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Along the River during the Qingming Festival

       Along the River During the Qingming Festival (Up the River During Qingming, Qingming River View, 清明上河圖, pinyin: Qīngmíng Shànghé Tú) is a panoramic painting generally attributed to the Song dynasty artist Zhang Zeduan (張擇端, 1085–1145). It captures the daily life of people from the Song period at the capital, Bianjing, today’s Kaifeng in Henan. The theme celebrates the festive spirit and prosperous street scene at the Qingming Festival, rather than the holiday’s ceremonial aspects, such as tomb sweeping and prayers. (See other interpretations of the title below.) The entire piece was painted in the handscroll format and the content reveals the lifestyle of all levels of society from rich to poor as well as different economic activities in rural areas and the city. It offers glimpses of period clothing and architecture. As an artistic creation, the piece has been revered and court artists of subsequent dynasties have made many re-interpretive replicas.

The Rainbow Bridge in Various Versions

Possible Translations of Qingming Shanghe Tu:

       Literally, qingming (清明) means “clear-bright,” and shanghe tu (上河圖) means “going-along-the-river-picture.” The most common translation of the scroll’s name refers to the Qingming Festival when, in early spring, the living sweep the graves of their ancestors. Another interpretation is that qingming can mean “peaceful and orderly,” making the scroll’s title “Peace Reigns Over the River.”

The Handscroll Format

       Even though modern museums often display handscrolls stretched out full-length under a glass case, they were originally intended to be held by the viewer, who would unroll only an arm’s length section at a time. Starting at the right end of the scroll, and progressing to the left, the viewer determined the pace. With the use of perspective, the artist can make something seem to come closer and then to recede. A handscroll can show the same object from different angles, creating moments of suspense to entice the viewer to keep on looking.

Read more: Chinese Handscrolls

The Original Painting

Replica Scroll Available


       The original painting, which measures 24.8 by 528 cm, is now in the collection of the Palace Museum in Beijing. This long handscroll has three major sections:

       The right section is the rural area of the city. There are crop fields and unhurried rural folk — predominately farmers, goatherds, and pig herders — in bucolic scenery. A country path broadens into a road and joins with the city road.

       In the middle section, there are businesses of all kinds, selling wine, grain, secondhand goods, cookware, bows and arrows, lanterns, musical instruments, gold and silver, ornaments, dyed fabrics, paintings, medicine, needles, and artifacts, as well as many restaurants. The vendors (and in the Qing revision, the shops themselves) extend all along the great bridge, called the Rainbow Bridge (虹橋, Hong Qiao) or, more rarely, the Shangtu Bridge (上土橋).

       Where the great bridge crosses the river is the center and main focus of the scroll. A great commotion animates the people on the bridge. A boat approaches at an awkward angle with its mast not completely lowered, threatening to crash into the bridge. The crowds on the bridge and along the riverside are shouting and gesturing toward the boat. Someone near the apex of the bridge lowers a rope to the outstretched arms of the crew below.

       The left half is the urban area around the city gate. Many economic activities, such as people loading cargoes onto the boat, shops, and even a tax office, can be seen in this area. In addition, there are hotels, temples, private residences, and official buildings varying in grandeur and style, from huts to mansions with grand front- and backyards.

       People and commodities are transported by various modes: wheeled wagons, beasts of labor (in particular, a large number of donkeys and mules), sedan chairs, and chariots. The river is packed with fishing boats and passenger-carrying ferries, with men at the river bank, pulling the larger ships.

Ultra-high-resolution Image of the Complete Scroll: 2,510 x 66,285 px, 323 MB

Qing Court Version

       Many versions of the painting “Along the River During the Qingming Festival” have survived over the ages. Alone in the National Palace Museum in Taipei are eight, the most famous of which is the “Qing Court Version (清院本)”. This handscroll was completed through the effort and cooperation of five Qing dynasty court artists – Chen Mei (陳枚), Sun Hu (孫祜), Jin Kun (金昆), Dai Hong (戴洪), and Cheng Zhidao (程志道). This version has been the subject of a documentary film, printed in postcard and jigsaw-puzzle form, published in a detailed study and as a children’s book, produced as a multimedia disc, and even reproduced in full size.

       This painting, done in ink and colors on silk, measures 35.6 centimeters tall by 1,152.8 centimeters long. The frontispiece includes imperial poetry by the Qianlong Emperor transcribed by his court official Liang Shizheng (梁詩正, 1697–1763). At the end of the painting at the far left is the signature inscription of the artists that reads, “Reverently painted by Your Servants, Chen Mei, Sun Hu, Jin Kun, Dai Hong, and Cheng Zhidao, and respectfully submitted [to the Emperor] on the 15th day of the 12th month of the Qianlong first year (i.e., 1736).” Two seal impressions (“Your Servant, Mei” and “Your Servant, Sun Hu”) also appear with it.

       The handscroll can be roughly divided into five major sections. The first is comprised of serene rustic scenery, followed next by a section focusing on Rainbow Bridge, which also represents the climax with its crowded market scene. The third section describes the bustling activity near the city gate, and the fourth progresses from the Pine and Bamboo Hall to a large wooden bridge with scenery along both sides of the river. The last section portrays the beautiful site of Golden Brightness (Jinming) Lake.

       Architectural elements throughout the handscroll were all done using the principles of Western perspective, the buildings and streets distinctly rendered in appropriate proportion. The distance between near and far has been accurately grasped, and there is even Western-style architecture found in the painting. With the brushwork throughout the handscroll precise and the coloring dazzling, this work is truly a gem of ingenuity and realism in Chinese painting.

Electronic Version

       In 2010, an electronic version of this painting was created for exhibit in the China Pavilion at the Shanghai Expo.

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