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Along the River during the Qingming Festival painting

5-meter long ancient scroll painting is one of the most precious treasures of China


People lined up to wait for six hours to see one of China’s most famous artworks, an exquisite 12 th century scroll painting depicting the Song Dynasty capital of Haifeng during the festival of Qingming. The painting, titled Along the River during the Qingming Festival, has been copied several times, but the original is rarely displayed because it is so fragile.

The painting is sometimes called China’s Mona Lisa. It is on display until October 12, 2015, in the imperial Forbidden City in Beijing, which is the capital of China today.

Zhang Zeduan, who lived from 1085 to 1145, painted the scroll. It measures 24.8 centimeters high (9.76 inches) by 5.29 meters long (208 inches) and was meant to be held and unrolled by hand and viewed from right to left. Today such precious, old scroll paintings are laid out on tables under glass in museums. Some of the reproductions of this most famous Chinese painting are famous in themselves.

A reproduction of the famous Qingding landscape displayed in Bao Mo Garden in Guangzhou City, China

A reproduction of the famous Qingming landscape displayed in Bao Mo Garden in Guangzhou City, China. (Alakoo |

The subject of the painting is a landscape in and just outside the city of Bianjing, which is known today as Kaifeng, in Henan Provice, during the Qingming Festival, which honored ancestors. It shows the lighter side of the festival as opposed to people brushing off their ancestors’ graves. Depicted are people, animals, a river, boats, and buildings in the countryside, city outskirts and city center. The painting provides a snapshot of the town in one lively moment.

The website China Online Museum says qingming translates as “clear-bright” and shanghe tu is “going-along-the-river-picture.” Scholars have said the painting’s title is in reference to the Qingming Festival. But Professor Valerie Hansen of Yale University says an alternative translation of qingming is “peaceful and orderly.” So, says Professor Hansen, the title of the scroll may mean Peace Reigns over the River, the museum site says.

Details from ‘Along the River During the Qingming Festival

Details from ‘Along the River During the Qingming Festival’ (Wikimedia Commons)

The painting unrolls to reveal three main sections: a rural area to the right, businesses and other activity in the middle, then the river and its traffic and bridge. To the far left is the bustling city and its gate.

In the rural sections are a small bridge with a stream, fields with crops and bucolic country folk, including pig herders, goatherds and farmers. The way broadens from a country path into the road leading into the city, where buildings and more people appear.

As the painting enters the town, a panorama of the larger river with boats, more people and more buildings unfolds. Soon businesses are revealed that have for sale many types of goods, including food and wine, cookware, musical instruments, gold and silver and lanterns. Also on sale are bows and arrows, ornaments, paintings, medicine, needles and dyed fabrics. There are many boats of different types in the river all along from near the beginning of the town until about two-thirds of the way to the end of the scroll, when the scene shifts to the main city street and gate.

The focus of the scroll is near the center, where the Rainbow Bridge stretches across the river. The people on bridge are animated and gesturing, apparently concerned that an approaching boat with a raised mast is in danger of colliding with the bridge. A figure on the bridge extends a rope to the crew on the ship.

The famous bridge scene from ‘Along the River During the Qingming Festival’

The famous bridge scene from ‘Along the River During the Qingming Festival’ (Wikipedia)

As the scroll unrolls to the left, the area of the city around the gate comes into view. There are more shops, a tax office, and people loading cargo into boats. There is a busy scene near the far left of the scroll, with people walking and standing in the street and in buildings and riding or herding beasts of burden, including camels and donkeys. People carry large baskets balanced on poles across their shoulders. There are carts, sedan chairs, chariots, men leading oxen and yet more beautifully rendered buildings and trees. The painting’s buildings range from simple huts to mansions and include temples, hotels and official buildings.

The site China Museum Online also has a diorama of the Qing Court version, which is more recent and as beautifully rendered as the original version from the Song Dynasty (view full panorama here).

Officials of the Forbidden City’s Palace Museum intend to show the original again in 2020 because the reception from the public was so enthusiastic, says The site says people also waited in line for six hours to see the painting in 2002, when it was displayed in Shanghai.

Featured image: Details of the painting "Along the River During Qingming Festival", the 18th century remake. (Wikipedia)

By Mark Miller

Mark Miller's picture


Mark Miller has a Bachelor of Arts in journalism and is a former newspaper and magazine writer and copy editor who's long been interested in anthropology, mythology and ancient history. His hobbies are writing and drawing.

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