Mawangdui contained the almost perfectly preserved body of a woman belonging to the high aristocracy. A painted silk banner presenting the lady's ascent from the tomb to the immortal realms covered the innermost of four coffins encasing her. Other finds in tombs of Han dynasty elites include Boshan (Universal Mountain) censers, incense burners with perforated, mountain-shaped lids depicting the marvelous world of the immortals; bronze mirrors, whose backsides show the Queen Mother of the West, often along with her male counterpart, the King Father of the East; and so-called money-trees, stylized tree-sculptures in bronze with coin-shaped leaves, their branches carrying divinities such as the Queen Mother of the West, immortals, and fabulous beasts.

The Queen Mother, a deity of ancient origin, became one of the foremost idols of the Han immortality cult. By the second century ce, she was believed to rule over a paradise of immortals on the mythic Kunlun Mountain located at the far western rim of the Han empire. Her pictureidentified by her phoenix-patterned headdress, her throne flanked by a tiger and dragon, and animals such as a bird, hare, toad, and foxfrequently adorns Han dynasty stone sarcophagi and mortuary architecture. As Wu Hung has demonstrated, her increasingly iconic representationshowing her frontally, seated, and centeredderives from images of the Buddha, which became known in China around the same time. Indeed, in the second century ce, the Buddha (recognizable by the uīa protuberance on his head, his halo, Ghandaran-style gown, and hand gestures or mudrās ) began to appear in Chinese funerary art as an equivalent of the Queen Mother of the West, promising, like her, immortality beyond the tomb.

Evidently, the hope for postmortem immortality in some paradisiacal region was counterpoised by fears of an afterlife in the drab realms of death. Texts excavated from graves of commoners reveal that the netherworld was already in the late fourth century bce imagined as a bureaucratic institution. By the second century ce, this administration was believed to be headquartered in China's Five Sacred Mountains and ruled by the Celestial Emperor or Yellow God. The texts usually express people's trepidation at the possibility of untimely death, either on account of an error in the netherworld bookkeeping, or because the deceased might have suffered or committed severe wrongs during life. Surviving family members buried human figurines of ginseng and lead with the bodies of the deceased to redeem their guilt and serve as surrogates for the living, lest they might fall ill and die by implication.

Early Daoist Religion

Early Daoists shared and refined this broader worldview as they constructed their tradition between the second and fifth centuries ce. Among several politico-religious movements in the second century, the Way of the Celestial Master alone survived and established the fundamental liturgical and organizational structures of the Daoist religion. Celestial Master followers worshiped Laozi as the supreme embodiment of the Dao, whose limitless pneumata (qi ) could, however, take the shape of innumerable other divinities. Originally more concerned about death and its harbinger, disease, than the pursuit of immortality, Celestial Master priests sent petitions to the Three Bureaus, the other world's legal institution, to relieve parishioners from the consequences of the crimes of deceased family members. Subordinated to the Three Bureaus were twelve hundred officials, including their civil and military staffs, whose divine intervention could be invited depending on the specific circumstances of each case.

These were fairly concrete notions about a bureaucratically functioning spirit world, wholly inscribed in Laozi's divine body of the Dao, but, in accord with the Dao de jing 's assertion that the Dao ultimately has no concrete forms, early Daoists hesitated to give outside visual form to any of these ideas. A second-century commentary to that scripture, whose author stood at least close to the Celestial Master religion, even warns against picturing the Dao in the form of inner-corporeal divinities. This evidently marked an extreme, since anthropomorphic visualizations of the numinous forces indwelling the bodya microcosm of Laozi's cosmic bodyquickly became central to the Daoist work of regulating universal flows through meditation. The fourth-century Shangqing (Higher Purity) scriptures contain the most detailed instructions for such visualizations, although there are prior guidelines for actualizing microcosmic deitieseven Laozi himselfthrough mentally created images of their appearances, including their size, garb, headgear, coloring, and accoutrements.

