CHINA HERITAGE NEWSLETTER China Heritage Project, The Australian National University
ISSN 1833-8461
No. 4, December 2005


Conference Report | China Heritage Quarterly


Detail of 'Qingming shanghe tu' tapestry

Throughout October 2005, the Palace Museum in Beijing exhibited Qingming shanghe tu, undoubtedly the best known ancient painting in the museum's collection, as a part of activities commemorating the 80th anniversary of the museum's founding. This large horizontal scroll painting on silk, conventionally ascribed to the 12th-century painter Zhang Zeduan, was so revered that many later emperors commissioned reproductions, reinterpretations and elaborations of the work. More than forty works in the Qingming shanghe tu oeuvre are known today, and examples can be seen in museums in China, Taiwan, the UK, the USA, France, Japan and Korea. More recently, the work has even been translated to different media, for example embroidery, carpets and wood carving, and accorded pride of place in foyers and public spaces across China. The most recent addition to these iconic tributes is a true-scale reproduction of the painting in black granite bas-relief, measuring 528.7 cm in length, which went on display in Jiangsu province's Suqian city in early June 2005. Perhaps the most committed tribute to Qingming shanghe tu, and to the long accepted view that the painting depicts a scene in the Northern Song dynasty's Eastern Capital, Kaifeng, is the recent opening of the Qingming Shanghe Park in that city. This theme park is part of a makeover of that city as a 'heritage' destination for tourists, not that the city is wanting in genuine historical sites. Most recently, China Central Television announced that it will soon screen an eight-part documentary on the painting directed by Zhang Mengjun.

Although Qingming shanghe tu has become as familiar as a family heirloom since its rediscovery in the 1950s, this is only the second occasion in recent decades that the masterpiece has been displayed publicly. The previous occasion was in 2002 when the work was included among 72 of the finest masterpieces of Chinese calligraphy and painting in mainland collections briefly exhibited at the Shanghai Museum, where queues waiting to see Qingming shanghe tu sometimes spiralled for three storeys around the inner court of the museum.

Detail of 'Qingming shanghe tu' tapestry

Qingming shanghe tu has acquired legendary status, and as many anecdotes and rumours surround the work today as in the past. Despite the seeming 'familiarity' of this painting, very little is known about its true provenance and background. It would appear to have been acquired for various imperial collections on four occasions over the eight centuries or so after it was first painted and to have entered the Forbidden City for a fifth time when it was 'rediscovered' in the 1950s.[1] The work was highly prized and its acquisition at various times by private collectors provides an interesting historical reflection of relations between private wealth and the power of the court.

Even the meaning of the title of the painting is disputed. 'Qingming' is variously interpreted as the name of the festival day on which graves are swept, now observed in conformity with the 'Western calendar' on 5 April, as a term for a period of peace and prosperity, and as the name of a particular district (fang) in the Eastern Capital (Bianjing, Kaifeng) of the Northern Song dynasty (960-1126). Similarly, 'shanghe' can be glossed to mean 'ascending the river', 'on the river', 'travelling upstream against the current', 'ascending a grave', or 'travelling to market'. So problematic is the reading of the visual narrative of the painting itself that there is disagreement regarding whether the painting records a scene from a time of prosperity, provides ironic comment on a perceived time of economic prosperity, or is a subtle, but unambiguous, scene from economically dire times. The interpretation of the work is in some senses the key question in assessing the position of Qingming shanghe tu in the history of painting in China, where political statements are expressed through subtle images and couched in understatement addressed by scholar painters to a community of peers.[2]

Detail of 'Qingming shanghe tu' tapestry

The questions and problems surrounding the masterpiece and related works formed the focus of an international seminar on the painting, titled 'Qingming shanghe tu and Song dynasty genre paintings', one of three simultaneous international conferences hosted by the Palace Museum in October 2005, the other two addressing issues in the fields of traditional ceramics and ancient imperial architecture, which together with painting form the three main areas of strength in Palace Museum scholarship. The seminar was also the most recent in a series of conferences over the last few years staged by the world's leading art museums and devoted to specific ancient Chinese masterpieces, previous conferences being the 1999 seminar on Dong Yuan's Xi an tu (Along the riverbank) held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the 2001 conference on Gu Kaizhi's Nüshi zhen tu (The admonitions of the instructress to the court ladies) at The British Museum.

