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Laozi and the Origins of Taoism

  Portrait of Laozi (Detail)
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Fachang Muqi
(active 13th century)
Portrait of Laozi (detail)
Southern Song dynasty, 13th century
Hanging scroll; ink on paper
88.9 x 33.5 cm
Okayama Prefectural Museum of Art
cat no. 1


Portrait of Laozi

As the legends surrounding Laozi developed in the Han dynasty, he came to be seen as not only a human sage, but also a divine being who appeared again and again in the world to guide the development of Chinese civilization. He was first worshiped as a god at the Han court in the second century A.D. By the Tang dynasty, he was seen as an imperial ancestor. At the same time, Laozi had enormous popular appeal, and the work attributed to him, the Classic of the Way and Its Power, was widely read, even outside Taoist circles.

This painting is attributed to one of the most famous Chan (Zen) Buddhist painters, the monk Muqi. It presents Laozi not as the triumphant deity of religious Taoism, but as a world-weary scholar.

Works in the style of Muqi were actually more popular in Japan than in China. This scroll bears the seal of the 14th-century Japanese shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, which indicates that the painting had already traveled to Japan within a century of Muqi's death. Because Muqi's style was favored by the powerful shoguns, many Japanese painters immediately began to imitate it.




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