Taoism and the Arts of China, the catalog for a blockbuster show in Chicago, represents an explosion of recent research into Taoism, China's most important indigenous religion and one of the world's oldest mystical traditions. Western scholars and Chinese intellectuals have tended to regard Taoism as folk religion, colored by magic and superstition, yet it is based on a sophisticated philosophy dating back 2,500 years to the teachings of Laozi. Taoism has no supreme being, though gods and goddesses were invented to put a recognizable face on the infinite Void of the Tao ("the Way"). Matter and energy are regarded as interchangeable (as in modern physics).
To represent the art inspired by Taoism over the millennia, the Art Institute of Chicago brought together 151 ritual implements, paintings, sculptures, and documents from 50 national museums, temples, and private collections worldwide. These objects are divided into three sections in the catalog and used to illustrate Taoism's philosophical origins; its organization and ceremonies; and its development into popular religion. Lively captions explain the significance of each item; for example, a 2,000-year-old stone panel showing the supposedly historical meeting of Confucius and Laozi, after which an awed Confucius described Laozi as a dragon (a symbol of the Tao). Essays by five leading scholars place religious Taoism in the context of Chinese art and history--a complex task, lucidly handled. This is a landmark study. With popular Taoism rebounding in modern China, Taoism and the Arts of China presents truly pioneering scholarship, expanding our appreciation of a once unfashionable area of research. --John Stevenson [via]