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About the Artwork

Who are the “Three Taoist Officials”?

Painted with ink, color and gold pigment on an imposing silk scroll, The Three Taoist Officials Making an Inspection Tour (hereafter, the “NPM painting” or the “featured painting”) depicts the Officials of Heaven, Earth, and Water proceeding through a grand tour of inspection. According to Taoist belief, these three deities regularly visit the realms of heaven, earth, and water under their jurisdiction to investigate good and bad deeds and determine whether to respond with fortune or calamity. Their roles remind one of army, navy, and air force commanders, as well as judges, in the human world.

The earliest and most exquisite extant portrayal of the Three Taoist Officials is held in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (hereafter, the “MFA triptych”). Consisting of a set of three hanging scrolls separately depicting each deity, the MFA triptych dates to the Southern Song Dynasty and is comparable thematically to the NPM painting on show. However, their compositions and motifs are largely distinct.

※ Can you spot the ways the MFA triptych is different from the NPM painting?

From left to right: Taoist Officials of Water, Heaven, and Earth.

Why is the painting a National Treasure?

In most extant portrayals of the Three Taoist Officials, they are usually either depicted seated in temples or standing amid clouds while holding official tablets called hu. Rarely are the Taoist deities depicted on tours of inspection as seen in the MFA triptych and the NPM painting. The way in which the NPM painting depicts all three officials on tour concurrently in a single landscape is even more uncommon.

According to The Yizhou Record of Famous Painters, an early eleventh-century text, when large-scale salvation rituals such as the Buddhist Water and Land Ritual were undertaken during the Tang Dynasty (618-907), depictions of the Three Taoist Officials and other deities would be displayed on the altar. Doing so symbolized that these divine beings had been invited to the ritual. The MFA triptych and NPM painting might also have appeared in such ceremonies, where believers would have treated them as sacred portraits whose veneration could elicit responses from the divine realm.

Its unique artistic and religious value led The Three Taoist Officials Making an Inspection Tour to being certified as a National Treasure.

What does the painting depict?

This painting depicts the Taoist Officials of Heaven, Earth, and Water on a tour of inspection. They ride in a carriage pulled by the mythical beast qilin, atop a lion, and astride a dragon. The realms of heaven, earth, and water they preside over are represented respectively by clouds, trees and boulders, and waves. A contingent of over eighty figures in their company highlights the exaltedness of the Taoist deities and the solemnity of their tour.

The Three Officials’ diverse retinue of attendants, many of whom have peculiar appearances, are one of the painting’s most intriguing aspects. Additionally, the patterns on the carriage wheels, garments, and the mythical beasts’ scales, mane and whiskers are outlined with gold pigment, creating a sense of splendor and majesty.

※Did you notice demons in animal skin pants, and the fish and shrimp spirits next to the Dragon King?
※Each of the Three Taoist Officials has assistants who carried special items like official hu tablets and seals, and books for recording good and bad deeds. Can you spot them all?

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    • These two immortals clear the way for the Taoist Official of Earth. Scholar Fong-mao Lee believes that the old man besides the tiger is the Earth God, a tutelary deity tied to particular geographical locations.
    • These two assistants hold the official seal and hu tablet, wrapped in red cloth, for the Taoist Official of Heaven.
    • These demonic attendants raise banners and hold record books for the Taoist Official of Water.
    • The Dragon King and aquatic spirits present corals and jewels to the Taoist Official of Water.

※Can you spot the amazing details outlined in gold?
※Besides the dragon design on the water deity's robe, the flower pattern on the heaven deity's carriage wheel, and the mythical beasts’ scales and mane, can you find other parts where the gold outlining technique is applied?

    • The Taoist Official of Water wears a robe with golden dragon designs.
    • The Taoist Official of Heaven’s carriage wheel has golden flower patterns.
    • The mythical qilin beast’s scales are outlined in gold.
    • The lion’s mane and whiskers are accented in gold.

How does the “Three Taoist Officials” relate to Taiwanese religious beliefs?

The Three Taoist Officials are worshipped in family altars and temples all over Taiwan. The Chinese Lantern Festival (which marks the end of the Chinese New Year) and the Hungry Ghost Festival (during which locals prepare feasts for souls of the dead) are connected to beliefs in the Official of Heaven and the Official of Earth, respectively.

Three Taoist Officials