Zhang Zeduan’s Going Upriver at the Qingming Festival

Zhang Zeduan’s Going Upriver at the Qingming Festival

Zhang Zeduan’s Going Upriver at the Qingming Festival

Introduction and Background

The scroll, Going Upriver at the Qingming Festival by Zhang Zeduan, is located in the Beijing Palace Museum. The artwork dated to 1127 North China Song Dynasty and was commissioned by Emperor Huizong (Hansen 183). The handscroll is made of silk and is 25cms high and approximately five meters long. The artwork is a significant cinematic depiction of the festival of renewal as well as caring for the graves of deceased ancestors in China (Clydesdale par 3). The scroll centers on Kaifeng, China, thus expresses the Chinese historical origins, culture, and language among other aspects. Notable features in the artwork include cottages, rustic scenes with trees, a river and bridge, a boat, and other elements that portray the life of the Chinese people and their different activities. The scroll’s urban landscape reflects the past and the encroachment of urban elements into society. Zhang’s elaborate art piece brings an orderly transition into different landscapes and their meanings to the Chinese culture. Thus, the scroll systematically details the life and activities of the Chinese population.

               Zhang utilizes the handscroll format that forms a continuous picture, thus giving the audiences a right-to-left viewership. The arrangement creates a pictorial narrative that explains the real meaning of the painting. In this case, Zhang’s art is an orderly revelation of the city life, which is illustrated by buildings, shops, and crowds of people, among other elements. The scroll transitions into different landscapes, for example, from the urban center to the towering city gate that indicates the Tang and Song dynasties (Delbanco, par 1). Thus, the handscroll is an extensive collection of interconnected images. The audience viewing is a continuous process to enable them to make sense or derive meaning from the pictures. Moreover, the scroll contains images, colophons, and inscriptions, which provide a pictorial documentary of the past. The artwork demonstrates a deep sense of intimacy between the pictures and words. For example, the scroll contains poetic explanations that enhance the meaning of the artwork. Also, the presence of commentary and personal seals in every picture is a method of conveying pride in the artwork or asserting ownership.

Figure 1: A section of Zhang Zeduan’s Going Upriver at the Qingming Festival scroll

Description: https://www.theepochtimes.com/assets/uploads/2018/04/06/4_2_AlongtheRiver4-1200x814.jpg

Source: (Cai figure 4).

“As the river widens, the composition divides into water and land. A towline anchored from a mast extends throughout this entire section, as workers are tugging the boat upstream. Looking through the windows of the boats reveals furniture used for tourists, while the crews prepare the boats. To the left, eight boatmen use an oar to row their boat; and in the foreground, a woman hangs her clothes on her boat and pours water into the river after doing laundry” (Cai figure 4).

               The handscroll can be designed in full length, and the audience can stretch from left to right. The viewing format determines the viewer’s pace, and the scroll is meant to entice the observer to scroll further. The artwork creates moments of suspense that keep the viewer looking. The overhead perspective of the scroll creates a bird’s eye view of the different activities and angles, among other interesting elements. The scroll exposes different pleasures and features of the city when unrolled, for instance, taverns, restaurants, and crowds of people. The painting’s different scenes are meant to create a visual climax for the viewer. For example, the bridge scene creates a high point and illustrates the coming and going of people from all walks of life (Delbanco, par 1). Thus, the scroll is a unique art piece that details life in the city using vivid descriptions and pictures.

               The scroll is not self-contained since the information from secondary sources confirms that it is an idealized version of the city of Kaifeng. The artwork’s representation of the city is distorted, meaning that the scroll is not based on actual layouts and landscapes of the area or its spatial limitations. The painter abandons the city’s identity as he omitted vital features and landmarks that represent Kaifeng, and these include the pagoda, temple, palace, and other monuments. Also, the artwork is not self-contained since the images used are generic; thus the painter deliberately omits the identifying marks. The illustration of the city life is inaccurate, and the omissions, signs, and multi-storeyed houses do not depict the city of Kaifeng (Hansen 185). The hand scrolls contain an element of experientiality, which is a clear perception of time. The art is a representation of the real story through wording and imaging of actual activities and objects.

               The subject matter of the picture is festivity and ceremonial activities that are illustrated in the form of worldly commotion. Multiple scenes in the painting reveal the different lifestyles of Chinese society. The picture highlights the rich and poor lifestyles in the form of housing, among other aspects. The artwork comprises various economic activities that vary from rural to urban areas. Besides the city and urban life, the painting offers a broad view of the architecture and pieces of clothing unique to Chinese society (Clydesdale par 3). Thus, the artwork highlights the exterior and interior aspects of the Kaifeng and Chinese society and culture.

               Moreover, the painting seeks to capture the essence of Kaifeng city in the Henan province during the famed Qingming festival of the ancestors. The festival is captured in handscrolls that open to different sections of the city. Traffic and a bridge separate the rural and urban areas. The Chinese urban culture centered on material prosperity, an evident aspect in contemporary social life in China (Hansen 201). Thus, the artwork is a “lighter” representation of the ancestors’ deaths.

               The painter made the artwork to capture an essential event in the Chinese culture; thus the target audience is the past and contemporary populations. The overview of culture and social life seeks to justify the various relationships in society. For example, the painting presents the contemporary demarcations between urban and rural landscapes. The separation between urban and rural elements reflects the encroachment of the industrial age and consequences on society (Hansen 201). The artwork reveals past and traditional festivals in China and different models and forms of architecture in the Chinese Song Dynasty.

