Taoism in the arts of China

Wednesday September 24, 2014: conference "Taoism in the arts of ChinaBy Christine Barbier-Kontler, Member of CREOPS, Assistant Professor of Theologicum of the Catholic Institute of Paris.

For two millennia, Taoism has been celebrating the life, immortality and harmony of man in the world. He participates in the arts of China, understood in the broad sense of ritual and liturgical practices, corporal and mental disciplines and fine arts (calligraphy and painting).
It is extremely difficult to express all the notions and speculations of Taoism with words. These speculations seem very sophisticated when they can be practical. Barbier-Kontler wonders whether it is speculation that has inspired practices and disciplines or the opposite. Is the abstract that inspired the concrete or conversely, the practices and disciplines that led to speculation.

0.Dao-character.svg copy 0.3.Dao-caoshu copy 0.1.Dao-revision.svg copy

The ideogram which is used for the Tao signifies both the way and the way in the direction of the way of the ancients, of right behavior and was used by both Buddhists and Confucians. The Taoists gave a new meaning, an absolute meaning to this word: the primary truth, both immanent and transcendent, is a bit like Life, the path that we follow throughout our existence which allows to unfold in his person and in the entire universe.

The Chinese pantheon includes a very large number of gods who are the personification of facets of this absolute called the Way. There are the heavenly gods, the Immortals, the earthly gods, the patron saints of the trades. These deities are often associated with very popular forms.

The speculations of the Tao are at the source of the Arts, disciplines and techniques because they influence the breath, the respiration, on the conduct of energies by movements which can be gymnastic, graphic, arithmetic and determine a large number of disciplines such as martial arts, divination (officially banned in China), geomancy, medicine, astronomy, pharmacopoeia, but also painting and calligraphy. (to read : Taoism or revelation continues Vincent Goosaert and Caroline Gyss at Gallimard).

1.1 2.Homme 3.Grand 4.Ciel
Yi (One) Ren (Male) Dà (Large) Tiàn (Heaven)

Madame Barbier-Kontler proposes, to try to understand the Tao, a game with Chinese characters:

  • Yi (Un) is made of a bar that connects a beginning and a completion, which may explain that in the book of the Way of Virtue we say that the One is Three, but also the bar separates the top of the bottom, the Sky of the Earth. In one gesture you unify and separate.
  • Ren (Man) is made of two features that evoke the man who strides.
  • Dà (Grand), the man who walks and spreads his arms becomes big, as if he were kissing the world.
  • Tiàn (Heaven), the man who walks and spreads his arms became big, but when he is overcome by a stroke, it is the ultimate peak, the summit of the universe, it is the sky.

To summarize in a somewhat cavalier way two thousand five hundred years of Taoist thought: the path of Man is to become as great as Heaven.

Taoism aims to return to the One, to the total, the one who knows how to keep his vital forces and his energies becomes Great and can reach the immortality and the living source of the Universe.
The origin of the Universe for the Chinese is located in the primordial breath which has neither beginning nor end. This breath is full of everything that will happen, the primordial chaos exists in the state of matter (the fullness of the void). This chaos is twofold: the two poles of the vital energy which emanates from the sphere of chaos and follow the original breath are Yin and Yang. They represent two poles: Yin is associated with the moon, ice, North and represents the female part of nature, Yang is associated with the sun, fire, South and represents the male part of nature.

5.1.Yinyang Fuxi and the turtle.Ma-Lin 6.Trigrammes
Yin Yang Taoist Fuxi and the turtle. Ma Lin (13th century)
Southern Song Dynasty
Palace Museum. Taipeï
Ba gua (trigrams)

Yin and Yang are themselves subject to mutations, they have a beginning, a middle and an end. Yin and Yang generate four phenomena, the four phenomena generate the eight trigrams formed of Yang (a continuous bar) and Yin (two small bars).

Fuxi, mythical emperor who is attributed the discovery of the divinatory figures is represented, in a painting of Ma lin (active in the middle of the 13th century), dressed in animal skins and looking towards a small turtle because it is on the turtle carapace that he will trace the trigrams that we see also at the bottom left of the painting.
The book of mutations contains superimposed trigrams which gave the sixty-four hexagrams which make it possible to formalize from the first unit of the world all the transformations. Knowing that everything is constantly changing, the Chinese divination tries to detect the phase of change in which we find ourselves to act upstream.
The Ba gua (eight trigrams) corresponds not only to what is on earth but also in the sky, both material and immaterial.

Animals are associated with the cardinal points: the South with Fen huang (Red Phoenix), the North with Yuan wu (the Snake Turtle or Black Turtle), the East with Wen (Green Dragon) and the West with Wu (White Tiger) ).

 sacred mountains

The body taoiste.Estampe

Lao Zi at the Hangu Pass - Qing Dynasty - Album sheet, ink and light colors on silk © Guimet Museum

The five sacred Taoist mountains • and the four sacred Buddhist mountains ★

Map of the Taoist human body. Print.

Lao Zi at the Hangu pass - Qing dynasty (1644-1912). Album sheet, ink and light colors on silk. © Guimet Museum

In China, the five sacred mountains of the Taoists are also associated with cardinal points: Tai Shan (in the east) associated with spring and green, Hua Shan (in the west) associated with autumn and silvery white , the Nan Heng Shan (in the south) associated with summer and red, the Bei Heng Shan (in the north) associated with winter and black and the Song Shan (in the center) associated with yellow. But to this we have also associated the numbers, flavors, styles of government, virtues, stars in the sky as well as the psycho-physical functions of the human body. The body is thought of as a miniature universe in which energies circulate. Taoist practices consist of mastering and channeling these energies.

