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Nian Xiyao and the Manual on Polyhedron Proportions

January 6, 2012

Yesterday was spent at my old Cambridge haunt, the Needham Research Institute, to track down a rare text by Jingdezhen Imperial Kilns Supervisor and Huai’an Customs Commissioner Nian Xiyao 年希堯 (1671-1738). As a high-ranking official during the Yongzheng reign, Nian was particularly interested in European art and science, and is most well known for his synthesis of the two. During his tenure at Jingdezhen (1726-1736), Nian produced two editions of The Study of Vision (Shixue jingyun 視學精蘊, 1729, and Shixue 視學, 1735), an illustrated treatise on linear perspective and projective geometry that I believe conclusively provides the link between quadratura painting in Europe and the practice of monumental illusionistic painting in eighteenth-century China.

Page from The Study of Vision depicting Nian's unique "layer" method explaining how to depict figures receding in size as they recede in space.

Page from The Study of Vision describing how to create the shadows for a circular form

In addition to this text on painting, Nian also wrote on geometry, trigonometry, logarithmic calculus, medicine, and more. I was searching specifically for the Manual on Polyhedron Proportions (Mianti bili bianlan 面體比例便覽), which I suspected might be related to his interest in three-dimensional forms as demonstrated in The Study of Vision. It turns out that the Manual only survived in a handwritten manuscript (current whereabouts unknown) that was published once in 1897 as part of a Chinese compendium of mathematical texts. Of course, the NRI holds a copy. There’s nothing like successfully tracking down a rare text to start the New Year’s research off on the right foot!

Page from the Manual on Polyhedron Proportions

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