Daoist Talks (II): The Basics

shi tao versus friedrich

What we’re going to talk about.

First of all, I would like to say thank you to everyone who participated in the determination poll to create the series about Dao! Unfortunately, the app doesn’t work in the reader (only in the blog. Sorry, I didn’t know that).
Result: A few showed no interest in the topic, and the majority wanted the topic in short contributions. Therefore, a good compromise seems to be: A contribution will appear every 2-3 weeks and I will try to concisely focus on the essentials. However, today’s post is a bit longer and more tedious.

Summary of the last post: Dao I

Everything comes from nothing and returns to nothing and is therefore part of nothing.
Everything perceivable exists only in our consciousness. Our consciousness forms thoughts and with them, we give things names, meanings, and properties. Therefore, a dualistic view is a constructed one without any actual relevance.

the topic of the series

Our main topic will be Daoism in Chinese painting. Understanding the essential aspects of the Dao should help us to understand Chinese painting better and more profoundly. Lexical knowledge is not in the foreground, since everyone is welcome to look it up.
There are many definitions of the term Dao, some of which are quite useful. However, they will usually only help us to a limited extent in our understanding of Daoism in painting. [1]

As indicated in the first part, I would like to clarify why I write about Daoism once, but Zen appears in the next sentence. Is this again something other than Zen Buddhism? Speaking of Buddhimsus…and then there is Confucianism in painting!?!
This scenario is not only confusing for beginners. We (especially in the West) love –ISM. In all areas of our being, from eclecticism to rheumatism. And then we love little boxes in which to put the manifestations within the -isms. (Remember the song “Little Boxes” by Pete Seeger. Later, artists like Frank Zappa covered the subject more explicitly).
But this way of thinking never had a place in Chinese painting or beyond. [Of course to a certain extent in politics, but that is not our topic].

Zhuangzi writes that there is nothing that is not Dao. And what he means is that Dao is creation itself, or every last detail of it. In the Dao, there is no separation between the outer and inner worlds. BOTH ARE MUTUALLY CONDITIONAL. The essence of the Dao is the dissolution of all opposites. [2]
And in doing so Zhuang Zi anticipates ideas that we only encounter later in Zen – almost a millennium later. Not only for this reason it seems legitimate to also think of certain aspects of Zen when we speak of Daoism.

To make it short, if we look at the great painters of the last 1000 years in China, most of whom are considered Daoist, we find in their works not only the Daoist attitude but also elements from Zen, Confucianism, Neo-Confucianism, and Buddhism. Quite simply because specific, highest thoughts have a universal character. We can also see the same principle in the Western Christian religion (we always only speak of the conceptual superstructure, not of the implementation).


Basically, Chinese painting can be divided into two main types: gongbi (工笔)) and xieyi (写意).
gongbi is a fine, detailed style of painting with a strong tendency towards the decorative and is not our subject. xieyi, usually translated as “freehand-style” or something similar, is essentially shaped by Taoist concepts and ideas and is therefore our topic.

gongbi and xieyi
gong bi :: xie yi

It is important to know that the term is made up of 2 characters that express exactly what it is about: xie, writing, refers to the art of calligraphy. Without mastery of this, there can be no good painting in this style. Calligraphy is seen artistically higher than painting.
yi: sense, meaning, indicates that the object should not show the superficial appearance, but the essence, that which goes beyond the perceptible. [4] And in the picture as a whole, yi is – to put it simply – the philosophical concept, the intellectual superstructure.
A Daoist painting is, therefore “written” by the painter and “read” by the viewer. So we usually read in the colophon of a picture: written by XY – and not painted.

Definition of Dao in Chinese Art

With that, my definition would essentially look like this: Daoism in Chinese painting is a means of giving form to nature, its manifestations, and principles. In making the principles of nature visible through the painter and in understanding them through the viewer, the highest philosophical themes are dealt with and thus help us to become one with nature and the universe.
One of the core considerations is that the entire universe is in constant flux, nothing is stationary – or as Laozi put it: “We never step into the same river”. Yin and yang, the opposing forces involved, are mutually dependent, are contained in each other, and do not exist in isolation. Their interaction creates all manifestations (the wan yi. lit. ten thousand things).
Laozi (Chapter 42) writes: “The ten thousand things carry yin and receive yang, in the union of qi they attain harmony”. [3]

By understanding the principle of the opposite poles, yin and yang, in all its facets and putting it on paper, the painter becomes the creator himself. [5] And of course, as already emphasized he sees himself as part of nature.

