This exhibition highlights a group of painstakingly worked 18th- and 19th-century silk priest robes and textiles made in China for practitioners of the Taoist religion. The robes on display were worn by Grand Masters, the leaders of Taoist communities, for the performance of Grand Rituals, elaborate public ceremonies associated with honoring gods or with funerary rites.
Taoism, China’s primary indigenous religion and philosophy of life, took shape in the late pre-imperial period (5th to 3rd centuries BCE) and remains influential in Chinese culture today. With origins rooted in earlier nature cults and health practices, Taoism is concerned with both the position of humanity in the cosmos and the attainment of longevity and immortality, physical or otherwise.
The focus of Taoism is the Tao (dao). Translated literally, Tao means “the way”; by extension it may be interpreted as “the principle” that orders the cosmos. But since the Tao is by definition not meant to be explained, any explanation is misleading. Words cannot match the Tao. The Daodejing, the sacred text of Taoism, begins with the statement, “the Tao that can be discussed is not the eternal Tao.” Over the centuries practitioners have nonetheless developed a complex symbolic language that gives concrete form to the metaphysical abstractions of the religion’s tenets. Whether performing Grand Rituals or one of a variety of private rituals to improve the health of individuals or to exorcise evil spirits, Taoist priests (daoshi) garbed in ceremonial robes appear as one with the cosmos and therefore as powerful spiritual intermediaries acting on the part of their community.
Coinciding with Brown University’s “Year of China” program, this exhibition is complemented by a concurrent show of Taoist paintings at Brown’s Haffenreffer Museum.
Paola Demattè, Associate Professor, History of Arts and Visual Culture Department, RISD
Kate Irvin, Curator, Department of Costume and Textiles, RISD Museum
Symbolism in Taoist Robes
Taoist priests commonly wear two types of robes: the poncho-like jiangyi (robe of descent, referring to either the descent of the priest from the altar or of the spirits to the altar) and the sleeved daopao (Taoist robe). The cosmic symbolism generally found in the upper central back section of the robes—which includes elements such as the sun and moon, constellations, mountains and water—is similar in both types, but the jiangyi is a sign of higher priestly rank.
Taoist robes mirror the cosmos onto the figure of the officiating priest. The shape of the jiangyi symbolizes the earth, which in Chinese cosmology is seen as square. When the priest opens his arms, the square silhouette of the robe becomes fully apparent and its motifs symbolizing the heavens visible. Thus in donning the robe the priest embodies the conjunction of heaven and earth.
Look for the following motifs in each of the robes on view. Other common symbols are discussed in the labels for the individual robes.
The sun holds a bird—originally a three-legged crow and sometimes a rooster—in reference to a Chinese myth that describes the sun as carried across the sky by a black crow.
The moon bears a white rabbit intent on pounding the elixir of immortality under a cassia tree. The white rabbit is a symbol of long life and fertility.
The Three Heavens are three circles or roundels containing small pagodas set between the sun and the moon. They represent the abodes of the Three Purities (Sanqing), the most important Taoist deities. The members of this Taoist triad are known as Jade purity (Yuqing), Highest Purity (Shangqing), and Supreme Purity (Taiqing). They are also called Yuanshi Tianzun, Lingbao Tianzun, and Daode Tianzun, namely the Heavenly Worthies of Primordial Beginning, Numinous Treasure, and Way and its Power.
Sacred (Golden) Tower and Flying Cranes
Below the sun, moon, and Three Heavens is an image of a multi-storey tower surrounded by flying cranes. This tower symbolizes the Gate or Palace of Heaven, home to the Jade Emperor. The white cranes are emblems of long life and by extension of immortality.
Stars and Constellations
As symbols of the cosmos, stars are central to Taoist imagery. Most important are the North Star, the pivot of the world, and the Big Dipper (Beidou), which by virtue of its rotation around the pole is considered the clock of the cosmos. Other prominent star formations are the 28 lunar stations, asterisms used in antiquity to mark the movements of the moon.
True Forms of the Five Sacred Peaks (Wu yue)
Below the tower and the constellations, sometimes scattered in different directions, are five symbols resembling archaic Chinese characters that refer to the five sacred mountains of Taoism and to the earthly world. The mountains in turn represent the five traditional directions of east, west, north, south, and center.
Mountain Peaks and Cosmic Waters
The schematic representation of waves at the bottom of Taoist robes represents the cosmic waters. The mountain peaks rising from the waves connote the world axis or, in some cases, the islands of immortality floating on the eastern sea.