Art

The Enduring Relevance of a 1,000-Year-Old Chinese Design Manual

Facsimile pages of the Sanli tu are on view at Bard Graduate Center, where an illuminating exhibition explores the book’s significance and legacy in design.

1985 facsimile print of Nie Chongyi’s illustrations of wine goblets and ladles from ‘Newly Determined illustrations to the Ritual Classics’ (1175) (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

Among the canonical texts of Confucianism are three books collectively known as the San li, or the Three Rites, that recorded the rites of antiquity, from those of social behavior to the state administration to court ceremonies. They provided an essential standard of conduct that guided the Chinese state and society, but as each was dense and filled with esoteric language, they were complex reads.

Wine cup from the late Shang-early Zhou dynasty, with cover from the Qing dynasty

Enter the Sanli tu, a medieval book that sought to simplify and clarify these texts. Its author, Nie Chongyi, did so by introducing illustrations that provided a much more engaging experience but more significantly, also implemented a design standard. Completed in 961 CE, the Sanli tu represents the oldest extant illustrated guidebook on the ritual classics, focusing on the material objects used in customs, from imperial rites to mourning and burial traditions for the elite. Neatly organized like an encyclopedia, the tome dedicates entries to 362 different ritual implements, such as ornate garments, musical instruments, chariots, ladles, and wine goblets shaped like birds.

A number of facsimile pages of it are on view at Bard Graduate Center, where a small but illuminating exhibition curated by François Louis explores the book’s significance and legacy. To bring its pages to life, Design by the Book also pairs spreads with real-life versions of the illustrated objects. Nie’s illustrations of stone chimes (bianqing), for instance, are accompanied by one early-18th-century stone chime that resembles the L-shaped drawing and a heavy bronze bell from the early 12th century.

 

1985 facsimile print of Nie Chongyi’s illustrations of the bell set, stone chime set, and single suspended chime stone from ‘Newly Determined illustrations to the Ritual Classics’ (1175)
Chime stone from the Qing Dynasty (1716)

A professor of Confucian Classics, Nie had received a commission from the first emperor of the Song Dynasty to make illustrations of the mysterious ritual objects described in the San Li, which even provided specific measurements. With a new dynasty, of course, came the need for new court objects. He designed many of these illustrations himself, but others he may have derived from the work of an earlier scholar, Zheng Xuan. Nie’s Sanli tu entered the national curriculum, and it remained a standard design manual for ancient material culture for over 150 years.

But as scholars began looking at recently excavated antiquities, they realized some of these authentic ritual objects appeared differently from Nie’s drawings. By the early 12th century — towards the end of the Song Dynasty — scholars were reassessing Nie’s work and redesigning new objects based on the recovered artifacts. The aforementioned bronze bell actually emerges during this time of design reform, with its shape more boxy that that in Nie’s illustration. A number of facsimile pages from guides published during this period of revision are also on view, showing more designs that deviate from the Sanli tu.

Even if the book’s authenticity took a hit around the 12th century, it still remained part of the discourse over contemporary ritual design. And as one medieval man’s effort to make visual what was laid out in pages and pages of text, it provided a new model for others to follow to better explain design — especially significant as the envisioned objects have vital roles in rigid, long-established customs.

Installation view of ‘Design by the Book’ at Bard Graduate Center
Facsimile of illustrations of ritual jars
Mountain jar from the Ming dynasty
Facsimile of a page from the Sanli tu showing an illustration of a mountain jar from ‘Newly Determined illustrations to the Ritual Classics’ (1175)
Lu Dalin, “Illustration of archaic bronze jue goblet” from ‘Boruzhai Edition of the Illustrated Investigations of Antiquities’
Installation view of ‘Design by the Book’ at Bard Graduate Center

Design by the Book continues at Bard Graduate Center (38 West 86th Street, Upper West Side, Manhattan) through July 30.

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