75.0 x 170.5cm
Dominating the entire painting is a massive figure of a Daoist deity seated upon a bench with left hand raised in a gesture meaningful in Daoist iconography, while his right hand rests palm up on his lap. He wears a crown, and an official robe that are decorated with floral and animal motifs (dragon on sleeve and tiger on belt). His facial details and his beard are carefully delineated with black and red brushstrokes. Accompanying him are two attendants, each with hands holding a 'hu' sceptre in front. All three figures are backed by halos with the ornate one of the central deity further reinforced by three dragons. With his downcast eyes the central figure gives viewers an impression of otherworldliness. A cartouche on the bench’s plinth bears a dedicative inscription that reads, 'Xiao, wife of the adherent Xie Hucha from Shima, Sandu..., joyfully made this [image of] Yuanshi Zhengzun. May the whole household be blessed and have peace. A 'xiaoyuzhai' ceremony accompanies. Painted by Zhou Fengxiang on the 1st day of the 11th moon in the 24th year of Guangxu's reign.
The Daoist pantheon is a rather complicated system. During the second to fifth centuries CE, the supreme being was called Laojun - the deified Laozi. Soon afterwards, Yuanshi Tianzun (the Celestial Worthy of Primordial Beginning) emerged instead of him. This supreme god was the first Daoist triad known as the 'Sanqing' or Three Pure Ones. Under this triad was a huge system of divinities based on Chinese popular cults. Supported by the inscription, the scroll is apparently an icon depicting Yuanshi Tianzun (here called Yuanshi Zhengzun - the Primordial Orthodoxy Worthy), dedicated by ordinary adherents and painted by a late 19th century local craftsman. It provides us useful visual evidence for the Daoist movement among the lower social stratum during the 19th century that incorporated the use of art.
Asian Art Department, June 2003.