Cultural Sources of Ink and Wash / Sumi-e Painting – The Influence of Daoism on Ink and Wash / Sumi-e Painting

What is Daoism?

Daoism is said to be the indigenous philosophy and religion of China, with the philosopher Laozi as the author of the Daodejing and founder of Daoism. It is not wrong to call it both philosophy and religion, because both forms are deeply linked with each other and difficult to separate. “Dao” means “way”, but can also be translated as “method” or “principle”. It is believed that everything in the universe is made by the “Dao”, which is thus the driving force behind all that exists, and at the same time, it is nothing. The main goal is to live in balance and harmony with the Dao.

Daoism is characterized by the principle of the two main polar forces, yin and yang, which are interconnected and interdependent and need to be in balance. This dualism forms one of the basic principles of Daoism and is represented everywhere in nature – male and female, day and night, sun and moon, hard and soft, and so on.

What are the Daoist Influences on Ink and Wash / Sumi-e Painting?

The dualistic nature of Daoism is observable in ink and wash painting. Even the tools and materials used for ink and wash painting form pairs – the brush and ink as well as brush and paper belong together. When it comes to motifs, dualism is even more extended – painting motifs, for example, include “people and things” (人物 /ren wu), meaning living and inanimate subjects; “grass and insects” (草虫/cao chong), referring to bound and flying objects; and most important “mountains and water” (山水/shan shui), which means landscape painting and its two most important elements, rocks and water. Landscape painting in particular is influenced by Daoism, for the depicted nature is a demonstration of all the elements in nature harmonically connected.

However, Daoism did not only have a philosophical influence on ink and wash painting, but also on the canon of motifs through the depiction of Laozi himself. The philosopher is often portrayed in the pictures, most likely riding on a water buffalo, referring to the episode of his life when he was saddened by the evil of Men and decided to leave China, riding on a water buffalo. Another popular depiction of Laozi is in combination with Buddha and Confucius, all three representing their respective religions and philosophies. Daoist Immortals also find their ways into paintings, either as single figure paintings or in groups.