               The handscroll incorporates western principles in construction as part of the architecture. The streets and building complexes are in perfect proportions and reflect western architecture. The architecture aspect aligns with the idealized version of the city thus the ingenuity of the painting. The ingenuine and inauthentic representation of Kaifeng’s history and culture is evident in the painting’s schematics and pictorial omissions of valuable landscapes in the city. The artwork captures the past; as such, it is an idealized version of Kaifeng city, which is a notable structure and bearer of Chinese culture and traditions.

The content of the painting is valuable to Chinese art and history, which are illustrated in the technical qualities and portrayal of urban life. The painter interprets Kaifeng city through pictures hence the surrounding countryside. The painter’s adoption of the handscroll design aimed at re-creating the continuous capture of the different landscapes and daily activities that take place in society (Hansen 201). As a result, the art piece forms a significant part of China’s art; thus, it is reckoned and considered the Mona Lisa of Chinese art. Furthermore, the painting overlooks the ceremonial aspects of burial activities and the Chinese ancestors, which are characterized by tomb sweeping and prayers. The scroll is a holistic representation of Chinese culture and historical events. The artwork is part of Chinese cultural promotion and increases interest in visitors redefining Chinese dynasties and prosperity. Zhang based his artwork on a book commentary and its reflection on free labor (Clydesdale par 3). The depiction of the Song Dynasty in art is a contemporary method of consuming history and culture. As such, the art piece is an idealized version of Kaifeng’s history.

The painting illustrates the Song Dynasty as a historical center for power and commercial activities. A historical view of the Song Dynasty reveals the North and South division. The divided Chinese empires enjoyed economic prosperity and stability.  The financial success was due to the scientific and industrial revolution, which were represented in painting. Zhang sought to paint the life of ordinary people as reflected in portraits, the landscape, and objects (Hansen 201). For example, the street depicts travelers and workers who were part of the industrial revolution and changes in society.

Each scene in the painting represents a particular aspect of Chinese society at the time. For example, the scene with female servants reflects the declining status of women in society. Also, the artwork indicates the ascension to power of various scholars such as Confucius who led to the insertion of new values in society. The city gate scene comprises a tower, which is an entry to the urban life of Kaifeng. The tower separates the city and rural life as indicated through the animal caravans and other objects to symbolize the differences (Cai par 3). Therefore, each scene brought to life the different objects and elements crucial to the Qingming festival and its relevance to Chinese culture and history.

Despite being a unique piece of Chinese art and culture, different artists have duplicated Zhang’s scroll. Zhang’s original painting is now available in 30 versions. For example, Zhao Mengfu’s version was created between 1254 and 1322 and dates back to the Yuan Dynasty. The version comprised elegant calligraphy and other unique elements to the dynasty (Huang and Chang52). However, the panoramic view of the painting illustrates different aspects and explanations of Chinese life.

Zhang’s artwork contains humanistic connotations and visible sensations that allow the audience to read and re-read the message. The painter’s infinite charm and intentions were echoed in every picture and object. The painting is considered a masterpiece since it demonstrates generational variations and similarities across dynasties, the shift in times, and other limitations of space and time (Huang and Chang 52). The painting is an actual demonstration of aesthetics and human values that are universal in all societies. The artwork represents Chinese custom paintings as illustrated through social norms and daily living. The picture fits the standard custom, which entails drawing art from real life inspiration and everyday situations. Also, the art represents dynamic movements in society, which is an interaction of gestures and sights for characters.


Along the River During the Qingming Festival is one of the oldest and famous paintings of the Song Dynasty. The Emperor commissioned the painting to create an accurate representation of the city of Kaifeng. The artwork utilizes a continuous or hand scroll design, which presents pictures in the form of image narratives. The inclusion of colophons, commentary, and artist signatures is part of the unique traits of the painting. Moreover, the picture narratives reveal the different lifestyles in Chinese society and the urban-rural transition. The Qingming festival was a traditional Chinese ritual conducted for the deceased and entailed sweeping tombs and other extreme acts. However, the artist adopted a subtle outlook to the festival; thus the scroll contains everyday objects such as trees, bridges, boats, and restaurants, which are part of daily interaction in society. Contemporary analysts insist that the painting is an idealized version of the Kaifeng City, which was notable for its structures that lack in the artwork.  The artist presents a creative scroll that the audience views from left to the right leading to a visual high-end. The handscroll is a unique way of unlocking each scene in the painting. The art presents Chinese culture through everyday activities such as trade and transport.

Works Cited

Cai, Mike. “Ancient Chinese City Life: ‘Along the River During the Qingming Festival’.” Www.theepochtimes.com, 10 Oct. 2018, www.theepochtimes.com/ancient-chinese-city-life-along-the-river-during-the-qingming-festival_2486817.html.

Clydesdale, Heather. “Upriver at Qingming.” Asia Society, asiasociety.org/china-learning-initiatives/upriver-qingming.

Delbanco, Dawn. “Chinese Handscrolls.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The

   Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/chhs/hd_chhs.htm (April 2008)

Hansen, Valerie. “China’s Commercial Revolution: The Qingming Scroll.” Journal of Song-Yuan Studies, vol. 26, 1996, pp. 183-200.

Huang, Shiu-Lan., and Wei-Chao Chang. Along the River During the Qingming Festival (Chinese&English). 2016.


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