China and Inner Asia

Organized Panel Session

3 - Practicing Scriptures by Physical Forms: Lay Interpretation of Daoist Theology and Philosophy on Stelae in Northern Dynasties China

Saturday, July 7
12:10 PM - 1:40 PM
Location: Juniper, New Building

This paper discusses how iconographical scriptures in China have emerged through the lens of Daoist stelae created by a lay interpretation of the physical forms of their supreme lord. Beginning in the late Northern Dynasties (386-581), practices among lay communities in north China have contributed greatly to a major reformation of Daoist canonical traditions. While iconographical practices were canonically prohibited in Daoist canonical traditions, it was within this very period the earliest Daoist figures emerged on stone stelae. These stele inscriptions present a communal consensus of building the physical forms of their supreme lord shared by lay practitioners. This paper further discusses how this kind of iconographical practices can be read as a parallel to scriptural traditions, which not only contributed to the formation of the later iconographical scriptures but also established the ground for the later reformation of theological and philosophical foundations of the Daoist canonical traditions. Build on which, this paper eventually explores other contributing factors to this major shift — from aniconism to iconography — in a broader historical context by comparing it with other analogous transformations that also occurred in the medieval China.

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