The Mien, also called ‘Yao’, are one of the many semi-migratory people living in the highlands of southern China, and the northern regions of Thailand, Laos and Vietnam. They practice swidden, or slash-and-burn, agriculture mainly for the growing of rice for their own consumption and maize with which to feed their pigs and poultry. During approximately three thousand years of contact with the Chinese, they have acquired many elements of Chinese culture. They have merged Chinese Taoism, including the Chinese Taoist painting tradition, with their animist beliefs to form a unique tradition of Taoism.

Mien Taoist paintings are religious, not decorative. Each has a ritual function and is considered the abode of the gods. During the one to two months it takes to complete a set of paintings, the artist must work in an atmosphere of religious devotion and ceremonial purity. When the work is finished, the painter himself ‘opens the eyes’ of each character according to the Chinese custom for consecrating Taoist icons. The Mien Taoist tradition goes further and also requires a priest to perform a ceremony that introduces the gods to the paintings. Priests then display the set of paintings in a certain order to play a part in ceremonies. At other times, they are rolled and stored up in a box hanging near the domestic altar. When a set of paintings is judged worn out, the owner may decide to replace it.

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Priests in front of an altar

A priest will then perform a ceremony in which he politely invites the gods to depart from the paintings and “go visit somewhere else”.

It is these de-consecrated paintings which are usually sold.

This set of paintings is dated to 1670, based on a date inscription on the back of the painting of Yuanshi Tianzun, The Celestial Worthy of Primordial Beginning. The set was purchased with funds provided by the Haffenreffer Special Fund. The scroll paintings are paint on bamboo paper, with small touches of applied gold leaf and a fine bamboo rod at the top and bottom. In this exhibition the paintings are arranged by themes; they are not organized as they would have been by Mien priests.

Taoism is the foremost indigenous religion of China. Taoism teaches that one must accept change (transformation) as the absolute reality. The word Tao means a road and is often translated as “the way” According to Chinese tradition, the Tao existed before the world was born out of the primordial chaos. It is conceived as the void out of which all reality emerges. The Tao brought forth the world, and all Being naturally belongs to the Tao.

Instead of a supreme being, there is the Tao itself, underlying and permeating reality. However, Chinese and Mien religious Taoism evolved many gods as the religion grew. The gods of Taoism depicted in these paintings exist to put a recognizable face on the Tao.