From the Exhibition:
Design by the Book: Chinese Ritual Objects and the Sanli tu

The emperor sits on a silk-draped throne in his chariot under a canopy, wearing a ceremonial cap and robe embroidered with dragons on the sleeves. A flag with further dragon images is set behind him. Surrounded by eight attendants also in ceremonial attire, the emperor holds a tablet. One attendant holds the reins of four horses marching in step, while another attendant wielding a staff leads them. Six others flank the vehicle, each also holding a tablet. The ornate chariot is carved in a honeycomb design, with two dragon’s heads adorning the front and a third embellishing the flag post. The scene is set against a nondescript landscape of low rolling hills with frothy cumulus clouds overhead.

We are not told who this emperor is, nor does the French tome from which this engraving comes—the first European translation of a Chinese history of China1—explicate the scene beyond its caption: “Empereur dans son char aux jours de Cérémonies” (The Emperor in His Ceremonial Chariot). Instead, the engraving stands apart from the rest of the first volume of the Histoire générale de la Chine, ou Annales de cet empire, translated and partly written by the Jesuit missionary at the Kangxi court, Joseph-Anne-Marie de Moyriac de Mailla (1669–1748). Perhaps we are witnessing the Kangxi emperor, whose reign ended in 1722, en route to a ceremonial sacrifice, but perhaps not, for this image was likely engraved long after de Mailla’s death.

Although de Mailla completed his twelve-volume work in 1729, it was not published until 1777, when the abbé Jean-Baptiste Grosier (1743–1823) and the professor Michel-Ange-André Le Roux Deshauterayes (1724–1795) took on the unenviable task of editing the manuscript into twelve volumes, with a thirteenth volume of Jesuit correspondence and commentary added by Grosier. Mailla’s manuscript, however, contains no references to illustrations.2 Why and when, then, was this foldout, along with fifteen other single-page engravings, added to the text of the first volume when it was published under Grosier and Le Roux Deshauterayes?3 And what were the artists’ and engravers’ sources? Although these questions are not entirely answerable—indeed, no evidence for identifying the engravers of these plates has come to light—this print nonetheless gives unique insight into the reception and transformation of imagery from Chinese illustrated books for an early modern European audience, with Nie Chongyi’s Sanli tu at the center.

Though rendered in the distinctly European technique of engraving, the iconographical source for the emperor’s chariot is much older and closer to China. Chapter 9 of the Sanli tu on “Flags and Banners” contains a comparable image of a model ruler in classical antiquity in his jade chariot (yulu), attended by eight officials. But the continued history of this image within China and a closer comparison of existing versions of the image reveal that the French artists may not have been familiar with this source and instead referenced a later Chinese book that reinterpreted the Sanli tu’s woodcuts. A Ming dynasty woodblock print from the encyclopedic compendium Sancai tuhui (Illustrations of the three powers; completed in 1607) depicts a somewhat more elaborate version of the Sanli tu chariot scene, a veritable though simplified mirror image to the engraving contained in de Mailla and Grosier’s book. While passages such as the faces, garments, horses, flag, and the chariot are more detailed in this image than in that of the Sancai tuhui, the canopy’s evocative swaying in the wind and the animated appearance of the staff-bearing attendant looking back at the emperor reveal knowledge of the Sancai tuhui’s distinctive version of the tableau.

No mention of the Sanli tu or Sancai tuhui can be found in the French work, but on the title page of the first volume, Jean-Baptiste Grosier notes that the book was “engraved for the first time,” suggesting that the image was probably produced under his supervision not too long before 1777. Moreover, the same engravings are reused in two other publications connected to Grosier: the Description générale de la Chine (Paris, 1787) and the Italian translation of the Histoire générale, entitled Storia generale della Cina (Siena, 1777–1785), which includes somewhat rudimentary copies of the French engravings.4

Thus, the Histoire générale’s representation of the emperor’s ceremonial chariot, as well as its quotation from the Sanli tu of the implements used in ceremonial sacrifice—the chariot itself, canopy, flag, possibly the dynastic sacrificial robe (gunmian) worn by the emperor, and other garments—signals an indirect though accurate Occidental translation and transmission of the Sanli tu’s imagery. Although other Western sinological histories of the late eighteenth century were comparatively more richly illustrated and explicated,5 Grosier’s visual additions to Mailla’s history deserve further attention for what they reveal about European knowledge and interpretation of Chinese illustrated books, offering us insight as to how missionaries represented such complexities as Classical Chinese rites for European audiences.

1.The Histoire générale de la Chine, ou Annales de cet empire is a translation of the Zizhi tongjian gangmu (Summary of the comprehensive mirror for aid in governance), Zhu Xi’s (1130–1200) abridged and revised version of Sima Guang’s (1019–1086) groundbreaking history of China (Zizhi tongjian), published in 1084. De Mailla, who had spent more than forty years in China and assisted in the translation of the Zizhi tongjian gangmu from Chinese to Manchu under the Kangxi emperor, added his own account of China’s more recent history, up to 1722, based on Chinese sources.

2.Part of the manuscript is preserved in the Bibliothèque nationale de France, Mss. Fr. 12210–12214, as well as on microfilm.

3.Unsigned and unmarked, these engravings depict the trigrams of Fuxi, contemporary and ancient musical instruments, arms and armor, flags, costume, the Twelve Symbols of Sovereignty, the armillary sphere made under the Zhengtong emperor (1436–1450), the astronomical observatory of the Zhou King Wen, two scenes of an emperor in his chariot (including this one), the princesses’ chariot, and two depictions of army officials’ chariots, as well as a foldout map. Although not all of these prints can be discussed here, it should be noted that there is evidence of at least two different hands involved in their engraving.

4.Grosier must have retained the plates between 1777 and 1787, as the impressions in the Histoire générale and the Description générale are nearly identical, while the Italian edition’s prints were done independently under the Sienese publisher Francesco Rossi.

5.See, for instance, Jean-Joseph Amiot, Mémoires concernant l’histoire, les sciences, les arts, les moeurs, les usages, &c. des Chinois, par les missionnaires de Pekin, 15 vols. (Paris: 1776–1791).