Addressing the October 2005 conference in Beijing, Yang Xin, a senior researcher at the Palace Museum, pointed out that in recent years the print and electronic media have added new elements to the mystery surrounding Qingming shanghe tu. Apart from an intermittent stream of reports of discoveries in various parts of China of new copies of the work, he cited a report that Lin Biao had removed the original of Qingming shanghe tu from the Forbidden City during the Cultural Revolution period and replaced it with a copy, and that the original painting had been destroyed inadvertently by Palace Museum specialists and was again replaced with a copy. The latter rumour perhaps originated in the course of re-mounting Qingming shanghe tu in 1973, when specialists determined that a small section of the work had been repaired inappropriately during the Ming dynasty when the work on silk was previously re-mounted. The Ming craftsmen had 'mistakenly' thought that brush strokes representing a timber bracket on the painting was the horn of a missing ox, and so pasted a fragment of silk to the work and painted an 'ox' on it. Palace Museum staff removed the silk fragment after much consideration and deliberation, but the decision was controversial because some scholars argued that the 'ox' would have originally been a donkey, while others felt that the removal of the silk represented unnecessary licence on the part of the restorers. Although it had been originally announced that this year's Palace Museum commemorative conference would address questions related to the restoration of Qingming shanghe tu, the original topic was dropped in favour of the more general conference theme of Qingming shanghe tu and genre painting. Only one paper presented in October 2005 discussed the 1973 re-mounting of the work—Xu Zhongling's 'Account of the mounting of Qingming shanghe tu' (for the Chinese title, see the list of conference papers below).

Detail of 'Qingming shanghe tu' tapestry

This scroll painting is of such epic proportions that its consideration as an example of a 'genre painting', or more correctly as a fengsu-hua, is problematic. It is quite dissimilar to the type of painting first designated by French writers in the 18th century as tableaux de genre, a category of painting contrastive to works on historical themes. The Chinese notion of genre painting in some ways also documents activities and lives of ordinary folk, or people at work, but Western genre paintings share features with detailed facial and figural portraiture and still life, although the genre can be extended anachronistically to include works by artists as dissimilar as Pieter Brueghel the Younger or the much later William Hogarth. The standard Chinese translation of 'genre painting' is fengsu-tu or fengsu-hua, but the term is perhaps better rendered into English as 'paintings on folkloric themes'. The term fengsu was applied to paintings on a thematic genre of paintings as early as the Tang dynasty, well before the term 'genre painting' appeared in the West.

As An-yi Pan of the Art History Department of Cornell University noted, Qingming-xue ('Qingming studies') has become a moniker as vast as Hongxue ('Redology', that is, studies of the mid-Qing novel The Dream of the Red Chamber), and many speakers did not venture outside 'Qingming studies' to consider the work in the context of other Song dynasty fengsu-hua. Alfreda Murck, formerly of the Metropolitan Museum and now a resources specialist at the Palace Museum, revealed through her introduction to Western studies of Qingming shanghe tu that most sound Western scholarship (for example, that of Richard Barnhart, James Cahill, Valerie Hansen, Robert E. Harrist Jr, Jonathan Hay, Hsiao, Ch'iung-jui, Linda Cooke Johnson, Liu Heping, Alfreda Murck, Julia K. Murray, Tsao Hsingyuan, Roderick Whitfield), or rather scholarship presented in a Western academic context, has addressed the same questions of provenance or dealt with the same issues that preoccupy China-based scholars. Broadly speaking, the painting is read semiotically or literally, either as a work of sociological hermeneutics or as a veracious historical visual document. The shared concerns of scholars internationally, China-based or otherwise, were much in evidence at the conference.


