Dr. Stephen Little probes the forgotten history of the Ming Court's deep involvement with the Daoist religion.
A hundred people gathered in the Fowler Museum of Cultural History's Lenart Auditorium Saturday, October 26, to hear the 15th Annual Sammy Yukuan Lee Lecture in Chinese Archaeology and Art, and to honor Sammy Yukuan Lee, who had just celebrated his 100th birthday. This year's lecture was given by Stephen Little, long-time Pritzker Curator of Asian Art at the Art Institute of Chicago, on the topic "Daoist Arts of the Ming Court." Dr. Little has just assumed the position of Director Designate at the Honolulu Academy of Arts. The lecture is an annual event sponsored by the Asia Institute and free to the public. It is cosponsored by the Center for Chinese Studies.
The Sammy Yukuan Lee Lecture Series was begun at UCLA in 1982 with a donation from the Lee family, in honor of Sammy Yukuan Lee’s 80th birthday. Sammy Yukuan Lee turned 100 on October 14, at least so his passport says. His son Howard says his father may be a tiny bit younger--or older! Though having some problems with his hearing and eyesight--which have kept him away from the lecture held in his honor-- Sammy Lee remains active as an art collector, where he is well known for his expertise in Chinese laquerwork.
The Barefoot Emperor of the Dark Heaven
Stephen Little traced the involvement of the imperial dynasties in China with Daoism, long regarded as a folk religion and mystical philosophy disdained by the court, and even by the literati, at least during the years they held public office. Dr. Little told his audience that little attention is paid in the West to Daoism as it existed as a formal religion in China with its own pantheon of gods. He showed slides that portrayed Daoism's founder, Laozi, first as a purely human philosopher, and later, in the Tang dynasty, as a god.
The high point of court involvement with Daoism came in the Ming dynasty (1368-1644). Ming emperor Yongle (r. 1403–1424) came to power in a bloody coup against his nephew. Seeking justification for his usurpation of the throne, he turned to the cult of the Daoist god Zhenwu (the Perfected Warrior), a warrior god who fit well with Yongle's past as a prominent general. Zhenwu was also known as the Dark Warrior and as the Supreme Emperor of the Dark Heaven. He is the legendary inventor of the exercise and martial art practice of Tai Chi.
Daoist Art Often Unidentified in Western Collections
The Yongle Emperor carried out a massive construction project over ten years in honor of Zhenwu at Wudang mountain (Wudangshan) in Hubei province. Much of this history is very little known in the West as few museum curators and art historians are able to identify specifically Daoist art in their collections. Stephen Little found the large bronze statue of Zhenwu in the illustration above stored away unidentified in a museum basement storage room. (Zhenwu is identifiable as he is always portrayed barefoot!)
Stephen Little also told his audience that the Yongle Emperor, who is the one who built the famous Forbidden City in Beijing, added at the north end of the compound a small building devoted to the worship of Daoist god Zhenwu. The Manchu Qing dynasty (1644-1911) disparaged Daoism and worked effectively to bury the history of imperial association with Daoism. The building with its shrine to Zhenwu is still there with its paraphenalia intact, but is never opened to the public, nor is it ever dusted. It was locked up after the last Qing emperor, Puyi, was forced to abdicate in 1911 and has reputedly not been opened since.
Following the lecture the audience was invited to a reception where wine and Chinese food was served in the outdoor amphitheater adjoining the Lenart Auditorium.