The Taoist philosophy is indigenous to China. Formed in the late Bronze Age, it has a history of over two thousand years and it exercised a deep and lasting influence on Chinese painting, calligraphy, poetry, medicine, political theory and personal conduct. Tao (pronounced "dao") means road and is often translated as "the way". It can be described as the basic, unfathomable structure of being, which underlies the universe.
Taoist thought was first articulated in the Tao-te-Ching, the classic text attributed to the great sage Lao-tzu believed to have lived in the sixth century B.C. During this same century Prince Siddhartha taught the first tenets of Buddhism in India and Confucius developed his theories of family and state organization in China. The teachings of all three of these great sages have had profound influence on traditional Chinese art and culture to the present day.
Significantly Taoism has no supreme deity; it is a vision of universal order, a primal cosmic energy (yuan-ch'i) composed of complementary forces known as yin and yang. The constantly shifting patterns of these energies explain all natural phenomena. Accordingly, Taoism taught that to be content as a human being, one must accept the natural forces of the universe, the inevitability of change and live harmoniously with it.
Thus while Confucianism emphases ritual conduct and the fixed hierarchies of family and state, Taoism focused primarily on the individuals relationship to nature. Philosophical Taoism inspired the early development of landscape painting, nature poetry, garden culture, and the literate arts in China.
During the fourth century A.D., Taoism was transformed from a philosophy to a religion. Religious Taoism incorporated painting, sculpture, temple architecture, calligraphy, printing, ritual objects, and textiles into its service just as Buddhism did. This form of Taoism developed a vast pantheon of deities and immortals and a large compendium of sacred tests and elaborate ceremonial rituals.
The majority of works shown here relate to religious Taoism. Dating from the Han dynasty through Ching, they provide an artistic overview of one of the most important systems of traditional Chinese thought.