The different approaches to nature in Chinese and Western art can be demonstrated very well by these 2 important artists Shi Tao and Caspar David Friedrich. While the one merges with nature, the Dao, and is therefore hardly perceptible as a person, the other stands on a pedestal, and nature is at his feet.

shi tao versus friedrich

And then, due to special features in the composition of the picture [6] (e.g. no fixed perspective), the viewer can wander through the picture, and through the perfect introduction of “qi” by the painter, he can fill up on the power of the natural. The creation of pictures and their viewing is therefore a spiritual experience that differs greatly from its western counterpart. This in turn means that we, as western viewers with a western approach to painting in Chinese art, can only see or understand a small part.
Both, painter and viewer, have to work on their understanding and their personality in order to be able to actively or passively experience higher levels of art.

Daoist painting is also strongly linked to poetry and music, which in turn are strongly based on painting as they all share the same principles. Chinese painters therefore mostly practiced poetry and music (usually playing the gu qin).
High-standing paintings can only be painted by painters with high thoughts. Therefore, he aspires to be a “junzi” (nobleman, superior person). The opposite of this is a xiao ren (low-aligned person, vile character). This includes merchants, even if they have a lot of money. The latter, however, cannot understand the higher art for this reason and therefore revere the superficial, the glittering.

Even if the material aspect is not our topic, a prototype of Taoist painting should be used to show what collectors are willing to pay to have fun with it. “Wood and Rock” by Chinese literati Su Shi was selling for $59,505,898 at Christie’s.

su shi painting rock and pine
Su Shi (苏轼 1037- 1101) Wood and Rock

One last term for today should be briefly mentioned: wu wei (無為), the concept of non-action or non-interference in the natural order of things. [6] It follows logically from what has been said above, that it is the painter’s task to show the natural principles of order and thus to subordinate himself to them. This is a completely different approach than, for example, in Cubism.


In general, we can easily recognize the yin-yang principle (construction like the well-known yin-yang symbol), the associated communication, and thus the Daoist principle in the first picture. Yun Shouping (惲壽平, 1633 – 1690) was a Chinese calligrapher and painter. He was regarded as one of the “Six Masters” of the Qing period.

yun shouping painting
album leaf, Yun Shou Ping (恽 寿平 1633-1690)

In the second example, it may be relatively difficult to recognize and understand it as a Daoist painting. Dǒng Qíchāng (董其昌 1555–1636), was a Chinese painter, calligrapher, politician, and art theorist of the later period of the Ming dynasty.

Dong Qichang painting
Hala Wanluan (婉娈草堂图), Dong Qichang, 1597


[1] C G Jung, for example, writes very aptly: If we understand Tao as a method or conscious path that is intended to unite what is separate, then we should probably come close to the psychological content of the term…… There is no doubt that the Question of raising awareness of the contrast, the “reversal” in order to reunite with the unconscious laws of life and the intention of this union is to achieve conscious life, expressed in Chinese: “establishment of the Tao.

[2] Opposites: more in the sense of opposite poles, not as extremes but as mutually dependent. Without warmth, there is no cold.

[3] qi “Qi” deeply embodies the spirit of Taoism and philosophical speculation with Oriental characteristics and can reflect the core and composition of traditional Chinese art aesthetics. The “qi” of calligraphy determines the character of calligraphy works and is the soul of calligraphy.

[4] “chairness” by Martin Heidegger as explained in https://zettl.blog/2022/02/19/cats-in-chinese-painting/

[5] There is a theoretical Daoism (Daojia 道家), said to have produced the classical mystical texts and the popular Taoism, (Daojiao 道教) so-called Taoist religion

[6] I wrote an article on composition that I highly recommend: https://zettl.blog/2021/02/15/the-essence-of-chinese-painting-iii/

[7] wúwéi (Chinese: 無為) is an ancient Chinese concept, literally meaning “inexertion”, “inaction”, or “effortless action”. For a better understanding of the term, Zhuangzi is recommended: DEXTEROUS BUTCHER

Please check: https://zettl.blog/2022/10/08/daoist-talks-i/ too.

Zettl Fine Arts

paintings graphics calligraphy

27 comments on “Daoist Talks (II): The Basics

Heut habe ich am Geschriebenen zu knappern, da ich mich noch nie so tief in diese Materie eingearbeitet habe. Aber ich bin dran! Hausaufgaben sozusagen, lächel..
Feine Wochenendstunden dir ganz herzlich.

Ja, ist etwas schwierig zu Beginn. Aber ich denke, dass nicht nur Maler was davon haben, die chin. Literatur funktioniert gleich. Ich werde einmal einen Artikel dazu posten, wenn ein paar grundsaetzliche Punkte abgehandelt sind. Schoenes WE!


Thank you for elaborating upon the Dao and Wu Wei in painting.

I thank you for reading! I hope I can express myself clearly.

The lesson is easy to understand.

Thank you very much! Sometimes I am not sure.

The glowering raven is splendid! Your discussion is illuminating. I’m fascinated by the prestige accorded calligraphy that you mention.

