Representing Nanjing in Imperial China


A review of Dimensions of Place: Map, Itinerary, and Trace in Images of Nanjing, by Catherine Stuer.

Catherine Stuer’s dissertation is a comprehensive study of the ways in which premodern Nanjing was represented in both visual and textual form. Focusing mainly on sources from the Song through Qing period, the dissertation demonstrates extraordinary temporal range: Stuer discusses representations of Nanjing from as early as the Han, Six Dynasties, and Tang periods, and in a coda she introduces Republican-era projects to document Nanjing’s ancient sites. The primary sources Stuer considers include maps, serial landscape prints and paintings, along with written records such as gazetteers, poetry, and travel accounts. To this breadth of sources Stuer brings a sustained analytical acuity. Her careful interrogation of extant textual and visual records, along with her ability to bring these different types of materials into critical dialogue, reveals how representations of Nanjing evolved over the course of China’s later imperial era.

The dissertation is divided into two parts. In Part One, Stuer provides a theoretical grounding for her discussion alongside an extensive review of relevant scholarship. Chapter 1, titled “Place in China: Images,” introduces concepts central to the dissertation in an inquiry into the categories of space, place, and landscape. Examining the role these categories have played in recent scholarship on place-making in Chinese history, Stuer investigates the dilemmas entailed in applying rubrics such as space and place to the study of premodern sources. The chapter gains measurably from Stuer’s command of the theoretical literature. Crucial here is the work of David Harvey, for whom both physical and represented space is defined by hierarchies of power, and of Michel de Certeau, from whom Stuer borrows the distinction between “map” versus “itinerary.” In later chapters, Stuer develops these contrasting modes of engagement with space and place to call attention to oscillations between imperial authority and individual subjectivity in representations of Nanjing.

Chapter 2 is titled “Place in China: Texts,” and in it Stuer discusses local gazetteers (difangzhi), one of the textual genres that serves as a basis for her study, before turning to two other major subjects of investigation: “trace-sites” or “traces of the past” (guji), and poetry of meditation on the past (huaigu). In a revealing historical survey of the genre’s development, Stuer notes that difangzhi do not fit neatly into the categories of historical or geographic writing – the gazetteer is an essentially hybrid genre, and Stuer employs the term “geotexts” as an alternative to more conventional designations such as “local gazetteers” or “local histories.” Furthermore, Stuer emphasizes the genre’s expansion over the centuries, noting “the historical proliferation of subjects represented” in these compilations (p. 51). Stuer focuses on guji as one of the primary subjects treated in gazetteers, and shows how the category of guji is capacious. Over the centuries, compilers of geotexts included under the heading of guji not only extant sites (whether natural features or built structures) but also “absent traces” (p. 57). Frequent reference is made in gazetteers to ruins or to sites that have disappeared entirely, and by extension to events, personages, and writings that sustain the memory of a site even after its physical presence has diminished or disappeared.

Among the key means through which writers represented guji was poetry – in Nanjing’s case, such reflections on history as occasioned by visits to ancient trace-sites were exemplified in Tang-period huaigu poems by Li Bai (701-762) and Liu Yuxi (772-842). Citing, in particular, a study by Stephen Owen (“Place: Meditation on the Past at Chin-ling,” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, 50, no. 2, Dec. 1990, pp. 417-457), Stuer contends that the literary model established by the great Tang poets has proven so durable that even recent scholarship depends too often on a fixed image of Nanjing’s past.

In Chapter 3, “Iconic Nanjing: Empire, Memory, and Identity,” Stuer extends her analysis and critique of how representations of Nanjing have been evaluated in such fields as art history, literary studies, and urban history. Stuer observes that scholarship on Nanjing’s history has returned repeatedly to two particular periods, the late Six Dynasties and the Ming-Qing transition of the seventeenth century. These two eras bestowed on later generations the image of Nanjing as the archetypal fallen capital, which as Stuer shows has remained a compelling if too simplistic trope. It is this historically static image of Nanjing that Stuer contests, advocating an awareness of the “complex interaction,” evolving over centuries, “between competing representations of the city” (p. 74). As Stuer demonstrates in subsequent chapters, our understanding of Nanjing’s history gains measurably from a diachronic and comparative approach, particularly with regard to how writers and artists invoke the past to serve present-day concerns. In Stuer’s formulation, “traces of the past” should be conceived of not as “sites where an unchanging past breaks into the present, nor merely where layers of memory accumulate through time,” but rather as “sites of conflict and negotiation where the articulation and appropriation of identity is at stake” (p. 115).

