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Taoism and Popular Religion

  The Star-lords of Good Fortune, Emolument, and Longevity (Detail)
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The Star-Lords of Good Fortune, Emolument, and Longevity (detail)
Ming dynasty, Jingtai reign, dated 1454
Hanging scroll; ink, colors, and gold on silk
140 x 78 cm
Musée National des Arts Asiatiques Guimet, Paris
cat. no. 91


The Star-Lords of Good Fortune, Emolument, and Longevity

The three stars of Good Fortune, Emolument, and Longevity form a popular group of gods. Still today, they remain the most commonly depicted Chinese deities. Their worship seems to have begun in the 15th century; only the Star of Longevity can be traced to an earlier source. This god is shown in the upper left as an old man with white beard who looks directly outward. The other two float below him and look to the right. All three gods hold tablets and are dressed as Taoist priests. Accompanying them is a smaller attendant holding a parasol with banners. The inscriptions in gold at the upper right identify the gods and indicate the date of the painting.

In the third century B.C., China's first emperor worshiped the Star of Longevity. The other two gods, however, were unknown before the Ming dynasty. Although they became quite common, there is no scripture devoted to them in the Taoist Canon. Instead, they seem to have originated as popular gods outside of the orthodox Taoist tradition.

With one possible exception, this painting is the earliest known depiction of the group. The first literary source for these three stars is a play about the lunar New Year's festival, in which the three stars descend to the mortal world to grant the blessings suggested by their names—good fortune, wealth, and long life. The play was published only 11 years before this painting was made. Both of these early sources are connected with the emperor's family, suggesting that worship of the star-lords may have been instituted at the imperial level. This is both an example of a popular movement that originated at the highest levels of society and an important reminder that popular religion does not necessarily refer to the religion of uneducated peasants, but also to that of scholars and even the imperial family.

This work will only be shown at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco.




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