2012 Conference

China and Inner Asia Session 251

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Icons, Charts, and Talismanic Scripts: Text and Image in Daoist Visual Culture

Organizer and Chair: Gil Raz, Dartmouth College, USA

Discussant: Gil Raz, Dartmouth College, USA

Pictorial images appear alongside the text of a religious scripture are often designated as “scriptural illustrations”. The designation denotes not only the locus of the images but also our judgment on their nature and function. That is, they are thought to elucidate or embellish the text, as what “illustrations” are supposed to do. However, did pictorial images serve only to elucidate or embellish the accompanying text in Daoist scriptures? What was the relation between the images and the accompanying text and rituals? The paper explores the aforementioned questions through a comparative study of different versions of a Daoist scripture known as Book of the Jade Pivot (Yushu jing) produced in the Ming dynasty. It particularly focuses on the frontispiece. Extant illustrated versions of the Yushu jing include woodblock prints and manuscripts. They exhibit two types of visual representations of the frontispiece. One depicts the Celestial Worthy of Thunder, the revealer of the scripture, preaching the scripture to Haoweng the Thunder Master, whereas the other shows the Lord of Nine Heavens, a manifestation of the Celestial Worthy, surrounded by thirty-six martial figures. The paper demonstrates how the choice of format and visual representations of the frontispiece is largely determined by the purpose of the scripture production. In particular, the second type of visual representation corresponds to the imagery that was visualized by adepts during rituals. Their correspondence, I argue, endowed the visual representation with power as generated through ritual performance, which is instrumental to its currency from the Ming dynasty onward.

True Form Charts and the Daoist Visuality
Shih-Shan S. Huang, Rice University, USA

Daoist visuality is unique in its notion of the “true form,” a term coined by medieval Daoists. “True form” applies to a deity, an icon, a purified self, a talisman, or a picture. The “true form” is associated with the inner, invisible, and formless quality of an entity. Seeing the “true form” requires religious discipline and practice. Daoists advocate rigorous meditation and visualization as the most efficient way to see the “true form.” Daoists frequently use a visual symbol known as the true form chart newly fashioned in medieval Daoism. Classified as Numinous Charts in the Ming Daoist Canon, these charts refer to aniconic diagrams of mountain-inspired paradises, sacred sites, and hells. This paper will explore the symbolic dimension of these true form charts associated with earthly paradises. Their aniconic visual quality is essential to Daoist realization, aiming at perfecting the individual through uniting with an agent perceived as absolute--the Dao. While uniquely Daoist, their puzzling configurations relate to those found in cartography, fengshui, calligraphy, talismans, and herbal medicine. Because the true form charts are part of Daoist esoteric teachings, their makers intentionally made them difficult to comprehend for ordinary people, yet decipherable for trained adepts. This exclusive context then led to the birth of the unique visuality of Daoist mysticism: esoteric, hybrid, and aniconic.

Perfect Writs, Jade Talismans and Numinous Charts: A Study of the Concept of “Image” in Early Daoist Scriptures
Shu-wei Hsieh, National Chengchi University, USA

This paper explores the complex relationship between images and text in medieval Daoist texts show. By investigating Daoist attitudes towards images, talismans, and text, and examining different Daoist notions of “image,” this paper seeks to provide key insights to the visual thinking of medieval Daoists. I begin my exploration by outlining the key concepts of Numinous Charts (lingtu) and True Forms (zhenxing). These concepts, which are fundamental to Daoist understanding of images, were not important in the early Celestial Master community (3rd century CE), which emphasized the importance of talismans. These key concepts were developed in southern Daoist traditions, which placed more emphasis on images. The Lingbao scriptures (c.400 CE) took earlier textual and image traditions by organizing them into a complete system. This paper focuses on the Lingbao Scripture of the Twenty-four Charts (Dongxuan lingbao ershisi shengtujing), which incorporates True Writs and Numinous Charts. I argue that these concepts originate in the Han weft-text traditions, and are related to the category of sacred texts such as the River Chart and Luo Writ (Hetu Luoshu), which were often perceived as imagistic or symbolic representations of the archetypal, primordial universe. In medieval Daoist scriptures, such sacred images came to be seen as “Patterns of Heaven” (tianwen), the crystallization of primordial qi. The Perfect Writs, Numinous Charts, and Jade Talismans emphasized in the Lingbao scriptures were thus both “scriptures” (jing) and “fundamental writs”(benwen). Writs and Images were the visible form of the basic original matter of the universe.