Roderick Whitfield of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, who in 1965 presented the first English-language PhD on Qingming shanghe tu, provided an amusing outline of Qingming scholarship by categorising it as a sequence of what often seem to be obsessive discussions of minor issues or wenti, leading eventually to the luotuo wenti ('camel question'), the caochuan wenti ('grain boat question'), the Chaoxian wenti ('Korean question'), suggesting a known lacuna in Qingming scholarship in China, and culminating in the "as yet unarticulated question" (bucheng wenti de wenti). The over-attention to any specific question results in the accumulation of a body of details and circumstantial evidence, all of which are interesting but none of which perhaps succeeds in answering the major questions concerning Qingming shanghe tu itself: Who painted the work? When was it painted? For whom was it painted? And, most importantly, to what extent is it an imaginative work, or a representation imbued with historical verisimilitude?

Although Qingming shanghe tu bristles with urban activity and the street life of ordinary urbanites, it is also unlike most other fengsu-tu of the Song dynasty, which typically focus on auspicious themes of children at play or other more minor themes. The dimensions of Qingming shanghe tu and its composition evoke the processional themes treated by court painters, and its techniques suggest not still-life but rather jiehua ('ruler-lined painting'), a genre or technique evocative of architectural drawing or commissioned design. Although some papers addressed questions related to Qingming shanghe tu and its relationship to the genre of fengsu-tu or fengsu-hua, most speakers remained within the domain of received Qingming studies. Shan Guoqiang, a researcher from the Palace Museum, did however rise to the occasion, abandoning his tabled paper on an aspect of the authenticity of the seals on Qingming shanghe tu to deliver a paper on Song-dynasty xiaopin fengsu-hua, linking the genre of painting to the advent of a type of personal writing form, the vignette, which rose to prominence at approximately the same time as the painting was created. He delineated fengsu-hua to include such types of painting as yingxi-tu ('paintings of children at play'), huolang-tu ('paintings of itinerant vendors', a genre that often includes children), humorous paintings that depict low-life characters, pastoral scenes of peasant life (for example, paintings by Li Dou of the Southern Song dynasty), paintings of acrobats (zaji-tu or zazhi-tu) and equestrian scenes that often include non-Chinese figures. Despite the inclusion of the latter item within the scope of fengsu-hua, he pointed out that these types all share a certain 'patriotic quality', perhaps simply another way of saying that they arouse affection and empathy in the viewer for the subject matter.

Shan Guolin, Shan Guoqiang's brother and director of calligraphic and painting research at the Shanghai Museum, also examined the theme of Song dynasty folkloric paintings, by introducing a work by an unknown artist previously attributed to the Southern Song dynasty from the collection of the Shanghai Museum titled Geyue tu (Singers and musicians). Through a scrupulous comparison of the musicians and musical instruments depicted in that painting with those seen in dated paintings, often found in tombs, Shan Guolin concluded that the work depicted a type of musical performance termed beiqu-zaju and that the painting should in fact probably be dated to the Jin dynasty (1115-1234).

Yang Boda, another veteran researcher from the Palace Museum, also introduced a fengsu-hua treating a musical performance, a Southern Song dynasty work titled Danuo tu in the imperial collection catalogue titled Shiju Baoji chubian. Like Shan Guolin, he analysed the painting in terms of textual and visual documentation of the performance depicted in the painting, and concluded that this work in the Palace Museum's collection illustrates a springtime shewu performance rather than a communal 'exorcism' of the Danuo type.

Detail of 'Qingming shanghe tu' tapestry

One of the more interesting papers examining fengsu-hua of the Song dynasty was presented by Kondō Hidemi of Japan's Tama Art University. He drew attention to the themes of downtrodden and marginalised urbanites in the fengsu-hua of Zheng Dianxian (Zheng Xia), a "revolutionary folkloric painter and urban recluse artist", and emphasised the extent to which folkloric paintings might highlight the problem of urban refugees and the existence of an urban underclass. He examined Qingming shanghe tu in light of his reading of another painting, Zheng Xia's Liumin tu (Images of refugees), and argued that there are a number of socially disadvantaged persons tucked away in the crowds of Qingming shanghe tu. Kondō argued that such a social critique on the part of the artist might have drawn its inspiration from the writings of Tao Yuanming (365-427), in vogue during the Northern and Southern Song dynasties, and that the perspective and angle from which we view the painting indicates what we should be paying attention to in a work. He noted the importance of following the gaze of groups of people in the painting to determine what they are in fact looking at, and indicates, for example, that the attention of some members of the crowd milling by the bridge in Qingming shanghe tu is directed towards what might be a beggar or plaintiff. He suggested that the surface image of urban prosperity in Qingming shanghe tu conceals visual evidence of some of the social problems created by the reforms of Wang Anshi (1021-1086). Although Kondō's perspective might be forced, the 'beggar question' is not new in mainland interpretations of the work. However, it is less in keeping with the now widely accepted view that the Qingming in the title of the painting does not indicate the Qingming festival, but refers instead to 'prosperous times'. Even so, the latter reading can itself be ironic in that some scholars suggest that naming the painting for 'prosperous times' implies a social critique because it evokes nostalgia for prosperous times past. This entire range of interpretations of Qingming shanghe tu, from admonitory social critique to eulogy, was represented among the speakers at the conference.

