Lord Lao's Eighty One Transformations, Illustrated 


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Introduction to Lord Lao's Eighty One Transformations, Illustrated

by Dr. Benjamin Penny

Laojun bashiyi huatu is an illustrated hagiography of Laozi showing his supposed eighty-one interventions in human form in the life of the world.The text gained fame in the disputations between Buddhists and Taoists during the Yuan Dynasty and was destroyed after the proscription of all Taoist books bar the Daode jing. As a result, no version of this text exists in the Taoist Canon. The particular notoreity of the Eighty One Transformations was due largely to its explicit claim that the Buddha was but one of the transformations of Laozi.

It begins with the three images of Laozi and a picture of an inscribed stelae reading "Long live the emperor". This is followed by sixteen pages depicting thirty one Taoist patriarchs, many from the centuries immediately preceding the book's composition. Then follow the depictions of the eighty one transformations themselves, each accompanied by a short text. In the famous 34th illustration, Laozi transform Yin Xi into a Buddha and sends him to explain the Sutra in Forty Two Sections to the Hu barbarians. The final illustrated transformation is dated to 1098.

The precise origins of the Eighty One Transformations is murky, and the question of whether surviving texts claiming to be the original can authentically make that claim is unclear. There are descriptions of four extant editions of this text - one in Berlin (1598), two in Japan and one in Liaoning (1532). The edition exhibited here and held by the ANU Library is credited to the Ma'nao publishing house and is undated. The preface refers to the date 1374 (7th year of the Ming Emperor Ming Hongwu). The relation of this edition to the other four editions is yet to be determined.

Further reading

  • Laojun bashiyi hua tu [Eighty-One Transformations of Lord Lao, Illustrated] by Benjamin Penny in Fabrizio Pregadio [ed.] The encyclopedia of Taoism. London, New York: Routledge, 2008. Vol 1 pp. 606-607.
  • Study and translation by Florian C. Reiter: Zeitschrift der Deutschen Morgenländischen Gesellschaft, band 136, heft 2, 1986
  • Leben und Wirken Lao-Tzu's in Schrift und Bild = Lao-chûn pa-shih-i hua t'u-shuo / eingeleitet, ûbersetzt und herausgegeben von Florian C. Reiter. Published Wûrzbutg [Germany] : Kônigshausen & Neumann, 1991

Technical information

Original images scanned at 150dpi and saved in PDF format using a Macintosh Power PC G4 in conjunction with a Silverfast Microtek SM2000 scanner by Ms. Amanda Loh from the University of Canberra, Information Studies, as part of her placement with the ANU Library, September, 2004.