Chapter 4, “Mapping Past Capitals: Jinling After the Six Dynasties,” which opens Part Two of the dissertation, begins with a survey of Nanjing’s early history before examining sources from the Tang through the Yuan. After examining poetic evocations of Nanjing’s past in the mid-to-late Tang, Stuer turns to the textual and visual mapping of Nanjing in gazetteers of the Song and Yuan periods. Works by Li Bai, Liu Yuxi, and the Southern Tang poet Zhu Cun (act. 10th c.) are characterized by concern with Nanjing’s Six Dynasties past. As the former Southern Capital, Jinling (as all three poets refer to the city) was a repository of traces, offering occasions for reflection and reminiscence. Stuer, however, notes a crucial development: whereas Li Bai’s poems present an integral account of the city, its history, and its sites, Liu Yuxi’s Five Topics on Jinling (Jinling wuti) is composed serially, with each quatrain based on a different site. Zhu Cun’s tenth-century poetic cycle, Contemplating the Past at Jinling (Jinling langu), far more ambitious in scope, includes not only ancient sites but also figures and events from Nanjing’s past, along with features of the city’s natural terrain and built environment. Zhu Cun’s ambitions distinguish his project from that of earlier poets: his “totalizing inclusion of all trace-sites” renders the city “a strategically and symbolically structured whole” (p. 152). In Stuer’s analysis, Zhu Cun’s series evinces a shift toward mapped representations of the city, in which the traces of Nanjing’s distant past are aligned with and at times eclipsed by the present. In the poetic cycle A Hundred Poems on Jinling (Jinling baiyong), Zeng Ji (act. 12th c.) references not only Nanjing’s ancient traces but also persons and events of the Southern Song period. A late-Southern Song gazetteer, the Jingding-Era Record of Jiankang (Jingding Jiankang zhi), links reconstruction projects in Nanjing to claims for moral revitalization. In the Yuan, the New Record of Jinling of the Zhizheng Era (Zhizheng Jinling xinzhi), completed in 1344, presents “the first canonically framed argument for the commemorative, and consequently, preservation value for the ritual remains of a state…with regard to guji records” (p. 178).

In addition to the tension Stuer discerns between Nanjing’s present and its past, she draws attention to a dialectic between views of Nanjing that are endorsed officially and views that are defined subjectively.

Spanning the early Ming to the early Qing period, Chapter 5, titled “The City Structured: Memory Sites and Manifest Landscape,” focuses first on imperially-commissioned maps, then on serial landscape images produced before and after the Ming-Qing transition, and then on gazetteers of the Kangxi and Qianlong periods. The reestablishment of Nanjing as the Ming imperial capital was followed by the creation of a woodblock-printed set of maps, the Map Record of the Capital during the Hongwu Era (Hongwu Jingcheng tuzhi). Stuer argues that in contrast to Song and even late-Yuan mappings of Nanjing, the Hongwu-era maps de-emphasize the city’s Six Dynasties legacy. Instead, the printing of these maps under state auspices coincided with a remaking of Nanjing as the center of imperial power. The earliest recorded serial landscape paintings of Nanjing’s sites also date from the early Ming. Though authorship of the paintings is uncertain, they are recorded in a set of eight poems by the late-fourteenth century official Shi Jin. According to Stuer, the poems convey a rhetoric of dynastic authority in their attention to the natural, and not just historical, features of the local terrain. By the mid-Ming new concerns come to the fore. The move of the capital to Beijing in 1420 sharply decreased both Nanjing’s population and its political importance. Stuer’s analysis of Chen Yi’s Past and Present Nanjing in Annotated Maps (Jinling gujin tukao, dated to 1516)  demonstrates that unlike the Hongwu-era Map Record, Chen Yi combined old and new maps of the city in a “newly-integrated, pluri-temporal plan” (p. 228). With the loss of Nanjing’s political prestige, these maps responded to a need to establish both Nanjing’s link to the foundation of the Ming, as well as the city’s links to pre-Ming history. The late Ming saw a rise in local initiatives to represent Nanjing. Stuer attends to serial landscape collections such as Zhu Zhifan’s (1557-1624) Images and Poems on Jinling (Jinling tuyong) in which woodblock-printed images of the city’s sites are paired with poetic odes. For Stuer, Zhu’s authorial presence in his own portrayal of Nanjing’s trace-sites incorporates aspects of both “imperial self-realization” as well as “an increasingly stylized or stereotyped vision of Jinling’s Six Dynasties past” (p. 251). This practice of “self-inscription in the city’s trace-landscape” (pp. 280-81) extends across the dynastic divide, even as official gazetteers of the later seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries evince an increasingly moralizing impulse. In Kangxi- and Qianlong-period gazetteers Stuer detects an increased imperial role in the “symbolic re-inscription” (p. 291) of Nanjing, along with “a newly acute sense of distance from the Ming past” (p. 296) and finally a decline, in official sources, of visual forms of place-representation which carries into the nineteenth century.