Apart from this eidetic technique of imaging, however, Daoists presented the forces of the divine preferably in abstract, symbolic ways. Diagrams, sacred maps, and various forms of secret script early on played important roles. The yin-yang symbol (taiji tu ) with its two comma-shaped fields inscribed in a circle, which became so prominent from the Song dynasty (9601279) on, may not just be traced to a Tang dynasty (618907) Buddhist antecedent, as Isabelle Robinet has shown, but to even earlier Daoist, albeit nontransmitted, diagrams. Maps of the interior of the Five Sacred Mountains existed already in early medieval times, even though the extant diagrams only replace the long-lost originals. But the chief key to access divine forces was writing. This accounts for the centrality of Daoist fu, secret tallies (or talismans), which Daoists drew in order to tap particular numinous sources. Moreover, from the fourth and fifth centuries on, Daoist scriptures were held to incorporate the blueprint of the cosmos itself in their original celestial-script versions. That is why so much weight was put even on the calligraphic quality of the transcripts of such scriptures in human hands.

Daoist Sculpture

Concrete material images, however, constituted in Daoist eyes only crude attempts to give fixed shape to the ever-changing modalities of the Dao and its hypostases. Fully sculpted icons of durable materials presented the bottom rank on that scale, and were considered dangerous, because their coarse materiality might easily invite impure and potentially malevolent spirits instead of the deities whose likeness they purportedly produced. Even in late imperial times, Daoist texts frequently mention demons possessing such icons as causes of disease, but already a fifth-century source, attributed to the famous southern Chinese Daoist Lu Xiujing (406477), complains that lay believers installed sculpted images in their ritual chambers like the followers of vulgar cults. Curiously, despite all Daoist claims of the formlessness of the Dao, a seventh-century Buddhist author accuses precisely Lu Xiujing of plagiarizing Buddhist icons in sculptures of Daoist Heavenly Worthies (an epithet of the Dao's embodiment as supreme deity in three different aeons).

Archaeologically, the earliest examples of Daoist sculpture date indeed to the fifth and sixth centuries ce; but they come from north China, where the Daoist Kou Qianzhi (d. 488) supposedly first promoted such icons. These images, carved on stelae and dedicated by private donors to the weal of the government and the happiness of their ancestors, ostensibly relate to a well-known Buddhist practice of merit-transfer. Indeed, there are indications that religious differences barely mattered to followers of the custom. Several of the stone monuments combine images of both Buddhist and Daoist divinities, which are distinguished only by minor features. While the figures of buddhas and bodhisattvas feature uīas or crowns and monastic garb, Daoist deities, often bearded and holding fans, wear hats and belted Chinese garments. Otherwise, the posture and grouping of the Daoist gods, with the chief divinity flanked by two attendants, conform entirely to Buddhist iconography. Nor are there differences in the appearance of Daoist deities identified by distinct titles; whether a figure is referred to as Lord Lao (specifically Laozi as the body of the Dao) or Heavenly Worthy (a general appellation for hypostases of the Dao), their images are the same. Only late in Daoist history, the Three Purities, or main hypostases of the Dao, developed their individualized iconographies with Yuanshi tianzun (Heavenly Worthy of Prime Origin) holding a pearl, Lingbao tianzun (Heavenly Worthy of the Numinous Treasure) carrying a scepter, and Daode tianzun (Heavenly Worthy of Dao and De) retaining the features of the white-haired, bearded Lord Lao (Laozi).

While Six Dynasties (220589) Daoist sculpture was predominantly a matter of private devotion, the situation changed dramatically under the Tang dynasty, which traced its ancestral line to Laozi and therefore strongly supported Daoism in its official cult. Tang emperors established a nationwide network of Daoist temples in which large freestanding statues of the holy ancestor were set up. Empress Wu (r. 684705), before she founded her own interim dynasty and turned to Buddhism for legitimization, decreed that sculptures of Laozi's mother should accompany those of Laozi; and Xuanzong (r. 712756), the most powerful of the emperors of the re-established Tang, even had his own likeness installed in temples along with images of Laozi.

