- Through a Forest of Chancellors: Fugitive Histories in Liu Yuan’s Lingyan ge, an Illustrated Book from Seventeenth-Century Suzhou
Around 1669, a quarter of a century after the Manchus had established their rule in Beijing, a book entitled Liu Yuan jinghui Lingyan ge 劉源敬繪凌煙閣 (Lingyan gallery [portraits] respectfully painted by Liu Yuan; henceforth Lingyan ge) was published in Suzhou. This illustrated work was partly inspired by the group painting of twenty-four ministers of the second Tang emperor, Taizong, who had commissioned the original work in 643 from his famous court painter, Yan Liben, for the wall of the Lingyan gallery. In addition to these twenty-four images, Lingyan ge has an appendix containing three icons each of the bodhisattva Guanyin and the even more popular deity, Guan Di. The book was printed at the Zhuhu tang 柱笏堂 (Hall of Pillared Tablets) located on the estate of the publisher, Tong Pengnian 佟彭年, who was a high-ranking official serving as right commissioner of Jiangnan at the time of the publication. The painter-calligrapher who produced the original manuscript was Liu Yuan, a client of Tong’s since 1662, who shortly after the publication left Suzhou for the Imperial Academy in Beijing and later assumed various low-level government posts. A tour de force showcasing Liu’s wide-ranging artistic talents, Lingyan ge probably played a crucial role in winning his recognition by the Kangxi emperor’s court.
Only a few copies of Lingyan ge have survived, probably because not many copies were printed in the first place. One reason for their rarity may have to do with Liu Yuan’s ambiguous and even subversive treatment of his subjects. Indeed, as Anne Burkus-Chasson argues convincingly and in great detail, this book is a complex and somber meditation on the social drama of dynastic transitions and the meaning of loyalty and righteousness of officials choosing between the old and the new regimes. Equally important, Lingyan ge is a sophisticated and complex meditation on the nature of the book, specifically the Chinese book. In fact, Liu signifies his subversive approach to the making [End Page 390] of Lingyan ge starting on its cover leaf, which sets out all the usual information (title, author, publisher), but does so in a layout associated more with the frontispiece of a scroll or a painting than with an imprint. Throughout Lingyan ge, the artist ignores or upends the many conventions of presenting text and image on the folded leaves of a Chinese thread-bound imprint. Furthermore, Burkus-Chasson seems to announce her own intention to elucidate this meditation on the front jacket of her study, which reproduces the cover leaf (fengmian ye 封面葉) of Lingyan ge and embellishes it with her own title and name.
Even as these modern additions in roman letters fill out the empty space on the right side of the half-leaf, however, they exacerbate the already unbalanced layout of the cover leaf, whose unusual features begin Burkus-Chasson’s thorough discussion of Lingyan ge’s contents in Part 1, “The Composition of the Book” (Chapters 1–3). This section explores what Burkus-Chasson terms issues of materiality, by which she means the physical features of this thread-bound printed book, including the design of the leaf, the wide range of calligraphic styles used, and the layout of the text and image. In the process, she refers to other books and works in other media, such as paintings, inscriptions on stone, and designs on ceramics, and provides ample illustrations to demonstrate her points.
Chapter 1 first considers the front matter (cover leaf, prefaces, table of contents) and concludes with a section about the historical circumstances surrounding Tang Taizong’s ascent to the throne, the supporters who became his chief ministers, and his commissioning of the painting of his twenty-four vassals. Actually, this last section may have been better suited as part of Chapter 2, which offers a comprehensive examination of Liu Yuan’s depictions of...