What is Daoist Iconography?
Lennert Gesterkamp, , Netherlands

One of the vexing problems of Daoist art is the obscure nature of its iconography. For many art historians it has been difficult to correctly identify Daoist deities, and to relate them to the proper sources which can provide information on why the images were made and why in that particular appearance. Art historians in both the West and East are trained to look for biographies or narrative stories involving these deities or famous religious figures which can provide clues on their appearance, and may explain the meaning and purpose of these figures. Curiously, as many have found out by now, this method does not work for Daoist deity images. It is not that Daoist deities do not appear in texts or that no information can be found on them, but that they simply lack this “biographical nature.” Instead, as this paper wants to demonstrate, they have a “ritual nature.” Some Daoist deities may have had a biography, but part of their being Daoist is that they become a ritual entity and suddenly adhere to ritual principles. This paper will aim to identify these principles in order to establish guiding rules for Daoist iconography, and discuss their connection to the wide body of Daoist texts. It is the contention of this paper that an approach focused on the “ritual nature” of deity images is also applicable to non-Daoist deity images that may have eluded proper identification and discussion.

The Production and Agency of Daoist Scriptural Illustrations in the Ming Dynasty
Chui Ki Wan, Chinese University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong

The paper discusses the production of illustrated Daoist scriptures and the agency of scriptural illustrations in Daoist rituals from the Yongle (1403-1424) to the Jiajing period (1522-1566). In particular, it concerns two Daoist scriptures, namely Book of Salvation (Duren jing) and Book of the Jade Pivot (Yushu jing). The Yongle-Jiajing period witnessed the flourishing production of Daoist woodblock-printed scriptures with multiple illustrations. Different editions of the aforementioned scriptures are extant. Taking them as examples, this paper explores the following questions: What was the relationship between the choice of pictorial presentation and the motives behind the production of these scriptures? How did Daoists construct sacred spaces and beings described by texts with the aid of images? What was the agency of these images in rituals? Since the two scriptures were important treatises on the Shenxiao Thunder rites, the paper first discusses the development of the Shenxiao sect and the spread of its scriptures in the Ming period. I then investigate the different ways of constructing sacred spaces and beings by comparing the two scriptures. Finally, the paper examines liturgical texts related to the two scriptures and considers the extent to which sacred spaces and beings visualized by Daoist priests during rituals are comparable to those depicted in scriptural illustrations. This paper emphasizes that scriptural illustrations serve not only to explicate the contents of texts, but also as pictorial aids to visualization of gods and sacred realms, and thus their agency should be considered in relation to the relevant Daoist rituals.

Floating Gods, Ghosts, and Ancestors: Boat-dwelling Fisherpeople’s Mobile Pantheon and Ancestral Hall
Ching-chih Lin, University of California, Berkeley, USA

A little known floating community of boat-dwelling fisherfolk along the Grand Canal between Shandong and Jiangsu developed a distinct way of worshiping deities and ancestors in order to adapt to mobile lifestyle on the water. As this floating community isolated itself from mainstream land-based community, it developed a unique pantheon and ways of worship. The religious world of the boat-dwellers was unknown in the past, due to the isolation, mobility, and illiteracy of this floating community. Based on materials collected in fieldwork in southwest Shandong, this paper analyzes the spirits revered by the boat-dwellers and how religious practices are performed on their houseboats. The ancestors of this floating community transformed physical statues and temples, as well as ancestral tombs and shrines, onto portable scrolls, in order to quickly escape from frequent floods or wars. Each family possesses a set of 11-13 scrolls, and each scroll has a distinct pattern and specific deities with diverse functions. Among the pantheon of more than 150 spirits, Buddhist and Daoist deities dominate some scrolls, along with a great number of water spirits rarely seen before. In addition, the ancestral scrolls that are composed of images of tombs, ancestors, and the ancestral hall, also record the family genealogy, which assists the uneducated, floating fisherfolk in maintaining family ties. The analysis of the scrolls and images can help us decipher the aspirations and religious motivations of the illiterate fishing population who remain been voiceless in the written records.