On the path of the Tao

Mountainsides are newly green, orchids are fragrant,

In the mountain cleft… a house sits like a walkway;

After reciting some Taoist texts, nothing to do;

Holding a wine cup, I spend the day admiring the shimmering lake.

– Kung Hsien (1619? – 1689)  Poet and painter in the Taoist tradition, who, following political upheaval at the end of Ming dynasty when all his family were killed, fled to the mountains where he eked out a living by selling his work. This poem is one of several poem paintings done a year before his death.

Today I found myself driving by the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. Having an hour to spare, I decided to drop in and take advantage of a quiet day at the museum.

Having no agenda, I found myself drawn to a room of large Chinese landscape painting hanging scrolls  in the Taoist tradition. I have always been attracted to this form of art, without knowing much about it.

I love the Tao Te Ching, and it continues to inform on my outlook on life. Today I learned that Philosophical Taoism, based on these writings, was “fundamental to the early development of landscape painting and nature poetry in China.” This type of painting was practiced by the literati – also referred to as scholars – to describe an ideal way of living in which the individual finds meaning and peace in nature. Typically these paintings show a small figure engaged in contemplation, set within a tableau of mountains, water and clouds. The emphasis of literati art was as a practice of reflection, expressing aesthetics, values and feelings, rather than as a feat of technical skill and/or commercial success, though some were that as well. It was at its heart a personal, amateur endeavor, rather than one oriented toward public approval. Here is an example of one of the paintings I saw today.

As someone who’s spent many years as a student and then as a civil servant (the typical literati career), I realized for the first time how my own personal story and orientation as an artist mirrors in its own small way the lives of these literati. It was humbling and affirming to think perhaps I’m on a path that generations have traveled before me.

It also occurred to me  that most often it’s within the realm of landscape and nature photography that I find qualities akin to Taoist art – photographs that speak of nature as a source of beauty,  peace and wisdom that cannot be named. Practiced by photographers of all skill levels, the literati impulse is alive and well.

Since I feel this way about many of my own landscape photography experiences, I decided to see which images of mine might directly connect with the Taoist landscape genre. I worked up this one this evening – consciously choosing a shot that incorporated traditional elements.


4 Responses to “On the path of the Tao”

  1. 1 Peggy
    June 4, 2010 at 3:56 pm


  2. 2 Kit
    June 13, 2010 at 5:45 pm

    Beautiful image, Amy, and beautifully written post. I also feel much affinity with Taoist philosophy.

  3. August 28, 2011 at 8:14 pm

    Fascinating insights on a subject close to my sensibility too. Thank you so much. (By the way, “eked” has 2 not 3 e’s.)

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