The painting of Along the River During the Qingming Festival (清明上河圖) by Zhang Zeduan (張擇端) is a long scroll, ink and light colours on silk, 25.5 × 525 cm. It portrays in great details about urban life in a big city which was thought to be Biàn Liáng (汴梁), the capital of Northern Song Dynasty during the 11th-12th century. Biàn Liáng is now Kaifeng (開封).
The long scrolls starts from the right hand side with views of the peaceful countryside. Many trees have barren branches without leaves. A cohort of mules or donkeys carrying loads to places further into the countryside.
The next view shows vegetable field and farm houses with cattle. Two cohorts of travellers are on their way probably to the countryside.
Near the end of the scroll, ie the left side, it shows the busy city with the city wall tower (城樓).
In between the countryside and the city wall runs the River Bian (汴河). The river occupies about half to two-third of the long scroll. In the middle of the long scroll is an arch bridge called Rainbow Bridge (虹橋). The bridge was heavily crowded with people. A large boat is about to cross that bridge.
In the river are other big boats heavily loaded with passengers or goods. The long scroll contains about 814 people, 60 animals, 28 boats, 30 houses, 20 carts, 170 trees.
No two objects are identical. Trades of all kinds like a joss stick and paper shop, barber, fortune teller and medical clinic, as well as a number of teahouses, restaurants, taverns or wine shops, butchers, and hawkers selling different merchandises were shown. Different means of transportation like sedan chairs, wagons, donkeys, horses, and camels were accurately drawn. There were myriad depictions of people in all walks of life going about their daily activities. More details will be discussed later on.
This painting is considered one of the most valuable in Chinese art. The long scroll is now kept in the National Palace Museum (故宫博物院), Beijing.
Zhang Zeduan (張擇端) (1085–1145), alias Zheng Dao (字正道), a native of Dōng Wǔ (東武), now Shān Dōng Zhū Chéng (山東諸城). He was a famous Chinese artist working in the prestigious Hànlín (翰林) Academy. He lived during the transitional period from the Northern Song (北宋)(960–1127) to Southern Song (南宋) (1127–1279).
Does the painting really depict the Qingming Festival or not ?
Qingming has at least two meanings. Literally it means bright and clear. It can also mean Qingming Festival (清明節) which is on 4th or 5th of April every year. It is the time for visiting and sweeping the family graves. There have always been arguments about the exact meaning of the name of the scroll. People find clues to prove or disapprove that the painting concerns the Festival.
Clues suggesting that the painting is about Qingming Festival
(1) The cohort of travellers with the sedan chair in the front may be on their way or back from sweeping the tomb. The sedan was decorated with weeping willows and other plants suggesting it is on the Qingming Festival.
However, some people argued that the cohort may be on its return journey from hunting.
(2) Religious supplies shop namely Wáng Jiā Zhǐ Mǎ (Wang Family Paper Horse Shop) (王家紙馬) was active during that time as paper pavilion models (紙紮樓閣) are stacked outside the shop. Those paper pavilion models and ghost money (冥錢) were burnt and offered to the ancestors in the Qingming Festival.
However, there is no customer inside the shop. If the scroll depicts Qingming Festival, the shop could have been packed with customers. Such paper pavilions outside the shop could be purchased throughout the whole year by bereaved families who burned them at funerals in the hope that the recently decreased relatives could live in comfort in the underworld.
(3) Two women stand around a basket of willow brooms in front of a three-storied restaurant or hotel. This may indicate it is Qingming Festival.
(4) A man with a bulky parcel slung over the shoulder and with the right hand holding a small parcel with 2 words ‘one hundred eight’ (百八) may be on his way to tomb sweeping. The small parcel may be ghost money and the huge parcel which did not seem to be heavy might be folded paper offerings which are light but bulky. These are pure speculations.
Clues arguing that the scene is not about Qingming Festival
(1) A vendor sells something that looks like melons. Melons are not in season at Spring time. However, some scholars argue that those commodities are not melon but some kind of food used to celebrate the festival. They may be rice dumpling with dates (棗).
(2) Outside the tavern or wine shop is a banner with two words ‘Xīn jiǔ’ (new wine) (新酒) which may indicate that it is not Spring time but Autumn as the ‘new wine’ was ready at that time. However, ‘Xin jiu’ may just literally mean wines which are newly brewed. This can be at any time of the year.
(3) A man with a fan in his hand may indicate the weather is hot, so it may not be Spring time. Some scholars argued that some people at that time carried fans throughout the whole year round. When they did not want to talk with other people, they just have their faces covered. Some scholars suggested that the fan is an artefact used in the Qingming Festival.
(4) Other sedan chairs are not decorated with weeping willows and plants. During Qingming Festival each household hung bundles of willow leaves in every roof or doorway. Some women put willow twigs in their hair. None of these appear in the scroll except one sedan chair is decorated with willow.
Why do we bother about whether the scroll depicts a spring scene or an autumn scene ?
We are interested to find out whether the scroll depicts a spring or an autumn scene, or whether it is related to Qingming festival. This is because before we can compose a good painting, we should learn to analyse a good painting. It is like we should analyse and study the structures and the historical importance of a few well-written symphonies before we can compose a good symphony. In Parts 2 and 3, we will talk about the architecture, boats, means of transport, people, animals, etc.
I would like to thank all the authors listed in the ‘further readings’ below for providing all the invaluable information for me to write the page. Their meticulous and painstaking work is greatly appreciated.
Further readings :
https://www.zhihu.com/question/29771389/answer/83844985?utm_campaign=weekly202&utm_source=weekly-digest&utm_medium=email (superb page with beautiful colour images and Chinese text)
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kxff-4GktOI A Moving Masterpiece with English narration
杭侃, 宋峰 (2007) 東京夢清明上河圖 商務印書館(香港)有限公司 ISBN 978 962 07 5543 9