If statuary began to play a role in state-endorsed Daoist temples in connection with the imperial cult, the rules for the production and worship of these images followed Buddhist models. A relatively early Daoist source (ascribed a pre-Tang date by many scholars, but more probably compiled in the early Tang) determines a code of "auspicious marks" (Skt., lakaa ) for different types of icons and, prescribing monthly vegetarian offerings and ritual cleansings for them, ascertains their sacrality. In the early tenth-century, a prominent court Daoist welcomed all ideological efforts at demonstrating the miraculous powers of Daoist over Buddhist icons.

Still, Daoists remained reluctant about attributing statuary a central place in their innermost ritual practice. Even today, effigies are generally eschewed in the inner sanctum of the enclosed temporary altar constructions, where the essential rites of Daoist services take place. As a rule, only painted images of the Daoist high divinities are allowed here, while sculpted icons from community temples and household altars are relegated to the outer areas of the sacred space as onlookers. If statues have any immediate ritual functions, such as the figures of altar guardians, messengers, or the newly deceased in funeral services, they are made of paper. These images are animated at the beginning of the ritual through the so-called eye-opening rite (kaiguang ), and burned as soon as the spirits legitimately possessing them during the ritual have fulfilled their tasks.

Daoist Painting

Court support was also a chief factor in the development of Daoist painting. Wu Daozi (fl. 710760), reportedly a Daoist priest, created his famous murals and scroll paintings on both Buddhist and Daoist themes under Emperor Xuanzong's sponsorship. None of his originals has survived, but textual references and transmitted works of later artists, most of whom placed themselves in Wu Daozi's tradition, bespeak the main features of his style: movement, dramatic facial expressions, individualized figures, and narrative composition.

Beautiful examples of the illustrative art that the Daoist pictorial tradition eventually produced survive in the fourteenth-century murals of the Eternal Joy Temple (Yongle gong in Shanxi province) depicting the lives of the Immortals (xian ) Lü Dongbin and Wang Chongyang. But more expressive of what inspired Daoist painting at its core is the brilliant rendition of the theme known as the "Audience with the Origin" in the temple's main hall. The frescoes show the various monarchs of the Daoist universe, including the Jade Emperor; the Purple Tenuity Emperor of the North Pole; the Queen Mother of the West; her spouse, Lord of the Dao in the East; Houtu, the royal matriarch of earth; and their retinues, all turning towards the Dao, which in its threefold aspect was represented by statues of the Three Purities (now lost).

Depictions of the Daoist pantheon at audience with the Dao's higher hypostases may go back to the tenth century. Other examples of narrative religious painting in China, such as the tableaus related to the "Water and Land" ritual of universal salvation (shuilu zhai ) and the earlier "transformation pictures" (bianxiang ) of hell (which existed already by the seventh century and of which Wu Daozi reportedly also was a master) are associated with Buddhism; and Buddhism is considered to have inspired Daoist painting in general. But such paintings on Buddhist themes were early on connected with popular performances and rituals in China and likely received indigenous Chinese and Daoist influence from the beginning. Surviving "Water and Land" frescoes, hell frescoes, and scrolls of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries and beyond, at least, clearly manifest the impact of Daoism (which then had incorporated them in its liturgy) in their hierarchic-bureaucratic vision of the numinous realms and the inclusion of Daoist gods.

