Heaven, Earth, and Beyond: Prints and Illustrations of Confucian, Buddhist, and Taoist Figures

Tags: Buddhism | Confucianism | Daoism

Confucian, Buddhist and Daoist philosophies form the foundation of Chinese culture.

Confucianism, a school of thought founded by Confucius (551-479 BCE), places humaneness at the top of the standard of morality. It emphasizes governing the country with propriety and reaching universality through personal virtue. Emperor Wudi of the Han dynasty dismissed all other schools of thought and exclusively followed the teachings of Confucius, bringing Confucianism into the mainstream of traditional Chinese culture.

The founders of Daoist philosophy, Laozi (of the Spring and Autumn period) and Zhuangzi (369-286 BCE), advocated that people should follow "Dao" or the "path" by revering nature and practicing a peaceful and "inactive" way of life. Toward the end of the Eastern Han, Zhang Daoling (34-156 CE) and others used the philosophies of Daoism and assimilated ancient beliefs of deities, spirits, and ghosts to form the Daoist religion. They promoted the idea that people could reach enlightenment and become immortals through praying to and summoning gods and spirits.

Buddhism originated from India, and was founded by Śākyamuni (ca. 565-486 BCE) in the sixth century BCE. When it was first introduced into China during the Han dynasty, its teachings collided with China's cultural traditions. However, through continuous learning and integration on both sides, the main customs, practices, and beliefs of Buddhism, such as the six samara and karma, became deeply ingrained into the minds of the Chinese people and incorporated into their culture and traditions.

The National Palace Museum has a rich collection of Confucian, Buddhist and Daoist texts, which are accompanied by many beautiful prints of sages, monks, guardians, deities, immortals, and fairies. There are also images illustrating loyal and courageous men and women fighting for justice, miracles of Buddha rescuing people from hardships, and legends of Daoist priests exorcising devils and evil spirits. These works are presented in a righteous, dignified, and compassionate manner. Their features are lifelike, and the scenes deeply inspiring and moving.

Legends of Buddhas and Deities
Members of the Buddhist world include buddhas and bodhisattvas, guardian deities, monks, and believers. Some of them are historical figures; others are non-human deities and spirits. Because of their different personas, they are given unique appearances and features. In the process of preaching Buddhism, these characters often experience extraordinary miracles. Part of these events are documented in the sutras, such as Pumenpin (addharmapundarika-sutra), which records Avalokiteśvara helping people in hardships, and Yaoshijing ("The Sutra of Bhaisajyaguru"), which describes the Medicine Master's twelve vows. Some of the stories were brought into China and transformed into popular novels and operas. Examples include Xiyoujivel (Travel to the West), a Chinese classic detailing the Buddhist monk Xuanzang's pilgrimage to India, and Xinxiao Xiwen ( Play: Mulian's Filial Duty to His Mother), a song performance about Mahāmaudgalyāyana's passage to the underworld to rescue his mother.

Longzangjing(The Dragon Tripitaka in Tibetan)
Top sutra board of vol.25 and 47
National Palace Museum

Śākyamuni (565-486 BCE) is the founder of Buddhism, who was the sun of the King Śuddhodana of Kapilavastū (in the south of Nepal), and he was called Siddhārtha Gautama while he was a prince. "Śākyamuni", which means "sage of the Shakyas," is a name given to him after he was enlightened. He had realized grieves and uncertainties of life since he was a child, and swore to look for a way to relieve. When he was 29, he left the palace and became a monk and practiced for 6 years near the river Neranjarā. He attained the Great Enlightenment at 35 under a pipal tree near Buddhagaya. Then he spent 40 years preaching about The Four Noble Truth, Noble Eightfold Path, and the Six Pāramitā near Rajagrha, Sravasti, and Mrgadava. He died under two sāla trees outside Kuwinagara.

