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Taoist Immortals

  The Taoist Immortal Lü Dongbin (Lü Dongbin xiang) (Detail)
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The Taoist Immortal Lü Dongbin (detail)
Yuan dynasty, late 13th/early 14th century
Hanging scroll; ink and colors on silk
110.5 x 44.4 cm
Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City; purchase: Nelson Trust
cat. no. 120


The Taoist Immortal Lü Dongbin

Lü Dongbin is traditionally believed to have lived in the Tang dynasty. While his historical existence is uncertain, early evidence suggests that his cult had already developed by the late 10th century. One of the most famous stories about Lü Dongbin, "The Yellow Millet Dream," describes that Lü traveled to Chang'an (Xi'an) in Shanxi province to pursue a political career and met a strange man in a tavern. The man began to prepare some millet (grain) as a meal for them, and Lü fell asleep. Upon awakening, Lü left the man and led a successful career, eventually rising to the rank of prime minister. However, he fell out of favor with the imperial court. After being accused of a serious crime, his possessions were confiscated, he lost his family, and was banished. He soon found himself on the brink of death, trapped in a snowstorm far from civilization . . .

And then Lü woke up, only to find that his whole life had been nothing more than a dream. In fact, he was still in the tavern with the strange man—the millet had not even finished cooking! Lü then realized the fleeting nature of human existence and abandoned his political ambitions, choosing instead to pursue a more spiritual life by learning Inner Alchemy from the strange man.

In Taoism, Lü is considered an important founder and leader of the Complete Realization sect, which became one of the most important movements in Taoism by the Yuan dynasty. He was considered a master of Inner Alchemy, and many teachings on this subject are attributed to him. However, his popularity extended to a much wider audience than priests and alchemists.

By the time this painting was made, Lü was one of the best known of all Chinese magicians, and his stories were favored in drama and art. Lü was also included in the Eight Immortals, increasing his popularity even further. He was the patron saint of merchants, pharmacists, ink-makers, and scholars; was famed for his skill in poetry and calligraphy; and is often depicted wearing a scholar's robes and cap, as in this painting. He was also known as a swordsman: the sword is part of his standard iconography. Here, only the tip of the sword extends below his robes. He was especially endeared to the Chinese because of his passion for wine, an endless source of charm and humor in the dramas devoted to him.




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