As the oldest extant illustrated guidebook on classical Chinese ritual implements, the Sanli tu, or Illustrations to the Ritual Classics, is a key source for understanding early scholarship on Chinese material culture. Design by the Book, which accompanies an exhibition at Bard Graduate Center Gallery, discusses the history and cultural significance of this medieval compendium, revealing the complex relationship between the Confucian Classics, the design of ritual objects, and the study of Chinese antiquities.

The Sanli tu survives in a version completed in 961 by Nie Chongyi, a professor at the court of the Later Zhou (951–960) and Northern Song (960–1127) dynasties. It is now mostly remembered—if at all—for its controversial entries and as a quaint predecessor of the more empirical antiquarian scholarship produced since the mid-eleventh century. But such criticism hides the fact that the book remained a standard resource for more than 150 years, playing a crucial role in the Song dynasty’s perception of ancient ritual and its construction of a Confucian state cult. Richly illustrated and including a glossary of the Sanil tu’s 362 entries, Design by the Book brings renewed focus to one of China’s most engaging classics commentaries.

The exhibition Design by the Book: Chinese Ritual Objects and the Sanli tu will be on view at Bard Graduate Center Gallery from March 24th through July 30th, 2017