Hilly village lanes,No matter where in the world you go, no matter how many languages are spoken, and no matter how many times cultures and governments clash, the laughter of children is universally uplifting. The mirth of adults can be variously jealous, insecure, sadistic, cruel, or absurd, but the sound of playing children evokes the ideal of a simple and pure act. There are no concepts, no ideologies—only the innocent pleasure of life.
Whitewashed sunlit walls.
The laughter of children.
We as adults dwell upon our grizzled complexities, our existential anxieties, and our preoccupations with responsibilities. We hear the merriment of children and may sigh over our lost childhoods. Although we can no longer fit into our old clothes and become young again, we can take comfort in the optimism of children. Their rejoicing can gladden us all.
We are too often in a rush for our children to grow up. It is far better for them to fully live each year of their lives. Let them learn what is appropriate to their time, let them play. And when their childhood is spent at adolescence, help them in a gentle transition. Then their laugher will continue to resonate with cheer an hope for us all.
Deng Ming-Dao (author)
Wang Yun (1652—1735 or later)
The Fanghu Isle of the Immortals (detail)
Qing dynasty, Kangxi reign, dated 1699
Hanging scroll; ink and colors on silk
142 x 60.3 cm
Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City;
Fortieth Anniversary Memorial Acquisition Fund cat. no. 149
The Fanghu Isle of the Immortals
Fanghu (literally, "square jar") is one of three mythical island homes of immortals traditionally thought to lie in the sea off the east coast of China. Fanghu was a common theme in Chinese painting, and this hanging scroll depicting it is one of the finest. Belief in this island dates to at least the third century B.C., when the first emperor of China sent an expedition into the eastern sea in the hopes of making contact with beings who could teach him the secrets of immortality. This expedition remains one of the more tragic events in Chinese history: since immortals were believed to have eternal youth, the emperor sent an embassy of young boys and girls to communicate with them. None returned. Largely because of this event, Taoists came to believe that Fanghu and the other islands either lay beyond violent seas that prevented mortals from finding them or rested on the backs of great tortoises who were constantly in motion, so that the mountains had no permanent location.
Wang Yun depicted the mythical Fanghu rising from such an ocean. In this scroll, a precariously perched, oddly-shaped rock formation rises forcefully from surging waves. The other islands can be seen in the background through mist. The island is inhabited by immortals, whose red-and-green palaces with gold roofs resemble Taoist temples nestled in the folds of the rock. The rest of the mountain is an ideal landscape adorned with magical plants and trees, misty vapors, and mysterious caverns from which waterfalls descend. The inscription in the upper left by the artist indicates that this hanging scroll was painted for a Taoist named Helao and based on an older Song-dynasty composition.
THE SACRED LANDSCAPE
The Chinese word for landscape literally means "mountains and water," and the many geographical features of the natural worldóits rocks and streams, valleys and peaks, rising and falling movementsówere believed to be material embodiments of yin and yang energy. As such, landscape paintings did not just depict the outer forms of nature, but were equally concerned with the movements of the energies that infuse the natural world with life. All of the patterns of nature, from the loftiest cliff face to the smallest rock and from violent ocean to intimate stream, were viewed as outward signs of the vital energy (qi) that formed the basis for all matter.
Of all the material embodiments of energy, mountains were the most impressive, with their massive twisting forms thrusting upward to the heavens. Mountain cults developed even before the formation of religious Taoism, and they remained the most important sacred places in Taoism. Mountains were home to revered immortals, Taoist temples and retreats, and the herbs and fungi that gave long life.
A landscape painting may be connected to Taoism because it depicts a mythical sacred mountain populated by immortals, like the western Mount Kunlun, home of the Queen Mother of the West, or the eastern mountain-island Fanghu. It may also be connected to Taoism because it depicts a real mountain known for its Taoist temples. Many Taoist priests spent a great deal of time in the mountains and became accomplished landscape painters themselves.
T A O I S M A N D T H E A R T S
O F C H I N A
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