By Ted Shen

When Stephen Little, the Art Institute’s chief curator of Asian art, began planning the “Taoism and the Arts of China” exhibit that just opened, he had no idea what Taoism, let alone Taoist art, meant to the average museumgoer. He asked friends, colleagues, and even people in focus groups. “I found out that most people had a good grasp of the Taoist philosophy,” he says, “but many were surprised by the existence of religious Tao. And almost no one realized that it has had a profound and durable influence on the arts and literature of China and its neighbors to the east, Korea and Japan.”

In the popular perception, Taoism means simplicity, harmony with nature, a cultivation of humility, the balance of opposites. “Despite the New Age connotation,” says Little, who worked for, among other places, the Cleveland Museum of Art and the Honolulu Academy of Arts before coming to Chicago, “these are some of the ideas first articulated in the Tao-te Ching,” the classic text attributed to the sage Lao-tzu.

Lao-tzu is said to have lived in the sixth century BC, and recent archaeological finds suggest he was a real person–though he’s long been shrouded in myths: His mother was a virgin, and he was conceived through the rays of the polestar. After 81 days she leaned against a plum tree and gave birth to a baby who was already old–Lao-tzu means “old child” and “old master.”

Lao-tzu became a court archivist, and toward the end of his life he put his teachings into a 5,000-ideogram collection of randomly ordered, paradoxical axioms, the Tao-te Ching. Little says the book is sort of a Taoist bible, outlining a worldview that sees creation and destruction as natural, not linked to any divine will or destiny. Taoism has no supreme being. “There is the Tao itself–‘a road,’ or ‘the way,’ it’s often translated–and it underlies and permeates reality. The world began when primal energy emerged from the Tao. And out of chaos came the complementary forces of yin and yang. It’s the interaction of these forces that gives rise to the machinations of the universe.” Little, who started college wanting to become an astrophysicist, until he flunked calculus twice, adds, “Matter and energy are interchangeable, and the only absolute truth is change, constant mutation. You can see how close Taoism is to modern physics, to the big bang theory, to Einstein’s equations.”

Unlike Confucianism–a conservative moral philosophy formulated in the same pivotal period, when merchants and artisans were creating a new social order to compete with the rule of brutal warriors–Taoism shied away from politics and rigid prescriptions for social harmony. “Confucius is said to have visited Lao-tzu and questioned him about the role of ritual,” says Little. “He thought that ritual decorum–worshiping gods, ancestors, and elders–was the key to good government and that as long as everyone behaved according to custom all would be in order. Lao-tzu said, You’re wasting your time–mankind should strive for personal happiness and freedom, not social conformity. He didn’t think gods were more important than men, just their more refined and virtuous counterparts.” Their fabled meeting, epitomizing the differences between two main strands of Chinese thought, has often been depicted in art, including an ink rubbing in the exhibit that’s on loan from the Field Museum–from a stone panel that’s almost 2,000 years old, one of the earliest known works of Taoist art.

Taoism gradually evolved into a religion. “We know for sure that the philosophy spread across China quickly and took hold within two centuries,” says Little. “Since it regarded change as a constant, it didn’t mind incorporating features from other traditions, such as shamanism, the worship of certain deities and local gods, the use of talismans as forms of sacred calligraphy. Yet paradoxically and appropriately, its fundamental aspects have remained the same.” Most scholars date the start of the Taoist religion to the second century, when a sect that deified Lao-tzu began to train priests and codify moral behavior. “I think the move was inevitable because Buddhism, a sophisticated package of ideas and karmas, was making inroads through the heart of China,” Little says. “Not surprisingly though, Taoism began to borrow from Buddhism some of its features, including iconography. And it offered the masses what its competitor had to offer. Yet both religions tolerated each other–Taoism more so, because it wasn’t as aggressive or dogmatic.”

Emperors from the fourth century on tended to patronize Taoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism. “Being Chinese, they were practical–they hedged their bets,” says Little. “The exceptions were some of the Mongol and Manchu rulers, who, as foreigners, regarded this indigenous Taoism with some suspicion.”

Little says that between the fifth and ninth centuries the Taoist religion became fully formed, complete with “a vast pantheon of deities and immortals, a highly structured church, and an enormous compendium of sacred texts.” And works of art were created that were intended to reflect people’s devotion and cultivation. Taoist art flourished during the Tang, Sung, and Ming dynasties, which spanned the 7th to early 17th centuries. Emperors built temples and monasteries, empresses commissioned scroll paintings, and the masses bought innumerable portraits of the immortals. “Art put a recognizable face on the religion,” says Little, “with humanlike icons and images to be worshiped, images that tell the story of a particular god, pictures depicting the consequences of human action, didactic items that illustrate a moral lesson.”

Some of the symbols are uniquely Taoist, says Little, “such as the yin-yang circle–the Taoist crucifix, so to speak–the tiger and dragon, the embodiments of yin-yang as animals, and the five sacred peaks.” But there’s plenty of overlap. The focus on meditation is also prominent in Buddhist art, and the Taoist love of nature–of immense mountains and man’s humble, harmonious niche within them–has been ingrained in the Chinese aesthetic for centuries.

At the end of the 18th century people began drifting away from Taoism. “The Manchus who formed the Ching dynasty didn’t embrace religious Taoism with as much fervor as the previous rulers,” Little explains. It didn’t help that Christian missionaries dismissed Taoism as a folk religion. By the end of the 20th century few Chinese or Western scholars knew much about the long history of Taoism, let alone its art.

When Little got funding for his exhibit–“the first one on this large a scale anywhere devoted to Taoist art”–he knew what he wanted from a few museums, including those in Tokyo and Osaka. But he knew he would have to scour the basements of other institutions as well (only 60 percent of the works he wound up choosing are specifically Taoist art). He describes how he found one work in the British Museum: “A young assistant told me about this statue of a Chinese gentleman in the cellar. I said, yes, take me to it quickly. When I saw it I knew right away it was a bronze sculpture of the deity Zhenwu, the Perfected Warrior. How could I tell it was Taoist and not Buddhist? He has bare feet and long hair–non-Buddhist features–and the dead giveaway is the armor. This is the largest sculpture of Zhenwu outside China.”

Another rare find came from the San Diego Museum of Art. “No one knew what it was until a colleague of mine unspooled it,” Little says. “It’s a 27-yard-long scroll, beautifully preserved, of a Ming empress’s six-month-long ordination as a priestess.” The painting, only a portion of which is displayed, shows the empress floating on a cloud accompanied by an entourage of deities and immortals. “It has historical significance because nowhere else–not in her biography or the imperial records–is this event mentioned.”

Borrowing works in China wasn’t easy. “I had a list of Sung and Yuan paintings, but I met resistance,” says Little, who speaks Mandarin fluently. “I was getting desperate, so I went to Taiwan and asked for some of the invaluable paintings in the National Palace Museum’s collection, including Ma Yuan’s Immortal Riding a Dragon–a height of Taoist art. That was not a problem. Then all of a sudden, China gave the go-ahead. And, just as gratifying, neither side objected to the other being in the show.” On one of his frequent visits to Beijing, he was told about the White Cloud monastery, one of a handful of Taoist institutions that had recently reopened. He went there and immediately saw five paintings he wanted for the exhibit. “I had to get two ministries talking together. However, the trouble was worth it. I have about 30 objects from China, most of them displayed in the West for the first time. For sure, there won’t be another show of this magnitude in at least ten years.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dorothy Perry.