A painting of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) depicts Laozi in a wagon pulled by a buffalo leaving China. It goes west (autumn, sunset, death, disappearance). Legend says that disappointed by the governments of his time, Laozi went west and met Yin Xi, the keeper of the Hangu Pass, who asked him to fix his doctrine in writing. The sage would have dictated then the five thousand characters of the Daode jing.
Laozi, the founding patriarch of Taoism, considered as the emanation of the absolute, was deified early and received a cult.
Another important figure of Taoism is Zhuangzi (Zhuang Zhou) who would have lived in the fourth century BC. JC His thought is individualistic and almost anarchist and the work attributed to him the Zhuangzi (which will influence among other things Chan Buddhism) is essentially composed of parables or dialogues, often tinged with humor and advocates non-action which allows action, like the immobility of the axle sine condition. qua-non of the movement of the wheel.

The most famous passage is the dream of the butterfly: the sage dreams that he is a butterfly, and waking up, wonders if it is not rather a butterfly who dreams that he is Zhuangzi - Zhuangzi once dreamed that he was a butterfly, a butterfly that fluttered and fluttered around, happy with himself and doing what he pleased. He didn't know he was Zhuangzi. Suddenly he woke up, and he stood there, an indisputable and massive Zhuangzi. But he didn't know if he was Zhuangzi who dreamed he was a butterfly, or a butterfly who dreamed he was Zhuangzi. Between Zhuangzi and a butterfly, there must be a difference! This is called the Transformation of Things.
Zhuangzi - Chapter II.

Zhuangzi does not deny reality but he is anti-nationalist. Self-doubt is not a denial of oneself but it is putting in brackets the real to access a higher state.
This theme is perfectly captured and illustrated by Lu Zhi (1496-1576) in his painting where we see the wise man asleep on a rock with two butterflies flying slightly above his head.

Another parable illustrates non-action:
A man named Ji Shengzi was raising a fighting rooster for King Xuan of Zhou.
After ten days of training, the king asked him if his rooster was ready:
- Not yet, he is fearless and is always looking for a fight.
Ten days later, the king came back and asked again if his rooster was ready:
- Not yet, he would even attack his shadow.
Ten days passed:
- He is not yet ready: he is panting and fighting in a vacuum.
Finally ten days later:
- Your rooster is ready. When he hears the crowing of other roosters, he no longer reacts and remains motionless as if he were made of wood, his virtue is perfectly intact, no rooster will dare to confront him.
During the fight the other roosters seeing him impassive in the arena fled in terror.
If we are at peace with ourselves and with the world around us, success will come spontaneously.
Zhuangzi - Chapter XIX.

A dialogue features Zhuangzi and his friend Huizi, whom he likes to mock nicely.
Zhuangzi and Huizi were crossing a bridge over the Hao River. Zhuangzi says, "Minnows swim where they want, fish bliss." Huizi said, "You are not a fish, how do you know they are happy?" Zhuangzi replied, "You are not me, how do you know I do not know? "Huizi replied," I'm not you, so I do not know what you think. You are not a fish, so you do not know if they are happy. That's all !". Zhuangzi said, "Let's go back to the beginning. When you said, "How do you know they're happy," you asked me that question because you knew I knew it. And I knew it because I was there, on the Hao! "
Zhuangzi - Chapter XVII.

The condition of knowledge is to know that one knows nothing; animals, with Zhuangzi, are always closer to the tao than men, precisely because they do not make distinctions: they act spontaneously according to their nature. The fish here represent the accomplishment of self-forgetting, and the supreme state of being in the moment which is that of the saint: "They are there, and it is as if they did not were not there. "
This theme inspired Zhou Dongqing (1260-1368) a horizontal scroll where many species of fish frolic in the water.


Laozi _ & _ Kongzi. Painting of a Han tomb

The Pleasures of Fishes.1291, by Zhou Dongqing, Yuan Dynasty (1260-1368). Horizontal roll.
Ink and color on paper
© Metropolitan Museum

Laozi and Kongzi (Confucius). Painting of a Han tomb (206 BC - 220 AD)

Legend has it that Kongzi (Confucius) met Laozi and they had a heated argument and Kongzi told his followers that Laozi was like the dragon, you can not catch him because he's too strong and powerful.

While the Confucian sage is continually enriched and perfected by study, the Taoist "saint" is progressively stripping away anything that may taint his natural spontaneity and move him away from non-action.
The Taoist “saint” who found the Tao practices non-action: it produces an effect in the world without interfering with the harmonious course of things.

There are today in China two main currents of Taoism, that of the Celestial Masters (Tianshi dao), of secular tradition and that of the Complete Reality (Quanzhen) inspired by the Buddhist monastic orders which preaches the culture of tranquility, longevity exercises, celibacy, vegetarianism and the observance of monastic rules.
Since 1980, the revival of Taoist temples, with or without clergy in residence, takes place in two divergent directions: the patrimonial or official temples (eg White Cloud Temple in Beijing) which are the showcase for modern government Taoism and the small community temples who are at the service of local communities and whose activities are done through the associations of the faithful. We see a young population practicing an individual and popular piety but also participate in all major festivals.


Officiant.Temple of the Clouds Blancs.Beijing. © channaryetfrançois.2008 

Celebration at the Temple of the Mystery.Suzhou. © celinechine.blogspot 

Temple of the White Clouds.Beijing.

Officiant. Temple of the White Clouds.Beijing.
© channaryetfrançois.2008

Party at the Temple of Mystery. Suzhou. © celinechine.blogspot


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