China’s Masterpiece

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Perhaps the most revered piece of artwork to ever emerge from the various dynasties in China was the painting entitled “Along The River During The QingMing Festival”, created by Zhang Zeduan during the Sung dynasty. The painting, coming into fame after an emperor from the Yuan Dynasty wrote a poem about it, does a marvelous job of capturing the essence of Chinese life during the 11th-12th centuries. However, the painting is much more profound than a mere description of life some hundreds of years ago. The original 10-inch by 15-foot scroll captures not only what life was like during Sung Dynasty China, but also some of the technological innovations of the time. Not only cherished by contemporary collectors, the numerous red seals throughout the painting, which indicate the various owners who came to possess the painting over time (Shuter, 6) show to just what extent this piece of work was prized. Because of the scale of this particular piece, descriptions of the image will correspond to certain portions designated as parts 1,2,3,4 and 5, beginning from the left side, so it may help to look at an image of the scroll in more fully understanding the analysis. Since certain of the painting’s elements may present themselves in different portions of the painting it may seem as though the analytical progression is erratic, but that is simply the result of discussing each element of the painting individually. Among the most prominent impressions conveyed by the painting are the importance of people in society, the thriving degree of skilled craftsmen that occupied ancient China, the engineering innovations of the time and perhaps most importantly, the meaning of the river.

In Part 1 one of the painting, perhaps the most notable aspect in the artwork is the sheer abundance of people portrayed. Considering the mind of an artist, one cannot help but conclude that a romantic painter would illustrate a large number of people in the town square to convey the importance of citizens in any thriving society. Granted, while the Qingming festival was quite celebratory in nature, had Zeduan only wished to convey the festive nature of the holiday he could have simply depicted a large group of people partying the night away. Rather, “Along The River During The QingMing Festival” illustrates not only an abundance of people throughout the town but myriad forms of enterprise as well. All throughout part 1 of the painting, local vendors with camels or oxen in tow can be seen strutting around the town square, presumably in an effort to sell the goods of their respective trade. In part 2, one can see merchants along the streets with booths set up, advertising their goods for sale. Townsfolk are teeming in part 3 as well as they cross the bridge en route to the center of town. However, in the last two stretches of the painting, the number of people depicted are far less than in the preceding three portions, with only what appear to be travelers coming into town, on the upper left-hand side, and what may be farmers near the upper right-hand side, of part 5. Again, this seems to be a subtle maneuver on behalf of the artist to illustrate the economic policy of the times, further demonstrating an integral part of such commerce in early Chinese culture. Additionally, the choice of material in the painting might also suggest that Zhang Zeduan also wished to convey the wide variety of craftsmanship present in ancient China during the Sung Dynasty.

Across nearly every segment of the painting, craftsmen can be seen either performing the duties of their trade, or in the final products that resulted from them. This is yet another poignant tactic that Zhang Zeduan might have employed to glorify the achievements of ancient Chinese enterprise. Starting now from the left side of the painting, part 4 illustrates, among other things, what appears to be some sort of harbor or shipyard. Not only are there a number of vessels in the harbor, but there is also what appears to be a fisherman in the lower left-hand corner of the painting, casting his net out into the marina. Part 3 of the painting is where much can be observed concerning the innovation of the ancient Chinese. In addition to other ships in the river, one of the more prominent aspects of the scene is the previously mentioned bridge. While human beings have been tying wood and rope together and calling it a bridge for likely some thousands of years, the arched bridge in this particular image is quite impressive not only because it spans a formidable river, but also because the level of engineering was such that it was designed to accommodate a large number of people, all at once, with no reinforcements at any point in between either end. Finally, the landing point of the bridge also shows the construction of either some type of building or what might be a ship under construction. Of course, parts 1 and 2 of the painting are bursting with local merchants and businessmen, but these segments also exemplify yet another message that Zhang Zeduan might have been attempting to convey in painting this masterpiece.

