- The Washington Times - Friday, January 26, 2007

If visitors don’t understand Daoist belief — a native Chinese faith illustrated in the Freer Gallery of Art’s “Daoism in the Arts of China” — they might think it’s all fun and games.

They could find its quixotic and imaginary qualities humorous and harder to understand than Confucianism and Buddhism, China’s other major religious beliefs. Yet Daoism, also spelled Taoism, has a serious side in that it seeks to explain the “way” or “dao” (path) to immortality, a preoccupation that began during the bitter battles of the Western Han (206 B.C.-A.D. 24) and Eastern Han (A.D. 25-220) dynasties.

Curator Joseph Chang has divided the exhibit into four sections, each representing “a unique facet of Daoism.”

In “Daoist Paradises and Palaces,” consider the heavenly beings cavorting in “Landscape With Daoist Immortals in the Mountains” (copy after Qiu Ying, Ming or Qing dynasty, 17th century).

Wearing leafy jackets, they fly through their craggy mountain “palace” feasting on wine, magical peaches and mushrooms. Others play weiqi (Chinese chess) or admire a painting of taiji, the cosmological diagram of the continuous regeneration of the universe.

Across the gallery, an “Eight Trigram Bowl” (Qing dynasty, 1662-1722) in the section “Influence of Folklore, Confucianism and Buddhism on Daoism” also holds the taiji symbol, which is interpreted as the unifying of yin and yang forces.

“Daojia — The Philosophical Basis of Religious Daoism” describes Daoism’s founding through the writings of the philosophers Laozi (Lao-Tzu) and Zhuang Zhou (circa 369-286 B.C.).

An especially charming album leaf here refers to the “Butterfly Dream” (Qing dynasty), an important episode in the classic work “Zhuangzi.” Zhuang Zhou, its putative author, is shown as a napping man who dreams he has turned into a butterfly — or perhaps it is a butterfly dreaming he is the writer.

The “Daoist Paradises and Immortals” section holds the most interest for viewers. It features one of the Freer’s most celebrated jewels, “Peach Blossom Spring,” by the famed early Qing dynasty master painter Shitao.

Shitao appears to have attacked the paper with a heavily inked brush to achieve these bold, calligraphic strokes telling the story of how a fisherman happens upon a magical village through a narrow cavern lined with blossoming peach trees. As described in the wall label by Mr. Chang, “the story utilizes elements about Daoist immortals and their dwellings: peach blossoms evoke intimations of immortality, the cavern entrance suggests grotto paradises, and the stream implies the nourishing ‘spirit fountain’ of Daoist lore.”

It’s the show’s most significant painting, as Shitao, a prince-painter known for his individualist styles, ranks among China’s greatest artists.

In the third section, “The Way to Immortality: Herb Picking & Elixir Making,” visitors find the most amusing images. The “Herb Picker,” for example, is a person scavenging through pines, mushrooms and peonies for alchemy ingredients. Other paintings feature men eating magical plants to achieve immortality.

Although often featuring hard-to-understand symbols and images, these beautiful paintings are well worth seeing. The concept of the taiji symbol, or the marrying of yin and yang forces, is still with us.

WHAT: “Daoism in the Arts of China”

WHERE: Freer Gallery of Art, Jefferson Drive at 12th Street

WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., through June 10

TICKETS: Free

PHONE: 202/633-4880

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