Special Feature: The Qingming Scroll 專題:清明上河圖

Winston Ho 何嶸.
Rutgers University, New Brunswick,
Departments of History and Asian Languages and Cultures

2016 Dec. 12, Monday.

張擇端 Zhang Zeduan - 清明上河圖 Along the River during the Qingming Festival (1100s) (cropped).jpg[張擇端 Zhang Zeduan. 《清明上河圖》 “Along the River during the Qingming Festival,” “the Song Dynasty Qingming Scroll.”  北宋 Northern Song, 1100s. 北京故宮博物院 Palace Museum, Beijing. http://afe.easia.columbia.edu/song/pop/c_scroll.htm]

This is the original version of the “Qingming Scroll” 清明上河圖, painted in the 1100s during the Northern Song Dynasty 北宋 by Zhang Zeduan 張擇端 (1085-1145).  This is one of the most famous paintings in China, and it is as famous in Chinese popular culture as Leonardo Da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa” in the West. You will sometimes see a print of the Qingming Scroll in Chinese restaurants, especially the bridge and passing boat in the center of the scroll.

Notice the lack of color that is typical of early “literati” painting, as opposed to “religious” painting, which featured saturated colors. Traditional Chinese painting uses ink instead of watercolor or other paints, and the brushes and techniques for Chinese painting are similar to the techniques for writing calligraphy.

This is painting is a “handscroll 手捲, a common format in traditional Chinese painting, consisting of multiple overlapping scenes on a lengthy scroll. It is intended to be viewed by one person scrolling the painting from right to left, so that each scene can be viewed in order, like a moving panoramic view. In museums today, you usually see them rolled out on a long display case, though this is not the way handscrolls originally were displayed.

張擇端 Zhang Zeduan - 清明上河圖 Along the River during the Qingming Festival (1100s).jpgChinese paintings reflect the society and age that produced them. During the Song Dynasty, China was under constant attack by the increasingly aggressive and sophisticated “barbarian” nations from the north, such as the Mongols and the Manchus. Refugees from the northern frontier were flooding into Chinese cities, and crowded urban neighborhoods, with rich and poor living near each other in multistory tenement apartments, appeared for the first time in history. This should be compared with the planned and highly segregated cities of China’s past. This is one reason China historians describe the Song as China’s first “modern” dynasty, with a vibrant but chaotic urban culture, which remains a characteristic of Chinese cities to this day.

In the Qingming Scroll, notice the wooden arched “rainbow bridge” 虹橋 in the center. Several peddlers in primitive stands hawk their goods on the bridge itself, as crowds of pedestrians struggle to get across. There appears to be a fight in the center of the bridge, as men on horses and carriers of a sedan chair argue over who has the right of way. To the right of the bridge is a boat. It’s mast is too high, and as the currents push the boat towards the bridge, a few boatmen are attempting to lower the mast, while others are using paddles and poles to steer the boat to shore. Most of the boatmen are yelling at the people of the bridge to flee. Observers on shore watch in horror, while most of the people on the bridge are oblivious to the approaching collision. Zhang Zeduan’s painting is a remarkably honest depiction of the Song Dynasty, as several natural and human threats ultimately led to the decline and destruction of the Song.

[Various Artists. 《清明上河圖》 “Along the RiverVarious Artists - 清明上河圖 Along the River during the Qingming Festival (1737) (cropped).jpg during the Qingming Festival,” “the Qianglong Qingming Scroll.”  清朝 Early Qing Dynasty, 1737. 台北國立故宮博物院 National Palace Museum, Taipei. 1152.8cm x 35.6cm.  https://www.npm.gov.tw/exh96/orientation/index4_1_ch.html]

The Qingming Scroll became part of the private imperial collection of artwork during the Song Dynasty, and it remained a favorite of Chinese emperors for the next 700 years. It was repainted and reinterpreted by many Chinese artists employed by imperial families over multiple dynasties. The most famous of these reinterpretations was painted by imperial artists in 1737, during the reign of Emperor Qianlong 乾隆帝 (1711-1799) of the Qing Dynasty 清朝.

Notice the bright colors, which are typical of the imperial style of painting in the 1700s and 1800s. This is an example of Western influence in China, as the Jesuit Missionaries had entered China during the 1600s, and by the 1700s, several Italian painters were employed as imperial artists in the Qing Dynasty court. Painters trained in Europe, such as the Jesuit artist Giuseppe Castiglione 郎世寧 (1688-1766), had introduced Western painting techniques and sense of color to China, all of which can be seen in the Qianlong Qingming Scroll.

