DAOISM IN CHINA:
ZHANG LU AND THE EIGHT IMMORTALS
Following the Chinese Warring States Period, circa 475- 221 B.C.,
feelings of political upheaval, social discontentment, and general unrest began to surface within the minds of China’s populace. A hunger, for not only external social peace, but also for internal self-cultivation
led to an emergence of more philosophical questioning and a desire for further religious exploration. This search for a more natural and balanced approach to daily-life arose around 500 B.C., when a secular school of thought with a strong metaphysical foundation arose called Daoism.
This spiritual practice, rooted in the reality of moral existence, proves to be both complex and incomplex.
Daoist beliefs focus on the simple and lucid facets of life, despite the muted voices of uncertainty that many felt upon “the return of native rule over all of china” by the Ming Dynasty in 1368.
Concerning Daoist influences on the art and artists of the time: Zhang Lu, who supported the search for longevity and immortality in life and is known for his mastery of creating and maintaining balance in his composition and subject matter, manages to allow viewers of his art to draw their own conclusions on the people of his time period, their feelings, their actions, and how the moral of these narratives remain to ring true in contemporary terms.
Zhang Lu, born in a northern-city called Kaifeng in the Henan Province, China, lived from approximately 1464-1538. He was a famous professional master of Chinese painting and original, meaning that he worked independently; he did not rely on patronage for employment, nor was he particularly interested in works he had not imagined for himself. Although Zhang Lu was “born into an Aristocratic family and educated with imperial princes”
, Zhang chose to take the road less traveled and began painting albums informing Daoist mythology through pictorial narratives. A risky move for someone born into an Aristocratic family. Also, a risky move for someone who created art for their own purposes, instead of patronized purposes.
In Zhang Lu’s, “Album of Daoist Paintings”, it is evident that Lu enjoyed learning new methods of paintings through practice and experimentation. In this Album, Zhang’s style of brushwork could be described as “free and spontaneous”.
This particular piece by Zhang Lu is from China and was created around 1464-1538. He worked on and completed this eighteen leaf album during the reign of the Ming Dynasty, during the early sixteenth century. This piece is out for exhibition, but its real home is in the Shanghai Museum.
Zhang Lu created this extensive work on the medium of album leaves with the use of ink and light colors. He also used gold-flecked paper, and in each scene of every leaf in the album, Lu has placed a title that is inscribed in gold at the upper right corner of each leaf.
Each leaf in the album is approximately, 12 3/8 x 23 3/8 inches.
In his work, “Album of Daoist Paintings”, Zhang Lu depicts a wide range of Daoist subjects. This piece is considered significant due to the presence of the famous Eight Immortals. Zhang Lu’s album “begins with a mysterious seascape”
with a “veiled full moon” that peeks out of the clouds and hovers over the ocean waves.
In the next leaf, mountains are illustrated with a rising sun coming up over the mountains in the distance. These two first leaves of his album can be interpreted in a broader sense as a Daoist symbol within a Daoist painting.
The two pieces are meant to complement yet contrast one another by representing the cosmic forces of Yin and Yang. The moon and the sun have been considered symbols of the cosmic Ying-Yang forces for many years. When the two forces, Ying and Yang, prove to be working together and are interacting with a mutual balance of energy, it results in “qi”
. “Qi” can be described as the vital energy or life-source to which all living things are regulated by. With “qi” in order, patterns of daily life may seem predictable. An example of the “qi” between Yin and Yang would be the pattern of the four seasons.
Another piece that I would like to focus on is the leaf of this album titled, “The god of Longevity”. This god of longevity can also be referenced under the names Shou Xing or Shoulao. In this illustration, there is a man whose cranium is quite enlarged. His domed cranium suggests that he is very wise and has had many years within this universe. In fact, the large domed cranium figure can be traced back over 2000 years.
From this, it can be concluded that this figure is not just strictly a Daoist figure, but later on, beginning in the early dynasty of Ming (1368-1644).
Contextually, Zhang Lu’s “Album of Daoist Paintings” presents itself proudly along with ten other masterpieces in the traveling exhibition from the Shanghai Museum in China. Within the outlines of the other pieces present at the exhibition, Zhang Lu’s album helps the viewer piece together “the roles of imperial patronage of Ming Dynasty painters, the uses of paintings as political propaganda, and Daoist themes of transendence.”
This album was an important piece of work for Zhang Lu, for it showed his mastery of painting and his confidence in his own work. Through “Album of Daoist Paintings”, Lu showcases his capability to successfully portray important and sacred Daoist figures in a tasteful and informative way. He uses this album as a means to connect with others who are not familiar with Daoism. He strips down each leaf to just the basic messages and symbols he wants to express towards his audience. When seeing the exhibition of this album at Los Angeles County Museum of Art, I was captivated not only by the exact and precise markings of each part of each
album leaf, but I was also taken back by the overarching sense of the supernatural being present. The colors that Zhang Lu uses are very light and opaque at the same time. Also, many of the figures facial expressions look solemn as well. There seems to be a lot of knowledge being held by each of the characters, yet the titles of the leaves within the album are not somber. For instance, when looking at leaf, “The god of Good Fortune”, I wonder exactly what the god is contemplating. He seems to have a blank expression, but since he is surrounded by clouds in the piece, I assume he has reached some sort of Enlightenment or heavenly state. In Daoism, to reach this state means to forsake material possessions for intangible possessions. It makes me wonder if the god of Good Fortune regrets leaving superficial objects behind.
Zhang Lu’s “Album of Daoist Paintings” reassures his skillful understanding of how to execute “pentiment, [which can be described as] changes in design and brush-work”.
Ultimately, Zhang Lu reveals the lives of fifteenth and sixteenth century commoners, professional painters, and those considered sacred. He does this through his individuality as an artist and his confidence in the nature of his own reality. In addition to connecting the nature of reality to the nature of recreating a realistic version of life on an album leaf, Zhang Lu also bridges the gap between artists feeling the need to be patronized in order to work. He focuses on the aesthetic purposes of art and not the economical aspect of his work. In this regard, he meets his own Daoist beliefs by not focusing on the material aspects of life but rather what figure and moment is directly in front of your sight. In terms of nature and transcendence, Zhang Lu’s art rings true to many other artists, writers, and poets.
8.3 The God of Good Fortune
8.4 The God of Longevity
Augustin, Birgitta. “Daoism and Daoist Art | Thematic Essay | Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History | The Metropolitan Museum of Art.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art – Home. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/daoi/hd_daoi.htm (accessed April 11, 2013).
Gardner, Helen, Fred S. Kleiner, and Christin J. Mamiya. “China and Korea to 1279.” In Gardner’s Art Through The Ages: Non-Western Perspectives. 12th ed. Australia: Thomson Wadsworth, 2006. 52.
Little, Stephen. Ming Masterpieces from the Shanghai Museum. Los Angeles, CA: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 2013.
Littlejohn, Ronnie. ” Daoist Philosophy.” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. http://www.iep.utm.edu/daoism/ (accessed April 11, 2013).
“Ming Masterpieces from the Shanghai Museum | LACMA.” Los Angeles County Museum of Art | LACMA. http://www.lacma.org/art/exhibition/ming-masterpieces-shanghai-museum (accessed April 11, 2013).
The Metropolitan Museum of Art. “China, 1400–1600 A.D. | Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History | The Metropolitan Museum of Art.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art – Home. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/ht/?period=08®ion=eac#/Overview (accessed April 11, 2013).