François Louis

François Louis, curator of the Focus Project, Design by the Book: Chinese Ritual Objects and the Sanli tu, is associate professor of history of Chinese art and material culture at Bard Graduate Center, where he has taught since 1999. From 2002 to 2008, he was editor-in-chief of the journal Artibus Asiae. The author of numerous articles on ancient and medieval Chinese design history, metalwork, and workshop practices, his books include Die Goldschmiede der Tang und Song-Zeit (Peter Lang, 1999) and, with Yea-jen Liang-Lee, An Index of Gold and Silver Artifacts Unearthed in the People’s Republic of China, (Museum Rietberg Zürich, 1996). With Peter N. Miller, Bard Graduate Center dean, he edited Antiquarianism and Intellectual Life in Europe and China, part of the BGC book series, Cultural Histories of the Material World. His current project is a book with the working title, Dynastic Possessions: the Material Culture of the Early Kitan Elite, which evaluates the art and recent archaeological finds from the tenth century in northern China. Louis received his PhD from the University of Zurich in 1997.

How did your interest in the Sanli tu come about?

Some fifteen years ago, I was trying to better understand the beginnings of antiquities collecting in China. I first read a brief mention about the Sanli tu in this context, in James Watt’s discussion of Song-dynasty (960–1279) antiquarianism in Possessing the Past: Treasures from the National Palace, Taipei, the seminal exhibition catalogue he co-edited with Wen Fong for the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1996. Here he characterized the Sanli tu as representing a tradition of learning that preceded the antiquarian scholarship of the eleventh and twelfth centuries. This prompted me to look at a copy of the Sanli tu. I found that the book contains hundreds of illustrated discussions of classical ritual objects and that, amazingly, it had largely been ignored in modern scholarship—perhaps because it is rather esoteric and not concerned with understanding actual, surviving materials from the Shang and Zhou dynasties. To me it was interesting as a source for understanding medieval scholarship, however. One object entry, on the classical ancient drinking horn, caught my eye, because its illustration resembled a Western-style rhyton. In a 2007 paper on this issue I proposed that the author of the Sanli tu, Nie Chongyi, in 961 looked at seventh-century images of imported rhyta, which during his time were desirable luxury goods from the West, and mistook them to be ancient Chinese objects.

Why did you think of building a Focus Project around it?

One of the initial ideas that led to the conception of the Bard Graduate Center Focus Project was to integrate faculty research into the exhibition program. A research project that would conventionally be published as a scholarly article could instead be transformed into a more experimental format that included teaching and an exhibition. I was following this model. I had accumulated several months of research on the Sanli tu and had a draft for an introductory article on the history and historical significance of the book that could serve as a starting point for discussion in the classroom. Because the focus of this project was an entire book, I thought there was a rich array of possible directions to explore. The Sanli tu itself seemed appropriate because it is addresses the study of material culture. The book thus allows to foreground an important moment in the very early history of scholarship on ancient objects, and so is closely linked to our institutional research focus.

Describe students’ involvement in the project.

I offered two seminars in 2015. The first one, in the spring, was intended to get to understand the Sanli tu more closely and to think about possible themes and contexts that might be worth pursuing for an exhibition. This was a very fruitful, deep immersion research seminar. In the second seminar, which included a mostly different group of students, we focused more closely on preparing the exhibition. Here students discussed the final selection of loans, devised the digital interactive, and contributed to writing some of the catalog entries.

Why do you also call the exhibition Design by the Book?

The scholarship in the Sanli tu examines ritual objects from classical antiquity in a particular way. Rather than analyzing surviving objects from antiquity, the book relies on the sacred classical texts (i.e. the Confucian Classics), their commentaries, and images. It visualizes objects that are otherwise known only through textual descriptions. So the title is meant to emphasize that the illustrations illuminate sacred books. But there is a second reason for the title. These objects illustrated were regarded as the most important ritual items of the Confucian tradition and were central to the self-definition of Chinese empire and society. They continued to be manufactured throughout imperial history, up to the twentieth century. Until the twelfth century, the Sanli tu illustrations served as the primary source for designers of Confucian ritual objects. So the book itself served as a mediator between the Classics and contemporary design.

Describe an object or objects on view that are of particular significance.

The show displays seven rare books, including a seventeenth-century edition of the Sanli tu, and eight related objects. Most of these things have never been on public view. Four of the objects have been made for use in the imperial state cult, notably the sacrifice to Heaven, the supreme legitimization rite of the Chinese empire. They are all object types discussed in Nie Chongyi’s Sanli tu of 961, but were made centuries later and show how interpretations of the classical designs changed under different rulers and dynasties. While each dynasty devised a uniquely recognizable ritual design for their state cult, they all invoked the authority of the same ancient models defined in the Classics. The blue mountain jar was commissioned by the Ming dynasty in the sixteenth century, the green jade chime stone was used by the Qing dynasty from 1716 onward, and the ceremonial vestments were worn by an official during President Yuan Shikai’s Sacrifice to Heaven in 1914. Although Yuan’s performance of this ritual was touted as a prayer for good harvests, it was a clear indication of his aspirations to make himself monarch, which he formally declared a year later. The exhibition also includes a bronze bell which I believe was commissioned for emperor Huizong in the early twelfth century. The bell has so far gone unrecognized as such, but if confirmed, it represents the first historical instance when a Sanli tu design was emphatically rejected in a state ritual reform.

What is the relevance of the Sanli tu today?

That is up to viewers of the exhibition to decide. As I mentioned, the book has been largely forgotten, even by medieval China specialists. So this focus project is meant to draw attention to it, if only for the fact that this is a very rare early illustrated Chinese book that says something about the ceremonial representation of autocratic, dynastic power. The exhibition and publication will hopefully generate further research. More broadly speaking, this exhibition comes at a time when interest in Confucian precepts and ritual is growing, especially in the People’s Republic of China—but this is largely a coincidence.

On March 23, Professor Francois Louis spoke to Sinovision English about his Focus Project and the historical significance of the Sanli tu.