This instalment of the blog is meant to be a general overview of the many ways in which Daoist ideas permeate Chinese culture and arts.
Daoism has been used as an influence for Chinese arts ever since its inception,
and has shown up under many different forms from devotional paintings, to light hearted social commentary.
Daoism has also made a vast impact on Chinese language and music culture, as well as being one of the major fabrics which holds together Chinese thought.
Having recently won a very large tea competition, and being quite in need of a rest, I want to make this post as light as possible, but still get around to all the points, but I won’t be translating any documents of doing complex research for this post. I think you will enjoy it anyway!
Arguably the most famous piece of visual art representing Daoist ideals is called the “vinegar tasters,” and contains an image of Laozi, Confucius, and Buddha all having a drink of Vinegar together.
While Confucius and Buddha are wincing and crying respectively, Laozi is laughing.
This shows to us how Daoism is a dynamic practice, concerned more with discovery than attachment to doctrine. Confucian philosophy has a very clear idea of how people’s lives should work, and believes in many rules, as such, Confucius drinking vinegar can be interpreted as the ideal of strict adherence to social rules, even when it does not suit ones needs. Buddhism believes that life is a constant return to sorrow until final enlightenment, and as such, drinking the vinegar represents pain and discomfort before the inevitable. Daoism believes in discovery and openness, so when Laozi drinks the vinegar in this picture, he is laughing, because he is having a brand new and very unusual experience.
This further goes to show how Chinese people have thought about the world over the centuries.
Confucius is representative of all things associated with social rules and fraternity, it keeps the peace among extended families, but is constrictive and uncomfortable. Confucianism is viewed as a necessary evil. Buddhism has for a long time been the national religion of China, only sometimes replaced by Daoism during times of extreme uncertainty. Buddhism is the hope that Chinese people have held in their hearts to end suffering and be delivered beyond the filth of the world.
Daoism in China is a subtle virtue which maintains the highest standard among Chinese thinkers.
As a religion, Daoism has only been extremely popular a handfull of times, and is often seen as giving birth to all kinds of strange and sometimes violent cults. Daoism as thought, however, was seen as something which must be mastered before a Chinese gentleman could truly be considered as having broad knowledge.
This is why I have been arguing that Daoism should be treated as a study first, and religion later. Religious Daoism is only a very small part of the total study that Daoism has to offer.
In the realm of music, Daoism also has a great influence on Chinese culture.
Of course, in this case there is a great deal of Daoist religious and devotional music which is a very important part of the Daoist canon. This music has two main functions,
one is for Daoists who attend temples to pray and devote themselves spiritually. The other function accords with ancient Chinese beliefs about the five note scale and how those five notes accord with the energy body. Chanting and playing music in Daoism has the dual function of being used for religion and preparing the mind for meditation practices.
Many religious adherents of Daoism have spiritual experiences during devotion and can not explain why the experience took place. They then tend to believe that they have been affected either by the power of their spiritual leader, or by the divine. My opinion is that during times when devotional music, incense burning, and group ritual are taking place, the overall effect of these things is to cause an altered perception in the minds of the participants. This may be due to a reaction of the energy of the body, endocrine or nervous function. It would be interesting to see further research about the biology of spiritual experiences as they relate to Daoism in the future.
In any event, music is a powerful medium in Daoist practice and is directly intertwined with feelings of spiritual movement.
Art and culture to cultivate beauty
wen yi xiu mei
My own teacher, Yang Hai has coined the four character proverb “wen yi xiu mei,” or “using art and culture to cultivate beauty.” This phrase sums up very well the Daoist perspective on the arts. To be truly accomplished requires more than meditation and belief. It also requires research, and tenacity in researching the way the universe works in relation to ones own life.
I believe this principle is of greater value than any of its parts, and to simply read books, or simply meditate, or practice art and music is not as good as combining all of them together and finding the mutual principle to which they all accord.
This type of practice will have a genuine benefit on the lives of people who practice Dao. The achievement of being a cultural renaissance person will also cause the individual to become uplifted, emotionally, and spiritually healthy.
I hope this article helps to improve your relationship with practice of culture and art to engender happiness in your own life!