Shih-Shan Susan Huang
Assistant Professor, Art History Department
Thursday, May 5, 4:30- 6:30 pm
Location: CWAC 152
True Form Charts and the Daoist Visuality
Daoist visuality is unique in its notion of zhenxing 真形or “true form,” a term coined by medieval Daoists and documented throughout numerous texts of that time. Broadly speaking, “true form” can apply to a deity, an icon, a purified self, a talisman, or a picture. It denotes the original shape something has as part of Dao, the inherent potency as expressed in physical form, perfect form, etc. In many cases, the “true form” is associated with the inner, invisible, and formless quality of an entity, contrary to the outer, the visible, and the concrete. With a framework thus established, seeing the “true form” requires religious discipline and practice. Daoists advocate rigorous meditation and visualization as the most efficient way to see the “true form.” More specifically, Daoists frequently use a visual symbol known as the true form chart (zhenxing tu真形圖) newly fashioned in medieval Daoism. Classified as Numinous Charts in the Daozang, these charts refer to aniconic diagrams of mountain-inspired paradises, sacred sites, and hells. Two are of particular importance, and will be the focus of this presentation: Renniao shan zhenxing tu 人鳥山真形圖 (True Form Chart of the Man-Bird Mountain) and Wuyue zhenxing tu 五嶽真形圖 (True Form Chart of the Five Sacred Peaks).
This talk will explore the symbolic dimension of these true form charts associated with earthly paradises. They highlight the unique Daoist notion of the “true form,” a superior body attained through meditation or spiritual revelation. Their aniconic visual quality is essential to Daoist realization, aiming at perfecting the individual through uniting with an agent perceived as absolute–the Dao. While uniquely Daoist, their puzzling configurations relate to those found in cartography, Feng Shui, calligraphy, talismans, and herbal medicine. The visuality of the True Form Diagrams of Mountains exhibits a grotto heaven with Daoist signs. Because the true form charts are part of Daoist esoteric teachings, their makers intentionally made them difficult to comprehend for ordinary people, yet decipherable for trained adepts. This exclusive context then led to the birth of the unique visuality of Daoist mysticism: esoteric, hybrid, and aniconic.
* This talk is sponsored by the Council for Advanced Studies and Confucius Institute at the University of Chicago