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Discovering Your Dao

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Freer Examines Inspiration Behind 2,000-Year-Old Philosophical Movement

of Daoist inspiration, but none have looked fully at the origins of its presence in imagery. The current exhibit, “Daoism in the Arts of China,” pulls from the museum’s permanent collection to explore the movement’s evolution and influence on Chinese history and lifestyle.

The focus here is primarily on immortality, gods and folklore as they are represented in tapestries, paintings, prints, drawings, silk screens and other artifacts. These selected works in turn reflect the four aspects of Daoism: its foundations as a school of thought; images of immortals and paradises; ways to achieve immortality; as well as the influences of folklore, Confucianism and Buddhism on Daoism.

Philosophical Daoism is a complex system of beliefs based on principles outlined in the “Dao De Jing”—“The Book of the Way and its Virtue” by very rough translation—that was compiled during the late Zhou Dynasty. Its exact origin is unknown, although the oldest known copy is believed to have been inscribed in the fourth century B.C. The classic text emphasized one’s relationship to the universe and stressed the importance of attuning oneself to the natural path, known as the “dao,” or “way.”

Daoism as an organized religion developed into a belief system complete with deities, rituals, temples and a priesthood. Popular at its birth and an official religion for a time, it was later divided into different sects and intertwined with Buddhism upon its arrival from India.

These beliefs were quickly embraced by artists who would use them as inspiration for their paintings and drawings for centuries to come, as the Freer display clearly reveals with its breadth of works. Silk-panel tapestries from the Ming and Qing dynasties, for instance, reflect the Daoist impact on folk customs and popular culture, such as “Taoist Female Immortal,” which shows a calm female as she carries a flower basket near a stream and peach tree.

Other pieces reflect the inspiration that artists found in the movement’s appreciation of nature, with images of personified deities and sacred mountains inhabited by immortals, or those who achieved eternal life through perfect realization of the dao.

Although the material is recycled, the exhibit proves there is still a lot to learn from the Freer and Sackler galleries’ thousands of works. As remnants of Daoism trickle into modern Western culture through such popular philosophies and activities as feng shui, t’ai chi and acupuncture, the display is a gentle reminder of just how far removed today’s notions of the dao have become from its origins.

Daoism in the Arts of China through June 10 Freer Gallery of Art Jefferson Drive at 12th Street, SW For more information, please call (202) 357-2700 or visit www.asia.si.edu.

About the Author

Heather Mueller is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on November 29, 1999