Xiyou Zhenquan (A Complete Narrative of Travels in the West)
Text written by Wu Chengen (ca. 1500-82)
Annotated by Chen Shibin (n.d.)
Qing imprint of the Qianlong reign (1735-1796) by the Shidetang Printhouse
National Palace Museum


Xuanzang (600-664CE), whose mundane name was Chen Yi, was born in Luoyang, Henan. His family was poor, and he studied Buddhism in Louyang with his elder brothers in Jingtu Temple. He had already understood all the teachings in China when he was about 20. However, he thought that he didn't understand the ultimate truth of Buddhism, he then decided to go to India for further study. He started his journey throughout five regions of ancient India from 629 to 645 CE. He learned many commentaries of sutras from Master Jiexian and was famous in Tienzhu for successful convinced many local monks in Kannauj. Latter he was given the title of Mahāyānadeva. After he went back to China, he started translating Buddhist scriptures in Hongfu Temple of Changan and Yuhua Temple. He was the greatest translator in Chinese Buddhism and he had translated 75 sets and 1135 volumes of Buddhist scriptures before he died, including the famous "Yogacara-bhumi", "Kowa-wastra," and "Maha-prajñaparamita-sutra". In addition, he was also a famous traveler and his important historical and geographical oral work of “Datang xiyuji (The Great Tang Records on the Western Regions)" recorded his knowledge about the customs of places where he had traveled. And the story of this pilgrimage became the theme of novels, such as the Wu Chengen's Xiyouji (Journey to the West) is one of famous works in Ming dynasty, which describes that Xuanzang's pilgrimage with his three disciples (Sunwukong, Zhubajie and Shawujing) and they encountered the 81 obstacles during their journey.

The Mysterious Path to Immortality
The Daoist religion pursues immortality, and encourages people to become immortals by following the "path" and achieving "Dao". Beginning since the Wei and Jin dynasties (265-420 CE), Daoism and the legends of deities and immortals have become deeply intertwined. People believe that through using methods like alchemy, guiding the flow of "qi" through the body, regulation of breathing, mediation, and accumulating virtue by performing good deeds, they can reach immortality.

Laozi: the Supreme Lord
Sancai Tuhui (Assembled Illustrations of the Three
Realms of Heaven, Earth and Man)
Written by Wang Qi (1529-1612)
Ming imprint of the 37th year the Wanli reign
(1609) with handwritten supplements
National Palace Museum

Laozi, whose name was Lier and style name was Poyang, and also called Laodan, was a philosopher in the late of Spring and Autumn Period. He was the founder of Daoism school, where he is called "The Supreme Lord", and is regarded as the father of religious Daoism. He was the author of Daodejing. According to the "Sancai Tuhui", he started to reincarnate since the Three Sovereigns period. It is said that he was born from his mother's armpit under a plum tree, with an appearance of an immortal. When King Wen of Zhou was still the Xipo feudal prince, Laozi was offered a position as a librarian in the royal library. In the time of King Wu, he was the manager of decrees and relics and later he retired as a hermit in the time of King Zhou. It is said that after retired, when Laozi was going to leave through the Hangu Gate by a cattle wagon, the guard saw a purple cloud came from the east, and he knew a sage was going to pass there. He met Laozi and asked him to write a book, the famous Daodejing.

Tienwentu (Illustrations of Heavenly Questions)
Illustrated by Xiao Yuncong (1596-1673)
Imprint of the Qing dynasty (1644-1912)
National Palace Museum

That Nüwa patched the sky and molded human is one of the remote Chinese myths. It circulated widely as folk literature before the Warring States period. In the picture of Lisaotu ("Illustrations of Encountering Sorrow"), Nüwa is depicted as a goddess with a snake body and a human head. It can transform into seventy different forms in a day. Sometimes Nüwa and Fuxi together are called "the Two Emperors". Fuxi was described as having a body of dragon and holding the sun in his hand, and Nüwa holding the moon. The folk calls her Empress Nüwa, and regarded her as the founder of marriage and the inventor of reed pipes. The story of Nüwa's moulding human and patching sky is told in Taipingyulan and Huainanzi. This painting is from "Tienwentu (Illustrations of Heavenly Questions)", depicting the scenes of Nüwa entwining on a pillar with her snake body and patching the sky with the five-color stones in her hand. This scene is adopted from the chapter of “Heavenly Questions" in Quyuan's Li-Sao("Encountering Sorrow" ).

