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HomeEvents >  2012

Icons, Charts, and Talismanic Scripts: Daoist Visual Culture

A Workshop and Conference at Dartmouth College - May 22 - May 24, 2012

daoist iconsDaoist visual culture has had a tremendous impact on religious life in traditional and contemporary China, but remains little understood. Studies of Chinese art often refer to Daoism, this is usually a vague allusion to an interest on nature or to an individualist disengagement from society. There is little, if any, recognition of the rich artistic and visual modalities developed and used by Daoists in their rites and practices. This is partly due to the fact that Daoism itself is often misunderstood. Rather than a living religious tradition, Daoism is often misconstrued as a vague, naturalist, somewhat inchoate ancient philosophy. This workshop seeks to correct this situation by providing several studies of Daoist visual culture as it was, and continues to be, produced and used in Daoist practice. The primary aim of this workshop is thus to explore and help establish this new field of research.

The papers presented in the workshop will span the entire Daoist tradition, from its emergence in the first centuries CE to contemporary practice, and examine Daoist visual culture from a variety of disciplinary perspectives, including close textual studies, investigation of iconographic and aniconic representations, and ethnographic studies of ritual and material production. The papers examine concepts crucial to the studies of Daoist icons, illustrations, charts, and talismanic scripts to better understand visual materials and associated practices, in both medieval and contemporary settings. Moreover, the papers examine Daoist visual culture from a variety of emic perspectives that reveal Daoist understandings and theories of image, representation, and textuality, which should be brought into conversation with Western theories and included in the analytical toolbox.

daoist iconsAt the core of Daoism are ancient ideas concerning the Dao 道, the Way, the fundamental process of existence. Humans, as individuals and as a society, should be aligned with the Dao in order to live at harmony with the patterns of the cosmos and attain the fullness of life. The quest for attaining the Dao was not merely an abstract notion, but a basic premise which underlay various social, cultural, and political practices as well as an array of technical and esoteric traditions, such as medicine, alchemy, divination, and psycho-physiological practices of hygiene, gymnastics, and meditation by which the hidden potencies of the cosmos could be approached, manipulated, managed, and embodied. The ancient classics, such as Daode jing [The Way and the Power], dating to the 4-3 centuries BCE, define the Dao as ineffable and formless. This notion of the formless and signless Dao remains at the heart of Daoist visual culture.

With the emergence of Daoist communal religion in the second century CE, a variety of practices for communicating, penetrating, and attaining unity with Dao were adapted, adopted and developed by Daoists. Among the most important of these practices were those associated with talismans (符), amulets with "celestial writings," and charts (tu 圖), a multi-valent term that refers to a range of visual representations, including the "true forms" of holy mountains, esoteric diagrams of the human body, and complex tables associated with divinatory techniques. Many of these charts were employed as meditative devices used for visualization, which has remained at the core of Daoist ritual practice to the present.

Another range of representations that became increasingly importantly as Daoist traditions continued to appear and develop in the following centuries were iconic images of deities, appearing individually or in vast arrays of complex pantheons. These iconic images are found in handbooks, on temple walls, and on scrolls used by contemporary Daoist priests. Indeed, contemporary Daoist ritual continues to employ all these various devices. The construction of a Daoist ritual space requires the installation of protective talismans, the altar is surrounded by scrolls inscribed with the images of the participating deities, talismasn are used throughout the ritual process to summon and invoke deities, to signify authority, and indicate numinous efficacy.

This all too brief summary can only hint at the rich and complex importance of visuality in Daoist practice. The papers in this workshop present several close studies from various perspectives dealing with different Daoist Daoist traditions, ranging from the earliest references to talismanic scripts, the use of charts in meditation, the development of iconographic pantheons, to the production and use of deity in different contemporary ritual traditions.

The workshops are by invitation only.  Please contact Gil Raz if you wish to attend.

This conference is sponsored by The Leslie Center for the Humanities, John Sloane Dickey Center for International Understanding, Department of Religion at Dartmouth and Asian and Middle Eastern Studies Program at Dartmouth and The Office of the Provost.

Last Updated: 4/15/14