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Taoist Philosophy

Taoism and the Chinese Arts

Taoism can be seen as the invisible force behind the Chinese arts. Even though Taoist philosophy took hold in mainstream Chinese thought and is now deeply rooted, the historical effects of its presence are in some ways difficult to trace.

In the second century b.c., the historian Ss-ma Ch'ien noted that the Taoist teachings of Chuang Tzu were like flood waters that knew no boundaries and could not be contained. The irony is that in spite of its popularity, no one, not even the rulers or professional administrators themselves, could find any specific application for Taoism. Surely this was the intention of Chuang Tzu.


For whatever reason, since the fifth century, serious Chinese scholars have rejected the Taoist ideas of Chuang Tzu. The reverse is true, however, of poets, of landscape painters, and curiously enough, of Zen Buddhists. In these disciplines, his influence has been extremely dramatic. At the core of these disciplines his Taoist ideals still thrive.

We have seen how Taoist philosophy does not lend itself well to certain kinds of investigations. Lao Tzu has made it clear enough that the Tao cannot be known through intellectual analysis. Chuang Tzu has made it clear that the Tao can only be known in a visionary way.

Tu Meng of the Tang Dynasty (618-905), in one of his 120 aphorisms relating to calligraphy, explains: "A divine work is not achieved through human understanding but through intuition."

However, visual and poetic images readily lend themselves to the expression of Tao. Although these arts are often profound in their expressive ability, they are not encumbered by the restrictions of intellectual content. Looking at the ideas behind Taoist painting and in the fine art of calligraphy, then, is a good place to begin.

Painting in the Chinese arts was not traditionally considered to be a profession. Instead, its practice was believed to indicate a certain degree of maturity on the part of the painter. Paintings were regarded as something of a synthesis of the individual's life accomplishments. Many past masters of Chinese painting first achieved prominence in other professions before taking up the brush.

Chinese painting is associated with an immense literature that includes, among other fields, history, religion, poetry, and philosophy. In this literature there are many signs of Taoist influence.

In the past, aspiring artists trained in all of these fields simply to become acquainted with the ideas and their associated symbols. As a result, in the Chinese arts the painter is very often a philosopher and poet as well as a professional of some other type.

But a great Chinese artist is not developed simply through the mastery of formal style alone. It requires spiritual development as well. Li Jihhua (1565-1635) eloquently describes the habits of a great painter in the following passage:

When Huang Tzuchiu meditates

he sits alone in the wilds,

with only the bamboos, the trees

and scrub and the rocks for company.

Others do not understand him,

for he is not a part of their world.

Every now and then

he travels to the confluence

of the great river and the sea.

There, he rests, in the wind and rain

amidst furious water spirits.

Such is the heart and soul

of the Great Absent Minded (his nickname).

In his solidarity with the elements

lies a secret -- his magnificent works reflect

the ever-changing moods and feelings of Nature

and so, become truly great.

On the next page, see how the art of calligraphy is an extension of the Taoist concepts of art and artistry.

To learn more about Taoism and tai chi, see: