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  • Picturing the True Form: Daoist Visual Culture in Traditional China by Shih–Shan Susan Huang
  • Stephen Little
Picturing the True Form: Daoist Visual Culture in Traditional China by Shih–Shan Susan Huang (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012). Pp. xxv + 497. $69.95.

Susan Huang’s Picturing the True Form is a well-researched and sumptuously illustrated book presenting an encyclopedic survey of Daoist ritual art. Its focus is the function of images (xiang) in Daoist ritual, and one of Huang’s goals is to explore the boundaries between images that are visualized internally and those that manifest in art and movement. Her study is based on texts and images dating from the tenth through fourteenth centuries. An important contribution is Huang’s discussion of many illustrated texts in the Daozang (Daoist canon) that provide the primary (and indispensable) material for the study of Daoist ritual art.

Following Zhuangzi, Huang divides her book into “Inner” and “Outer” chapters. She makes a convincing case for approaching the world of Daoist images in both its visualized and performative dimensions. Although Huang’s book stands on the shoulders of several important studies of Daoist ritual, it presents a fresh discussion of the visual manifestations of religious Daoist practice, tracing their development from the time of the first Celestial Master (late Han dynasty) onward. In large measure her work focuses on Daoist liturgical and ritual texts of the Song and Yuan dynasties that have been preserved in early Ming woodblock-illustrated volumes of Zhengtong daozang (Daoist canon of the Zhengtong reign; 1444–1445).

The first three chapters (“Imagery of Body and Cosmos,” “Mapping the World,” and “True Form Charts”) provide a survey of Daoist modes of structuring the sacred and mundane worlds, and the means of negotiating the boundary between these two realms in the context of Daoist ritual and practice. In these chapters Huang discusses the [End Page 392] correlations between imagery of the human body and the cosmos. This first section of the book explores modes of visualization that underlie Daoist ritual, and the relationship of visualization to ritual art. She shows that ritual choreography also mirrors the priest’s visualizations, whereas the paintings of deities and messengers that line the walls of Daoist ritual spaces create the boundaries of the realms in which (and for which) the ritual takes place.

The last three chapters (“Materiality of Daoist Sacred Space,” “Performing the Salvation Ritual,” and “Paintings of Mobile Deities”) discuss the performative aspects of Daoist ritual art and explore the fluid relationship between text and image in Daoist practice. Much Daoist visualization focuses on summoning energies and their manifestations as deities, and connecting the energies of the human body (in the terrestrial realm) with the energies of the celestial realm, the bureaucracy of which comprises male and female planetary deities, star deities, deities of the heavenly stems and terrestrial branches (markers of time), deities of the Eight Trigrams, and manifestations of even more refined and ethereal energies: the Three Primes (San yuan, also known as the Three Officials— the gods of Heaven, Earth, and Water) and the Three Purities (San qing; one of whom is the deified Laozi). Throughout, the book provides an excellent survey of the sacred diagrams and writings used in a wide range of Daoist rituals. The importance of texts in Daoism cannot be overstated; yet, within Daoist practice texts, diagrams, visualizations, and ritual movement mirror one another, and the boundaries between these conceptual categories are exceedingly fluid.

Huang includes in her discussion two of the finest and least- studied surviving works of Daoist art: the Album of Daoist and Buddhist Themes, comprising fifty leaves (fourteen of which are reproduced here) and acquired by the Cleveland Museum of Art in 2004, and the illustrated woodblock copy of the Yushu baojing (Precious scripture of the Jade Pivot) in the British Library.

The Cleveland album, generally dated to the twelfth century, was first published in a large facsimile volume by Fredrick R. Martin entitled, Zeichnüngen nach Wu tao-tze aus der gotter- und sagenwelt Chinas.1 The German publication was pirated in China in 1963, and reissued in 1991 under the title, Daozi mobao 道子墨寶 (Ink treasures of [Wu] [End...


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