Nonetheless, Buddhist iconography unquestionably shaped the appearance of Daoist deities. One example is the Great Monad Heavenly Worthy Saving from Suffering (Taiyi jiuku tianzun), who, already by the tenth century, had assumed features of the bodhisattvas Avalokiteśvara (Guanyin), Kitigarbha (Dizang), and Mañjuśri (Wenzhu). Central to Daoist funerary rituals, Taiyi jiuku tianzun is still represented on painted scrolls next to the Three Purities in mortuary altar settings. Particularly influential was the submerged Tantric Buddhist tradition in China. As Daoist liturgical texts of the twelfth through fourteenth centuries show, esoteric Buddhist rituals and popular spirit possession practices greatly enriched the Daoist exorcistic tradition and its pantheon of star deities, thunder gods, and divine marshals or generals. As a result, some Daoist deities, such as the multi-handed Mother of the Seven Dipper Stars (Doumu), became directly modeled on Tantric divinities. In others, the multiple eyes, heads, and arms of Tantric spirits were combined with traditional Daoist symbols and the names and features of popular gods; in the chief thunder gods, iconographic synthesis produced new chimerical shapes. Daoist sources nonetheless understand these composite divinities in quintessentially Daoist terms as manifestations of pure cosmic forces, recreated through the cycling and blending of corporeal qi in visual meditations. As in earlier Daoist texts, these visualizations follow exact descriptions of the deities' semblance and attributes and their cosmological significance; only the iconographic vocabulary has become far more diverse. Even the fu tallies, originally abstract graphs designed to contract divine powers, take in these late ritual manuals, often the form of calligraphic pictures of the deities and their symbols.

The general agreement between such liturgical sources and depictions of Daoist divinities in late imperial and modern religious paintings suggests a connection between ritual performance and pictorial representation. Indeed, just as the Audience with the Origin was not merely an iconographic theme, but originally denoted the culmination of Daoist meditation (when the divinities of an adept's or priest's bodily microcosm are brought face to face and merged with the original oneness of the Dao), authentic artworks, and particularly paintings, were to reflect the internal visions of Daoist priests and the iconographic codes thereby established. That this continuity between liturgy and the visual arts always remained an ideal and never led to the iconographic standardization achieved in the Buddhist tradition is partly due to Daoism's internal diversity and comparatively loose organization, partly to difficulties in institutionalizing links between clerical and art traditions, and, of course, also to the disruptions of modern times.

While already in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, scrolls portraying the Three Purities, the Jade Emperor, the Purple Tenuity Emperor, the Heavenly Worthy Saving from Suffering, and other Daoist high divinities surrounded the inner, most sacred area of Daoist altars, these paintings, surprisingly, were not accorded full sacred status. Even today, the actual seat of Daoist divinities during rituals is in the shenwei, small tablets inscribed with their names, not in the paintings. An exception here is the Daoist tradition of the Yao minority, which clearly emphasizes the sacrality of altar paintings through special rites of consecration and deconsecration (once they have outlived their ritual life spans).

Daoist Iconography in Popular Chinese Art and Religion

Daoist visions of gods and immortals, as well as demonic beings and their realms, have had a tremendous influence on popular religious iconography. Temple murals and altar hangings evidently played important roles, but Daoists also propagated their views through narrative and performance arts. The most eloquent proof of this exists perhaps in some of the great vernacular novels of the sixteenth through eighteenth centuries that feature the eminently hybrid pantheon of popular Chinese religion, including immortals, Daoist and Buddhist divinities, and entirely composite and often even renegade gods, all under the Jade Emperor's rule. Even contemporary Chinese cite these novels as sources of information about the backgrounds, functions, symbolism, and iconography of the deities worshiped by them, whether in statues and murals in community temples, or in wood-block book illustrations and New Year's pictures at home. As these explanations again are frequently traced to Daoist liturgical literature, they pointin line with the motto favored by late imperial Daoists, that all religious paths eventually run into the Great Wayto Daoism as the most important factor in the formation of popular Chinese religion and iconography.

See Also

Afterlife, article on Chinese Concepts; Calligraphy, article on Chinese and Japanese Calligraphy; Dao and De; Daoism; Temple, article on Daoist Temple Compounds; Xian; Yinyang Wuxing.


Bokenkamp, Stephen R., with Peter Nickerson. Early Daoist Scriptures. Berkeley, 1997. Contains several important early Daoist texts in English translation, including individual introductions and thorough annotations. Peter Nickerson's contribution is of special interest in context with early Celestial Master liturgy and its connection with previous mortuary rituals.