Surpassing the Ordinary and Transforming into a Sages
Confucius' and Mencius' philosophies deeply influenced future generations. Around 200 BCE, after Emperor Wudi of the Western Han exclusively followed the Confucian school, its teachings became the mainstream of Chinese thoughts and ideals. Many rare books in the NPM's collection advocate and publicize such Confucian principles as loyalty, filial piety, righteousness, wisdom, and courage, as can be seen in Dijiantushuo ("Illustrated Sayings on the Mirror of Ruling"), Sancaituhui ("Assembled Illustrations of the Three Realms of Heaven, Earth and Man"), Ershisixiaoti shituhekan ("Illustrated Poetry of Twenty-Four Examples of Filial Piety"), Lienvzhuan ("Lives of Eminent Women"), and Shengyu xiangjie ("Illustrations to the Maxims of Kangxi, with Explanations"). The figures and characters in the paintings remind people of karma, filial piety, and the proper role of women in society. The abundance of stories and images is not only a feast for the eyes, but also serves as a mirror to teach and admonish its audience. The exquisite and poignant prints are mostly masterpieces from the Ming and Qing dynasties.

Confucius Asking Laozi about Propriety
Shengmiao sidiantukao (Sacrificial Canon of Confucian Temples with Portraits)
Compiled by Gu Yuan, Qing dynasty (1644-1912)
Qing imprint between the 6th–10th years of the Daoguang Reign (1826-1830) by the Gu family
National Palace Museum

Confucius (551-479BCE), whose name is Qui and style name is Zhongni, founder of Confucianism, taught his disciples about rituals and was known as the "Great Sage Teacher". Confucius' disciples collected his sayings and edited a book, Lun Yu (Analects of Confucious), which conveys the fundamental thoughts of Confucianism. None of the ancient books available depicts the appearance of Confucius. On limited information and through imaginations, the author of this book painted Confucius' half-length portrait. The Confucius in this portrait looks elegant and is dressed in a civilized manner with clasped hands held at breast level. According to Shi Ji (Records of Historian), Confucius has consulted Laozi about Dao and he taught Confucius the principle of humbleness and hiding one's wisdom. In this story, Confucius appraised Laozi by saying that "I know the ability of flying of a bird, the ability of swimming of a fish and the ability of running of a beast. Those who can run, can swim, and can fly could be captured by a nest. As to a dragon that flies above the cloud by wind, I do not know how one can capture it. As I understand, Laozi I met today is a dragon." One can see the respect Confucius paid to Laozi in this story. The picture "Confucius Asking Laozi about Propriety" is in "Shengmiao sidiantukao". The young scholar is Confucius, and the old sage with white hair and eyebrow is Laozi; this is a large meeting of Confucianism and Daoism.

Laolaizi Wearing Colourful Clothes
Ershisixiaoti shituhekan (Illustrated Poetry of
Twenty-Four Examples of Filial Piety)
Text written by Xiao Peiyuan (1816-1873)
Illustrated by Li Xitong, Qing dynasty
Qing imprint of the 8th year of the Tongzhi Reign
(1869) by Ishengtang Printhouse
National Palace Museum

"Ershisixiaoti shituhekan" is a well-known folk story of China, which is an important material for early education. This painting illustrating by Li Xitong, is about Laolaizi serving his parents piously. When he was 70, he still wore colorful clothes with five colors in order to please his parents. Sometimes he imitated the sound of baby's crying or he spilt in water on purpose; the atmosphere of his family is amicable.

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