Various Artists - 清明上河圖 Along the River during the Qingming Festival (1737).jpgAlso notice that the “rainbow bridge” in the center of the scroll is now an arched stone bridge. Rather than the primitive stands crowded on the Song bridge, the Qing bridge features stalls built into both sides of a much wider and taller bridge. Beneath the bridge, the water is now moving in the opposite direction, and the boat from the previous painting is moving against the flow of the river. Polemen under the bridge and boatmen with ropes are acting in unison to guide the boat safely, though a handful of individuals on the boat and the bridge appear to be yelling at each other and disrupting an otherwise routine event. Emperor Qianlong and the Qing imperial family were descendants of the very same Manchus considered “barbarians” during the Song Dynasty. However, the Qing considered themselves saviors a reunited and larger Chinese empire. The Qianlong Qingming Scroll is a highly idealized version of an orderly and peaceful China.

The most famous paintings in the imperial collection were removed from Beijing by the Kuomintang 國民黨 in the 1930s, fearing that the Japanese would steal these art treasures if they ever invaded China. These paintings were then moved to Taiwan in the late 1940s during the Chinese Civil War between the Kuomintang and the Communists 共產黨, fearing that the Communists would burn these relics from China’s past. One of these works of art was the Qianlong Qingming Scroll, which is now located at the National Palace Museum in Taipei 台北國立故宮博物院.

However, the original Song Dynasty Qingming Scroll was a personal favorite of the last emperor of the Qing Dynasty, Emperor Xuantong 宣統帝 (1906-1967), and he removed the scroll from the imperial collection when he was evicted from the Forbidden City in 1924. He was carrying the scroll with his personal belongings when he was captured by Soviet Red Army in 1945, during their invasion of Northeast China at the end of the Second World War. The Soviets returned the scroll to their allies, the Chinese Communists, who returned the scroll to Beijing. And that is where you will find the Song Dynasty Qingming Scroll today, as part of the imperial collection at the Palace Museum in the Forbidden City 北京故宮博物院.

various-artists-%e6%b8%85%e6%98%8e%e4%b8%8a%e6%b2%b3%e5%9c%96-along-the-river-during-the-qingming-festival-2010-snapshot[Various Artists. 《電子動態版清明上河圖》 “Along the River during the Qingming Festival,” “the Digital Qingming Scroll,” 《智慧的長河》 the River of Wisdom,” “the Song Dynasty As Living Art.” 人民共和國 People’s Republic, 2010. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UdRIbCP4N4Q&t=6 or http://mypaper.pchome.com.tw/nakamaa66/post/1322448839]

No longer the prized personal possession of emperors, nor the object of political intrigue, the Qingming Scroll today is one of China’s greatest contributions to the art and culture of the world. For the 2010 World Expo in Shanghai 上海世博會, Chinese artists created a new digital interpretation of the Qingming Scroll, featuring hundreds of animated figures projected on a giant panoramic screen, all made possible by the latest advances in computer graphics technology. The digital painting has been touring the world ever since.

This new digital painting was created by artists in Mainland China, where the original Song Dynasty painting is still located. It features a day-night cycle and nighttime lighting that are unique to the digital painting, but it also reflects the style of Zhang Zeduan’s original handscroll.  This time, the boat in the center appears to be just small enough to pass under the wooden “rainbow bridge.”  The river is animated so that it flows against the direction of the boat. The boatmen appear to be using poles and ropes to slowly pull the boat upstream. Pedestrians on the bridge and people on the boat are communicating and working together to overcome a common adversity. It is a reflection of how twenty-first century China views itself — built on the traditions of the past, but empowered by the knowledge of today, and aspiring to the promise of the future.


《清明上河圖》 “Qingming Shanghe Tu in the Palace Museum in Beijing.” Columbia University: Asia for Educators. http://afe.easia.columbia.edu/song/pop/c_scroll.htm or https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Alongtheriver_QingMing.jpg

《清明上河圖》 “Along the River during the Qingming Festival.” 國立故宮博物院 National Palace Museum, Taipei. https://www.npm.gov.tw/exh96/orientation/index4_1_en.html or https://www.npm.gov.tw/exh96/orientation/index4_1_ch.html or https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/3/32/Along_the_River_7-119-3.jpg

電子動態版《清明上河圖》 “The River of Wisdom.” Fung P.Y. on Youtube. 2010. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UdRIbCP4N4Q&t=6

《智慧的長河》 “The River of Wisdom.” Jim Chen’s blog post on PCHome. 2011. http://mypaper.pchome.com.tw/nakamaa66/post/1322448839

“The Chinese Handscroll.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/chhs/hd_chhs.htm

“Mountains and Water: Exploring the Chinese Handscroll.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. 2009. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mGEXh1-3wrY and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nv-UDym-bYc

“China: West Meets East at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.” Great Museums. 2009. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tQhqs1iFHDQ

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