Exploring the visual culture of Daoism

Thank you so much to everyone who has so far submitted your preferences for future articles! (If you haven’t already, you can poll your suggestions here.) As per your request, I’ll be sharing some book reviews and alerts for interesting finds. To start us off, let’s go to Song Dynasty, China…

I recently came across news of Shih-shan Susan Huang’s book, Picturing the True Form: Daoist Visual Culture in Traditional China. Wow! This looks like some pretty cool stuff!!

Daoism forms the backbone of Chinese culture (along with Confucianism), and is the root of Chinese energy work, qi gong. In fact, today’s commonly practiced Microcosmic Orbit can be traced as far back as the early Warring States Period (481-221 BCE), with the inscribed artifact, “Circulating Qi Inscription (行氣銘).” Not only do the concepts of Daoism directly inform the oldest methods for self-cultivation and longevity, but also color today’s Chinese (traditional) medicine practices. So, it’s of particular interest that Huang illustrates the visuality, meaning, and function of Daoist images during China’s golden years, the Song Dynasty.

In her book, Picturing the True Form, Huang (a professor at Rice University, with a PhD in Art History from Yale) focuses on the visual culture of the Daoist practice as developed between the 10th to 15th C CE. “Huang used numerous historical drawings from Daoist texts to explain the complex imagery that depicted the inner and outer worlds, as well as the relationship of these images to Daoist visualization meditations, rituals and artifacts. Images of inner landscapes were, for example, visualizations imagined by a Daoist adept, whereas landscapes were understood as the outer reflections of the inner world of the body.”(1) Included in this work are images from paintings, diagrams, drawings, and woodblock prints. For sample images of the Daoist Chart of the Inner Realm or of the Body as Microcosm, see UCLA International’s news.

As a visual learner, I find this kind of work very exciting–imagine being able to look into the minds of folks living centuries ago! From 960–1279 CE, China was experiencing a ‘golden age’–the Song Dynasty. The first paper currency was introduced in China during this period, as well as the compass and typography invented. Can you imagine what freedom the mind can find in magical and creative thought when inspired by such advances!

If you’re interested to deepen your understanding of how your health is a bridge between the inner and outer worlds, or if you’re just interested to look upon beauty or history, consider giving this one a read! Interested to learn more? Join us for a class in Reiki and energy work fundamentals!

(1) Daoist visual culture: Images of the inner and outer worlds. (2013). Retrieved October 22, 2013, from http://international.ucla.edu/news/article.asp?parentid=134650

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