In addition to the thriving society and rampant commercial endeavors of this period during the Sung Dynasty, “Along The River During The Qingming Festival” is also a tribute to some of the magnificent architecture built during that time. Starting from part 1 on the left-hand side of the scroll, the viewer is introduced to some of the many achievements that ancient Chinese engineers were capable of building. The image of the housing conveys a very serene sense of what it must have been like to live in structures like the ones in the painting. However, in addition to this tranquil notion of home, Zhang Zeduan also managed to display some of the technical architectural achievements that early Chinese builders were capable of, such as some of the two-story edifices that can be seen near the top of part 1. The pinnacle of architectural achievement in this painting, however, might be the towering stone structure that appears to serve as the entrance into the inner city. Atop this great stone marvel sits the penthouse-esque apartments of what might have been the local governor or some other prefect charged with keeping the city. Then in part 2, we see what seems to be more residential housing along with another two-story structure near the middle right-hand side of the painting, complete with a view of the river as well as the town bridge. The panorama between parts 3 and 4 returns us to the many ships that appear in the painting, further illustrations of early Chinese aspiration. While it is difficult to tell for sure, it appears that many of the ships are loaded with cargo, either headed upstream or down the river to trade with other nearby towns. In fact, since some scholars argue that many other Asian countries desired the goods from China (Anderson, 5), it is not unreasonable to think that such vessels may have been bound for destinations much farther than the next village downstream. That such trade relations existed during this time period, or rather that such relations had so flourished, is further testament to the societal advancements of the ancient Chinese, something Zeduan clearly wanted to convey in this painting.

Finally, in understanding some of the deeper contextual messages of this painting it is necessary to understand both the structure of the scroll, as well as some of the key, recurring components. Foremost among these principles is understanding that this painting is intended to “read” from right to left, with the right-hand side being a somewhat desolate picture plagued with swamp-like images and barren tree branches. Upon completion of the 15-foot journey, however, the viewer is presented with a kingdom-like picture of illustrious stone gates and meticulously arranged residential and commercial landscape. Whether this effect was meant to portray a history of Chinese society that welcomed individuals from all walks of life, both the poor and the rich, or whether it symbolizes the beauty and sophistication of city-life in Ancient China is still up for debate, though it is likely that both were sentiments the creator wished to convey. Additionally, the constant recurrence of the river in the painting represents a significant theme. For centuries, ‘the river’ has been associated with the quest for knowledge (Herendeen, 111), so it is interesting to note where the river begins—a barren landscape—and where it ends, the lush and pristine city streets of the town square. In paralleling the beginnings and endings of the river and the painting, it is not without logic that one might conclude that Zhang Zeduan was attempting to illustrate the value of knowledge towards the progression of society. Since the river has essentially left the scene by the “end” of the painting, part 1, it seems that Zeduan was conveying that the search for knowledge might begin in the desolate regions of the world but it is epitomized in the glorious innovations of China.

Overall, “Along The River During The Qingming Festival” is not merely a painting to be enjoyed for artwork’s sake, but rather it is an in-depth exposé on society in ancient China. The imagery not only evokes what creator Zhang Zeduan considers imperative in thriving and sophisticated societies, but it also depicts the greatness that was ancient China during the Sung dynasty via illustrations of exquisite architecture and the inclusion of an array of skilled professions. Furthermore, in excluding the river in the last parts of the scroll, Zeduan conveys the message that the quest for knowledge may begin in a remote land, but it ends somewhere in the heart of China.

Works Cited

Anderson, Dale. Ancient China. Chicago, Ill.: Raintree, 2005. Print.

Herendeen, Wyman H. "The Rhetoric of Rivers: The River and the Pursuit of Knowledge." Studies in philology 78.2 (1981): 107-127.

Shuter, Jane. Ancient Chinese art. Chicago, Ill.: Heinemann Library, 2001. Print.