In Chapter 6, “Trajectories of the Self: Trace, Place, Identity,” Stuer introduces an equally diverse range of nineteenth-century materials in order to chart the continuing shifts in how Nanjing could be represented. For the authors themselves, Nanjing’s history and the city’s ancient traces remained the predominant subjects of inquiry; yet as Stuer’s analysis reveals, these writers engaged with Nanjing’s past in new ways, whether in their criteria for evaluating history, or in their positioning of the present relative to the past. Yao Nai’s (1731-1815) contributions as co-editor of the 1811 Prefectural Record of Nanjing (Jiangning fuzhi) are linked by Stuer to initiatives in evidential skepticism; Yao sharply criticized as inaccurate the maps and landscape images in the 1668 Record of Jiangning Prefecture (Jiangning fuzhi), leading him to produce a new series of historical maps that indicate “a total rejection of all figural representation of place” (p. 302). Turning to privately-published poetic compilations by Zhou Baoying (n.d.) and Chen Wenshu (1771-1843), Stuer shows that for these writers Nanjing’s past could now be placed at a moral distance. In Zhou’s 1821 Verified Poems on Viewing the Splendors of Nanjing (Jinling lansheng shikao) Zhou’s commentaries on the poems, and on the trace-sites depicted, point in Stuer’s view to a combination of antiquarian and personal preoccupations, rather than to political-moral engagement with the past. Chen Wenshu’s Fodder Mound Collection (Moling ji), dated to 1823, likewise uses poetry to link Nanjing’s history to the city’s ancient traces, but in a manner that places the past – including Nanjing’s Ming history – at a remove from present. “Chen depicts Nanjing as a stage for grand imperial and cultural drama, and less a lived and local landscape” (p. 323). In conjunction with the work of Zhang Bao (b. 1763), whose Images of the Floating Raft (Fancha tu) was published as a series of books between 1819 and 1833, Stuer notes a rise in illustrated autobiographical narratives. For Zhang, Nanjing’s ancient traces served as a nexus of the personal and historical. Stuer’s nuanced investigation of Zhang’s “geophysical model of representation” (p. 375) discusses the persistence during the nineteenth century of geomantic concepts for geography and mapping. Chapter 6 is followed by a coda that extends the narrative of Nanjing’s representation into the Republican period. Stuer discusses efforts by the photographer Zhu Xie (1907-1968) to document Nanjing’s ancient traces, which were under increasing threat from the forces of modernization. While incorporating “iconic and monumental views” (p. 380) seen in earlier depictions of Nanjing’s sites, Stuer shows how Zhu Xie’s photographic series went beyond previous efforts by attempting to document all of the city’s extant material traces. Noting Zhu Xie’s conscious debt to Chen Wenshu in the nineteenth century, Stuer argues that Zhu Xie’s photographic anthology integrates Nanjing’s history, landscape, and ancient traces into a “grand, personal vision” (p. 385).

Stuer’s dissertation is both sweeping and judicious. She develops a complex narrative of how Nanjing’s past has been constructed textually and visually. Throughout, her approach is relentlessly comparative, integrating an imposing diversity of evidence. She marshals disparate sources, takes into account canonical imagery alongside often-overlooked details of Nanjing’s history and landscape, and refrains from characterizing the city’s historical representation in reductive terms. Stuer emphasizes how the writers and artists who are her subjects depict Nanjing and its trace-sites in ways that evolve and interconnect. Her keen apprehension of the divergent imperatives that underlie the representation of place, along with her efforts to identify the rhetorical and epistemological foundations of each genre she considers, sharpens our understanding of the continuities, conflicts, and contradictions embedded in the textual and visual record of Nanjing.

Gregory Seiffert
Department of Art and Archaeology
Princeton University

Primary Sources

Prefectural, county, and city gazetteers
Historical maps of Nanjing’s natural and built environments
Zhu Zhifan (1557-1624), Images and Poems on Jinling (Jinling tuyong)
Chen Wenshu (1771-1843), Fodder Mound Collection (Moling ji)
Zhang Bao (b. 1763), Images of the Floating Raft (Fancha tu)

Dissertation Information

University of Chicago. 2012. 437 pp. Primary Advisor: Wu Hung.

Image: Map if the Prefectural City of Jiangning, Lv Yanzhao and Yao Nai (1811), Jiangning fuzhi, ‘Yutu’, juan 3, p. 2b-3a.

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