dao renewal

Chinese characters for renewal

deep mystery in long and detailed scroll, mountains of silk?

City on a hill,
Untouched land beyond.
A fallow field is
The secret of fertility.

In the city, we see millions of lives represented in the windows, doors, and many floors of each building. We see excitement and the glories of civilization. But no matter how much those who follow Tao may enjoy the city, they understand the need for retreat into nature.

In the countryside, they find the nurturing quality of freedom. They can see new possibilities and can wander without societal impositions. In the past, pioneers saw the open prairies and were filled with dreams of dominating nature with the glories of man. Now we know different: We must preserve the wilds for our very survival.

We need time to lie fallow. If you cannot leave the city, just find a little quiet time each day to withdraw into yourself. If you are able to walk in fields or in the hills, so much the better. But none of us can maintain the fertility of our beings without renewal.

365 Tao
daily meditations
Deng Ming-Dao (author)
ISBN 0-06-250223-9

close view

Chen Ruyan
(c. 1331—1371)
Mountains of the Immortals (detail)
Yuan dynasty, late 14th century
Handscroll; ink and colors on silk 33 x 102.9 cm
Cleveland Museum of Art; gift of Mr. and Mrs. A. Dean Perry
cat. no. 144

Mountains of the Immortals
Mountains of the Immortals

The style of this handscroll intentionally imitates much earlier landscape paintings of the Northern- and Southern-dynasties1 period. When China was under the control of the foreign Mongol2 government, this style represented communion with a distinctively Chinese cultural heritage. The reference to an older painting style is strengthened by the use of bright mineral pigments to color the mountains. This highlights the conception of the mountain as the material form of vital energy, the same concept that allowed the minerals found in mountains to be used as ingredients in elixirs3 of alchemy.

Chen Ruyan's work is a classic depiction of an immortals' paradise. The visual journey through the painting begins with the Taoist temple nestled in the mountains at the right of the scroll. Further on, an immortal sits in a clearing next to a zither and magical fungi and watches a young attendant dance with cranes, symbols of longevity. In another clearing to the left, two more immortals walk among auspicious animals and plants, while a third immortal rides above them on a crane.

Chen Ruyan was an associate of several famous Yuan-dynasty4 landscape painters known for their connections with Taoism, including Ni Zan (1306—1374), who inscribed this painting. Chen aided in the downfall of the Yuan government and served the new Ming dynasty until he was executed for an unknown offense in 1371. At the beginning of the Ming dynasty, this was already his most famous work.



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.


1 Northern and Southern dynasties (386-589) long period of political disunity after the fall of the Han dynasty. During this time, China was divided into a number of smaller kingdoms. The period is also known as the Six Dynasties.

2 Mongol of or relating to the inhabitants of Mongolia in central Asia, who ruled China during the Yuan dynasty

3 elixir in Outer Alchemy, a magical potion that bestows immortality when swallowed; in Inner Alchemy, the life-prolonging energy attained through spiritual purification

4 Yuan dynasty (1260-1368) a period of foreign occupation by the nomadic tribes of Mongolia. Europe's diplomatic and religious interest in China grew during the Yuan dynasty, and missionaries arrived for the first time. Marco Polo of Venice worked for 17 years in the service of Khubilai Khan, grandson of the Mongol conqueror Genghis Khan. Faced with discrimination by foreign rulers, the educated Chinese recalled their ast and turned their energies to art and culture, including theater (which was influenced by Taoism), painting, and poetry. The Taoist Eight Immortals became popular, and the great Taoist temple with its extraordinary painted murals, the Palace of Eternal Joy (Yongle Gong), was built.


Five Phases
the relationship of nature's five elements (water, wood, fire, metal, and earth) to various natural cycles and phenomena. In Taoism, each of the five elements corresponds to a time of day, direction, and season. Movement from one phase to the next occurs in defined sequences. For instance, water (night, north, winter) eventually becomes wood (morning, east, spring). The Five Phase system also includes the 12 animals of the Chinese zodiac (for example, the rat and pig are water signs). The movements of the Five Phases are rooted in the cycles of yin and yang.

Queen Mother of the West the Taoist goddess who rules over the western paradise and is the head of a pantheon of goddesses and female immortals. In her garden, she grows the peaches of immortality.

Northern and Southern dynasties (386—589) long period of political disunity after the fall of the Han dynasty. During this time, China was divided into a number of smaller kingdoms. The period is also known as the Six Dynasties.

Three Purities (Three Clarities) the highest deities in Taoism, they reside over the three greatest heavenly realms. Their names are the Celestial Worthy of Primordial Beginning, the Celestial Worthy of Numinous Treasure, and the Celestial Worthy of the Way and Its Power.
Jade Emperor chief of the pantheon of popular gods incorporated into Taoism

Five Sacred Peaks five sacred mountains located along the five directions (north, south, east, west, and center) that occupy powerful places in Taoist geography. The sacred mountains are not actually single peaks; rather they are networks of peaks, cliffs, gorges, hills, ravines, etc. To communicate with the deities on these mountains, emperors ordered the construction of important Taoist temples on each peak. Taoists also believe that immortals inhabit the Five Sacred Peaks. On their slopes grow the magical mushrooms that bestow immortality.

yin and yang two opposing types of energy or contrasting forces. Yin is described as yielding, passive, negative, dark, and female. Yang is dynamic, assertive, positive, light, and male. The two energies are opposite and yet mutually dependent. Yin may become yang and vice versa, just as day becomes night, cold becomes hot, and the reverse. The behavior of yin and yang describes the structure of any event or thing. It may be said that their dynamic relationship describes the operation of the Tao in its cycles of creation, and that their alternating movement underlies the structure of everything in the universe. The concept of yin and yang is conveyed by the tiger and dragon and by the Taiji symbol.


the symbol of yin and yang, in modern art form


Here are some reminders of what we have already studied in this section:

MARSHAL WENThe Star-Lords of Good Fortune, Emolument, and LongevitySAINTLY MOTHER OF THE DIVINE EASTERN PEAKSThe Dipper MotherZhenwu, the Perfected WarriorZhenwuFEMALE IMMORTALSILLUSTRATION OF INNER ALCHEMY

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© 2000 AND many thanks to the Chicago Institute of Art

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