The group of classics known as the Four Books and Five Classics 四書五經 has long formed the cornerstone of Confucian classical learning. Among the piles of commentaries produced throughout dynasties, there is a buried pictorial tradition that has largely been overlooked. This tradition attests to another way of understanding the canon. And it influenced how Confucian classics were transmitted and received.
During the Song dynasty (960-1279), the use of illustrations in classical exegesis became particularly prominent. Such illustrations were used to systematize knowledge, to create standard interpretation, and to redefine concepts. They made divergences clear by exposing contradictions in visual ways. These “pictorial exegeses” offer an important complement to text-centred views.
In this talk, I will analyse the case of word diagrams on Zhong yong 中庸, which present their arguments through spatial configurations of quotations from the canonical text. As the focus of Confucian classical learning shifted from a curriculum based on the Five Classics to one that highlighted the Four Books, the Zhong yong diagrams not only reflect a change in learning materials and pedagogy, but also shed light on the formation of a new orthodoxy.
Yang Qin is a PhD student in the Centre on China in the World working on classical exegesis and illustrations in the Song period. Her research focuses on the formation of a pictorial tradition in Chinese classical exegesis, and aims to explore key debates in Confucian classical learning through the lens of illustrations. She was a research assistant in the program of East Asian Religion, Art and History at Fudan University from 2007 to 2014. In 2016, she spent six months in the Japan Foundation Japanese Language Institute, Osaka.