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Heirloom and Exemplar: Family and School Portraits of Confucius in the Song and Yuan Periods

From: Journal of Song-Yuan Studies
Volume 41, 2011
pp. 227-266 | 10.1353/sys.2011.0021

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The Song was a crucial period in the formation and circulation of several kinds of visual representation of Confucius (Kongzi 孔子). Sculptural images in temples where he received official sacrifices displayed imperial garb and paraphernalia related to posthumous honors bestowed on him by successive Song and Jin emperors, which remained standard until 1530.1 In addition to temple icons, whose attributes did not reflect Confucius’s social status in life or convey his personality, several pictorial compositions evolved during the Song from portraits possessed by his alleged descendants, the Kong 孔 lineage of Qufu 曲阜, Shandong.2 Although these pictures had no role in official sacrifices, they were venerated in other ways. Reproductions of the images were disseminated and inscribed both by Kong descendants and by the educated elite, who honored Confucius for his teachings.

Documents mentioning depictions of Confucius suggest that people held conflicting views about their reliability as representations of the ancient sage. Some texts reflect contemporary concerns about what constituted true resemblance and whether portraits were appropriate to use in ancestral rituals. In general, Kong descendants placed greater emphasis on the origins of an image in evaluating its accuracy, while men of the scholar-official class initially appear to have been more attentive to its expressiveness, particularly how successfully it captured Confucius’s personal qualities. For the Kongs, Confucius was the illustrious ancestor from whom their own prestige and power stemmed. Portraits of him signified this connection, so their authenticity depended largely on their provenance, and idiosyncratic representational features were rarely discussed. For scholars and political figures, steeped in Confucian learning from an early age, Confucius was the wise teacher and moral exemplar. A portrait that conveyed his humane qualities could be inspirational, regardless of when the image was created or by whom, and it might be particularly effective to display in a school or office. Commissioning portraits of Confucius conveyed the patrons’ endorsement of the values that he stood for, and such images might be used to promote ideological orthodoxy or to encourage group identity. Although the literati sometimes discussed provenance when writing inscriptions for replicas of specific portrayals, they generally did not share the descendants’ interest in tracing the image back to the lifetime of Confucius himself. Moreover, some writers expressed skepticism about the feasibility of ever achieving a true physical likeness, and others considered visual portrayals of Confucius superfluous altogether, since he was abundantly represented in texts.

The roles played by members of the Kong lineage were particularly important in creating, preserving, and transmitting pictorial representations of Confucius. (See Chart 1 for the Kong descendants mentioned in this article.). In the Northern Song, various Kongs began reproducing pictures of Confucius on stone tablets, from which rubbings could be made, and these in turn could be—and were—used to carve new stones elsewhere. Portraits also were described and sometimes reproduced in family genealogies. Perhaps the most significant portrayal was a three-quarter-profile depiction of Confucius as an elderly, slightly stooped figure, standing with his hands clasped together at his chest and a sword tucked under his arm. A small composition showing him accompanied by one disciple, a shorter and younger man standing in a similar pose, was replicated in Qufu and at government schools elsewhere in the late eleventh and early twelfth centuries. Confucius later appears


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Chart 1. 

Members of the Kong Lineage Mentioned (Dukes in Small Caps)

alone in a modified version, which was created in the 1130s by senior Kong descendants who had left the ancestral home in Qufu to join the Southern Song restoration. The new image was a large portrait incised on a stele erected at the Kongs’ provisional southern base in Quzhou, Zhejiang. It too was subsequently reproduced at government schools and private academies, and woodblock-printed renditions in popular encyclopedias circulated it more widely. Often labeled yi xiang 遺像, which I translate as legacy portrait, the designation suggests an image transmitted from his lifetime down through the ages.3 This iconic portrayal of Confucius was repeatedly revived in later centuries, and more recently it has inspired artifacts ranging from monumental statues to popular votive prints. In the present article, I trace its origins, examine its relationships with...



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