Drawing as Preservation
Jiang Yuan’s ‘Epanggong Illustration’ is a reverie made real by the tip of Yuan’s paintbrush. It is simultaneously a fantasy of a past to which one cannot return, a fascination with a form of existence that has disappeared, and also a set of ideas, which live on in spheres far greater than the physical body of the painting. It preserves cultural heritage in a way which endures the gradual erosion of time.
Yuan’s elaborate drawing depicts Epanggong, a Qin dynasty imperial palace of sublime grandeur, whose construction began in 212 BC. The palace emerges amongst the tumbling mountains, interwoven with winding rivers. Halls and temples rise between their lofty peaks, as corridors and bridges meander through its mystic landscape. Mist shrouds the boundaries between landforms, blurring land, water, and sky. This blurring, in addition to the physical inaccessibility of the palace, indicates a symbolic separation between earth and the heavens, embodying the heavenly qualities believed to be held by imperial rulers. The Epanggong of Yuan’s painting was not only inaccessible in time, but also unreachable for commoners in a symbolic sense.
Despite this degree of distance, close observation of the illustration reveals an exhaustive level of architectural details, rendered so precisely they are not far from construction drawings. The minutely drawn roof tiles, wooden brackets, and decorative carvings grant the palace a distinctly tangible, understandable physicality. This is foregrounded by a myriad of human activities, as well as light willow branches, whose movement is almost felt. In contrast to Western perspective, in which the vanishing point confines the viewer to a stationary position of observation, the paraline projection employed in Yuan’s painting has no fixed viewpoint and thus bestows upon spectators the freedom to move across and inhabit any part of the palace.
Epanggong is believed to have been burnt down during the fall of the Qin empire in 207 BC, leaving no more than a barren stretch of land. ‘Epanggong Illustration’ thus revives an ancient dream, making physical that which might otherwise only exist in memory. The greatest intrigue of the painting, however, is perhaps not the palace in itself as a structure, or in Yuan’s masterful techniques as an artist, but in the elaborate depiction of a historical location, whose physical records are scarce. Yuan, born in the late 17th century, of course never saw this Qin palace, which vanished two millennia before his birth. His vivid imagery derives, rather, from popular conceptions of the legendary palace.
The earliest known written account of Epanggong is by Qian Sima (ca.145-ca.86 BC), the father of Chinese historiography, in his Shiji (historic records). Sima describes an Epanggong of monumental dimensions. His quantitative account informed popular memory of the palace’s grandeur. Over the following centuries, portrayals of Epanggong either refer to it merely as an unremarkable geographical location, or else as a symbol of Qin excess. During the Tang dynasty, the poet Mu Du (803-ca.853), idolises the palace in his poem, ‘Epanggong Fu’. He describes a fantastical palace emerging amongst the mountains; its walls bristling with turrets and towers, its corridors meandering elegantly, eaves resembling bird beaks and arched bridges which were like dragons threading through the clouds. Du composes a vivid fantasy, and the image of sublime extravagance which has become the common conception of Epanggong. Almost a millennia later, Yuan draws or rather, Yuan conceives his Epanggong, which is formed not from the physical building but also from popular accounts of the palace which have survived.
Despite popular acceptance of these varied accounts as a form of history, none of their authors, from Sima to Yuan, were alive at the time of the palace’s physical existence, and thus their work relied on the interpretations of earlier sources. Recent archeological work, which has noted the absence of burnt remnants on the site, conflicts with the commonly-held belief that the palace was destroyed by fire. In fact, modern evidence concludes that Epanggong’s construction was perhaps never more than a rammed-earth foundation. Such a revelation splits Epanggong into a paradoxical duality—on the one hand, of a non-existent palace, which was barely built above the ground on which it sat; on the other, as a rich and significant cultural memory which has been passed down through generations, an effort aided by works such as ‘Epanggong Illustration’. Any physical traces of Epanggong today have been devoured by nature, over time, no doubt, being swallowed up by natural vegetation. Yet the Epanggong of extravagance is the idea that thrives as a robust idea in people’s minds; it transcends its physical existence, and continues to live in the present. In contrast to the condition in the West, in which eternity is manifested through the robustness of physical monuments, the Chinese approach finds immortality in the spirit which they inspire.
Shilong Liu (ca. early 16th century), Ming dynasty scholar, writes elaborately of his imaginary garden. He reflects on the ephemerality of physical gardens, whose ‘traces of […] collapsed walls and broken tiles cannot be found now’. Liu promotes the everlastingness of his written garden. ‘Only gardens on paper can be relied upon to be handed down.’ For Liu, his garden ’employs not shapes but ideas, and thus wind and rain cannot dilapidate it, water and fire cannot harm it'. While Liu speaks of a garden in words, Yuan’s ‘Epanggong Illustration’ behaves similarly in expressing and perpetuating an idea beyond the limits and vulnerabilities of its physical form.
To an extent, Liu’s perspective is reminiscent of Plato’s theory of ideas, in which the abstract ‘Idea’ is the true exalted state of existence, of which physical matter is merely a defective and inferior imitation. Plato promotes a form of representation which uses the Idea as the source rather than the physical object. In the absence of any physical relic, each evocation of Epanggong originates from the Idea of it. Yuan’s Epanggong, in this sense is superior to the physical palace which it depicts.
Indeed, the location and physical existence of Epanggong in many ways bear little relevance, because its significance lives within public memory. As the sinologist Simon Leys writes, ‘Chinese everlastingness does not inhabit monuments, but people […] Continuity is not ensured by the immobility of inanimate objects, it is achieved through the fluidity of the successive generations'. Similarly, Yuan’s ‘Epanggong Illustration’ is not merely an instance of preservation through its status as an object, but through the process which the illustration embodies. This process of continual reimagination, which flexes and varies with each generation, suggests the power inherent in the act of drawing, not only as a means of cultural preservation, but also as a prompt for us in the present day to consider the relationship between the physical and the memory. Contrary to our wishful hopes for the permanence of stone, it is the Epanggong in our imagination which is truly limitless and immortal.
Lisa Huang holds a Master of Architecture from the University of Waterloo and currently practices at a Toronto-based architecture firm.
- ‘Yuan Jiang A Fang Gong Tu Ping’ [‘Jiang Yuan’s Epanggong Illustration Screens’], The Palace Museum, accessed May 21, 2021, https://www.dpm.org.cn/collection/paint/228927.html.
- Charles Sanft, ‘The Construction and Deconstruction of Epanggong: Notes from the Crossroads of History and Poetry,’ Oriens Extremus 47 (2008): 160-76, http://www.jstor.org/stable/24048050.
- ‘Yuan Jiang’, The Palace Museum, accessed May 21, 2021, https://www.dpm.org.cn/lemmas/243283.html.
- Sanft, ‘The Construction and Destruction.’
- Liu, Shilong, ‘The Imaginary Garden of Liu Shilong,’ trans. Stanislaus Fung, Terra Nova 2, no. 4 (1994): 15-21.
- ‘Plato,’ Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, accessed May 21, 2021, https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/plato/.
- Simon Leys, ‘The Chinese Attitude Towards the Past,’ in The Hall of Uselessness: Collected Essays (New York: New York Review Books, 2013), 285-301.