The Insouciant Disciple, the "Gengxu year", unscrupulous merchants and the Complete Atlas of Xinjiang

The Insouciant Disciple, the "Gengxu year", unscrupulous merchants and the Complete Atlas of Xinjiang


The people of ancient China believed that the earth was rectangular, and the heavens were round. Therefore, they often used the word yu, which originally referred to the chassis of a cart, to mean the land. By the same token, maps of mountains, rivers and cities were referred to as yu tu — tu meaning "image". These "rectangular land images" are a window through which we can view ancient Chinese civilization. As rare visual representations of geographical information from specific points in China's history, they are precious artefacts in the same respect as other ancient works of literature.

In my research, I once unintentionally discovered the Complete Atlas of Xinjiang (shown in Image 35), a set of maps dating from the Qing Dynasty and currently stored in Taipei. These maps are ink drawings on paper that the artist, who goes by the name the "Insouciant Disciple", completed during the reign of Emperor Guangxu based on another map. The atlas represents the state of cities and roadways in Xinjiang Province in the middle of the Qianlong reign. As there are very few historical texts — let alone visual representations — that describe the state of Xinjiang at this period, the atlas is particularly precious as an academic resource.

Image 35: Cover of the Complete Atlas of Xinjiang

The penname "Insouciant Disciple" is particularly interesting. In this set of maps is the following text: "I obtained this book from my brother-in-law, Pang Peizhi, and copied it by hand. Afterwards, the loose sheets became lost in a pile of scrap paper. They were stowed away for a total of five years before I organized them and compiled them into a book — in part as a homage to my brother-in-law. 时庚戌巧月廿 三日,笑幻道人志于洗净万 古愁黄河之东任运轩中。”  (As shown to the right on Image 37). The gengwu year (one of the units on the traditional stem-and-branch 60-year calendar) to which the Disciple refers could be the 50th year of Emperor Qianlong's reign (1790), the 30th year of Emperor Daoguang's reign (1850), or the second year of Emperor Xuantong's reign (1910). To determine exactly which gengxu year the Disciple is referring to, we must carry out a small investigation.

Inside the book, the Disciple provides the following annotation: "I have carefully compared the place names and populations recorded in the Cursory Record of the Three Prefectures, and have discovered certain inconsistencies with this map." (Top-left text on Image 37.) The Cursory Record was written by He Ying, the Commander-in-Chief of Urumqi, during the reign of Emperor Jiaqing. The first printing template of this text is currently stored in the Genealogy and Regional Annals Archive of the National Library. It was carved in the Jiaqing reign and first used during the Daoguang reign. In total, the text comprises a case of eight bound books and nine scrolls. From the date of its first publication, we can ascertain that the Insouciant Disciple must have lived during or after the Daoguang reign.

Image 36: Map from the Complete Atlas of Xinjiang

Therefore, we can eliminate the possibility that his map was made in the 50th year of the Qianlong reign. This leaves the possibility that "gengxu year" refers to the 30th year of the Daoguang reign or the second year of the Xuantong reign.

Right until the end of the Qing Dynasty, it was a deeply instilled taboo to use ideograms from an emperor's birthname once they had ascended the throne. For instance, when Emperor Gaozu of Han (born Liu Bang) took over, the term for "nation", bangjia, was changed to guojia. Similarly, during the reign of Emperor Yongzheng of Qing (born Yizhen), the town name "Yizhen" was changed to "Yizheng", while "Zhending" was changed to "Zhengding". If this book was produced during the 30th year of Emperor Daoguang's reign, then townships containing the same ideogram for ning as the one in Daoguang's birthname (Minning) would have been changed for another ning. However, the labels for "Yongning City" and "Huining" use the same ning as before — they have not been changed to avoid a taboo. Considering this taboo was stricter for current emperors than previous emperors, it seems far more likely that the set of maps was created during Emperor Guangxu's reign. As cited above, the Insouciant Disciple copied the text five years prior to the "gengxu year". This means that he would have copied it during the 31st year of Emperor Guangxu's reign (1905) and published it on the 23rd day of the seventh lunar month (qiao) in the second year of Emperor Xuantong's reign, 1910. As for the Insouciant Disciple, it is likely that they had travelled throughout the borderlands, or that they were a professional writer or official.

Image 37: Inner pages of the Complete Atlas of Xinjiang

Another interesting aspect of these maps is that they feature a rectangular seal that reads "Part of the Private Collection of Lü Wancun" (shown at the bottom left of Image 37).

Lü Wancun was the pseudonym of Lü Liuliang (1629-1683), who refused to serve the Qing court out of loyalty for the Ming Dynasty during the reigns of Emperors Shunzhi and Kangxi. As one of the most prominent examples of the literary inquisition of the Qing Dynasty, he was exhumed in the 10th year of Emperor Yongzheng's reign and posthumously tortured. While he was famous for a brief period of time, most of his works have been destroyed. Given that he died in the 22nd year of the Kangxi reign (1683) — more than two centuries before the Complete Atlas of Xinjiang was published — it is impossible that this atlas was at any moment in his possession. 
The only possibility is that the atlas found its way into popular bookstores and was stamped with a false seal by an unscrupulous book merchant as a scam. This amusing tidbit shows us that some things don't change over time — in ancient times, there were also dishonest salesmen who were willing to spin lies to make a profit.

Image 38: Map from the Complete Atlas of Xinjiang

It is often difficult to verify the true origins of these precious texts that have borne witness to the rise and fall of multiple dynasties. Therein lies the joy of historical research: like detectives, historians examine the traces left by our ancestors under a magnifying glass and slowly piece together clues in order to shed light on previously obscure events.

Having examined this Complete Atlas of Xinjiang, although we still do not know who exactly the Insouciant Disciple is, we are able to ascertain that they lived during the reigns of Emperors Guangxu and Tongzhi of Qing, and that they either travelled or worked in the western borderlands of China. And although we don't know specifically whose hands the atlas passed through before it ended up in the possession of the Insouciant Disciple, we know that it subsequently ended up in popular used bookstores, where a dishonest salesman stamped it with the false seal of Lü Liuliang, before it traversed the seas to the National Library in Taipei.

Main references:

Wang Yao: Study on the Complete Atlas of Xinjiang from the Qing Dynasty, stored at the National Library in Taipei. Classical Literature and Culture of China. Vol. 3, 2014.