Davis, Edward L. Society and the Supernatural in Song China. Honolulu, 2001. The most comprehensive analytical study of Daoist ritual in the Song dynasty and later.

Harper, Donald. "Resurrection in Warring States Popular Religion." Taoist Resources 5, no. 2 (1994): 1329. An important article on popular afterlife beliefs in the Warring States period.

Kamitsuka Yoshiko. "Lao-tzu in Six Dynasties Taoist Sculpture." In Lao-tzu and the Tao-te-ching, edited by Livia Kohn and Michael LaFargue, pp. 6387. Albany, N.Y., 1998. A concise and highly informative essay on early Daoist sculpture.

Katz, Paul R. Images of the Immortal: The Cult of Lü Dongbin at the Palace of Eternal Joy. Honolulu, 1999.

Lemoine, Jaques. Yao Ceremonial Paintings. Bangkok, 1982. A richly illustrated, exceedingly interesting introduction to the ritual paintings of the Yao minority people living in the mountainous regions in south and southwestern China, who, by the thirteenth century at the latest, were collectively converted to Daoism.

Little, Stephen, and Shawn Eichman. Taoism and the Arts of China. Chicago and Berkeley, 2000. This catalog of an unprecedented exhibition in Chicago and San Francisco is a treasure trove of stunning illustrations, including both distinctly Daoist works and others that are more widely related to Daoist concepts and themes. The authors have made efforts at contextualizing their examples with Daoist history, thought, and liturgy. With five essays on particular topics by different experts, this is the most up-to-date book-length publication on Daoist arts and iconography.

Loewe, Michael. Ways to Paradise: The Chinese Quest for Immortality. London, 1979. A classic on immortality and afterlife beliefs in early China.

Reiter, Florian C. "The Visible Divinity: The Sacred Image in Religious Taoism." Nachrichten der deutschen Gesellschaft für Natur- und Völkerkunde Ostasiens 144 (1988): 5170. The article studies the guidelines concerning Daoist temple imagery in an early (pre-Tang/beginning of Tang) Daoists liturgical code.

Robinet, Isabelle. Taoism: Growth of a Religion. Translated by Phyllis Brooks. Stanford, Calif., 1997. A lucid introduction to the history of Daoist thought up to the mid-fourteenth century by one of the foremost scholars in the field. Includes an illuminating discussion of the importance of script and scripture in Daoism, and provides information on the evolution of the yin-yang symbol.

Seidel, Anna. "Traces of Han Religion in Funeral Texts Found in Tombs." In Dokyo to shukyo bunka, edited by Akizuki Kan'ei, pp. 2157. Tokyo, 1987. One of the famous late author's pioneering studies of the mortuary cult of the Han dynasty in connection with the early Daoist religion of the Celestial Master movement.

Stevens, Keith. Chinese Gods: The Unseen Worlds of Spirits and Demons. London, 1997. An introduction to the icons of popular Chinese religion, richly illustrated and with copious ethnographic commentaries that help readers see the interconnections between Chinese everyday religion and Daoist and Buddhist imagery.

Teiser, Stephen. "'Having Once Died and Returned to Life': Representations of Hell in Medieval China." Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 48, no. 2 (1988): 433464. An outstanding iconological study on Chinese Buddhist representations of hell in medieval times.

Verellen, Franciscus. "'Evidential Miracles in Support of Taoism': The Inversion of a Buddhist Apologetic Tradition in Late T'ang Dynasty China." T'oung Pao 77/78 (19911992): 217263. An exceedingly interesting account of how a late medieval court Daoist turned the tables on Buddhist polemics against Daoist liturgical and iconographic plagiarism.

Wu Hung. The Wu Liang Shrine: The Ideology of Early Chinese Pictorial Art. Berkeley, 1989. An authoritative in-depth study of Han dynasty tomb art and iconography with focus on an offering shrine of 151 ce.

Ursula-Angelika Cedzich (2005)