Thank you very much! It really means a lot to me as I am often not sure if my readers know what I am talking about. After a couple of posts things will become clearer.

There is much to take in here, a great deal to learn! Thank you! Would say then that I should study and practice calligraphy before painting?

Thank you! Well, if you want to paint following Chinese thoughts you have to. Please read my following postings and you will clearly understand. Good luck!

Thanks for this informative article on Daoism in Chinese painting. There’s a lot to take in. Does the calligraphy in Chinese art provide a deeper understanding of its inferior visual component? Am I wrong in concluding that the propagation of Daoism through the visual arts is similar to that done through the early Christian paintings? Indeed, in modern Western art, the emphasis may not be on evoking a spiritual experience, but rather, in many cases, in calling attention to the human condition. Considering the current degradation of nature, we in the Western world could benefit from exploring new artistic forms that help us to become one with nature and the universe. Then again, our perception of a work of art depends upon our individual sense of being.

Thank you very much! As for calligraphy, maybe I’ll do an own post about it one day, but I think it’s very difficult because it’s too complex a subject that requires a lot of basic knowledge from the reader. But everything I write about it now, from the dot to the stroke to the composition, applies equally to calligraphy – just on a higher level,.

As for the comparison with early Christian paintings, the most significant difference for me is that the Western painters were craftsmen commissioned to create images intended to represent the canon of Christian doctrine: Jesus, Mary, Apostles… In conjunction with symbols (Cross, Stations of the Cross, Washing of Feet) they illustrated a teaching with people in the center. The Daoists did not illustrate and deify, but “created” nature by applying the principles of nature.
Yes, the Western Green Parties could take a lot of inspiration from Daoism. However, we live in a materialistic, money-dominated world order and not even today’s Chinese government can cope with this very idealistic world view.

Now I’m intrigued about the use of calligraphy! I sense that writing to the Daoist is much more than mere words/symbols but an expression of the spirit/soul of the writer/artist. I find the religious masterpieces of the Flemish artist Paul Rubens (1577-1640) and Italian Michelangelo Caravaggio (1571-1610) very emotive. Indeed, it is the reality of our modern world that the more inferior (xiao ren) merchant class has taken control of our lives. I believe that the work of our artists (the junzi) who seek to depict and express the nobler nature of humanity keeps us from falling into the abyss.

I’d be a poor Taoist if I said anything. Ooops…

This is enlightening material, Friedrich; I’m grateful for your guidance. I was especially taken by learning the centrality of calligraphy. Also most enjoyable was your description of the viewer’s eye freed to move about the painting.

Such a welcome change from my political obsession!

Thank you, Annie, that makes me very happy! Sometimes we need something to unwind and art is certainly a fitting area. The immense importance that calligraphy has in Chinese art is initially very difficult for the western viewer to appreciate. A blog post or two would only scratch the surface. But everything that is now discussed can be applied to calligraphy, also that our eyes can wander into it.


Thank you! There is more to come.

An insightful article! Though brief to the point of being almost opaque at times, there gleam and shine forth parts of it that make me think that some Western traditions⁠—or, at least, ideas⁠⁠—in aesthetics might not be entirely antithetical to the Eastern⁠—or, more specifically⁠, Chinese—ways.

What piqued my interest especially was the Daoist conception of the role of character in the creation (and perception) of “high art” which requires “high thoughts,” wherefore the Daoist artist (and connoisseur) is set to work on her character and towards a better understanding. I mean—whereby I may be trying to naïvely jump an insurmountable abyss here—isn’t there a touch of the Aristotelian in this line of thought?

Friedrich: I have SO much to learn in life and from you. I will read more about Daoism in your blog posts. And then, I will get back to you with some feedback and hopefully something smart to say. Thank you ❤️

You are so kind, Carolyn! Thank you ❤️

Wonderful post, I’m currently reading Lao-tzu’s Taoteching translated by Red Pine, Freidrich which version do you use as their are many, I also found Zhuangzi: The Complete Writings by Brook Ziporyn, I’d like to read that as well. Alex

Great to hear, good luck! Don’t worry too much if it is hard to understand at the beginning. If we manage to pick up certain thoughts we should be happy. And then, by and by we can adept more and more. As for versions: I probably have 7-8. As I am German speaking most books are in German and Richard Wilhelm is the best one for me. In any case it should be a translation by someone who can deal with the Chinese language. Some just translate translations. 🙂 Zhuangzi is easier – still mysterious enough 😃🌻

Thank you for your reply, I try not to take philosophy on face value and I have heard of Richard Wilhelm, if only I new Chinese but even then translators have been struggling with the original text for centuries. Zhuangzi take on the Dao is more user friendly in that way.

Definitely! All in all, all translations that I know of are suitable for a start. First of all, it is about understanding yin and yang, the nothing – just basic things.

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