Outside pure Qingming scholarship, much Chinese historical writing has also drawn on the painting as an authentically realistic visual document of socio-economic life in the Song dynasty so that the painting is treated as presenting a set of reliable illustrations of the city of Luoyang as delineated in Meng Yuanlao's work Dongjing menghua lu (Reminiscences of the Eastern Capital). This interaction of textuality and visuality is sometimes used to verify what might be circular arguments. However, the assumption that Qingming shanghe tu is to be interpreted literally can result in interesting projects, such as that of the construction of a replica of Rainbow Bridge, the bridge that is one of a central features of Qingming shanghe tu, in Jinze outside Shanghai, an experimental enterprise that was documented for television by WGBH Boston. This work was conducted under the direction of Tang Huancheng, a railway engineer who addressed the conference, and who also provided interesting information on bridges constructed in this distinctive and unusual manner that can still be found in southern China, although many examples have been lost over recent years as a result of development and natural disasters.

Eschewing the literality that often accompanies Qingming studies, Wang Cheng-hua, an associate-researcher from the Institute of Modern History of Academia Sinica in Taiwan, linked the tradition of fengsu-hua in which Qingming shanghe tu paintings are located to the more general representation of urban life and cultural consumption in cityscapes, with particular reference to copies of the painting produced in the late-Ming period. Wang noted that in late-Ming China there was a clear consciousness of urbanity, which distinguishes cities from such long-cherished and time-honoured cultural sites as mountains and forests, gardens and cultural and historical remains.

Detail of 'Qingming shanghe tu' tapestry

The edifice of inter-disciplinary Qingming scholarship was perhaps best outlined by An-yi Pan, even though she favoured a semiotic approach to the work. Echoing Roderick Whitfield, she delineated the series of issues tackled by Qingming scholarship often undertaken by non-art historians and she provided pedigrees or lineages for the various contradictory views that have emerged in the course of the ongoing debate. These contradictory opinions relate to establishing which version of the work is the original or is closest to the original, the identity of the city depicted in the work, the Qingming question (whether the term refers to the festival or describes a time of peace and prosperity), the date of the painting (Northern Song, Southern Song or Jin dynasty), the season depicted in the work (spring or autumn), the specific location of the scenes within the Eastern Capital (the specific names of the city gate and the bridge), the debate on the significance of particular signs and plaques that appear in the work, and the debate regarding the motivation of the maker of the work.

With so many papers addressing the state of the debate in Qingming studies and many other papers addressing questions of editions, it was therefore a relief to have some of the more partisan participants in the Qingming debate present their arguments. As most veteran Chinese scholars seem less troubled by the more contentious issues that now revolve around the work, it was refreshing to hear from Tsao Hsing-yuan, University of British Columbia; Bo Songnian of the Central Academy of Fine Arts; and Jonathan Hay, New York University. All argued forcefully against the generally accepted view that Zhang Zeduan painted the work in the 12th century. Bo Songnian pointed out that the few biographical details we have concerning Zhang Zeduan come from Shuhua chuanxi lu, a late and often inaccurate work. Tsao Hsing-yuan favoured a dating a century earlier than that generally accepted, while Jonathan Hay suggested two other artists who may have conceivably painted the work. These variant positions were well argued contributions to the Qingming casebook, but none uncovered any new textual evidence that could irrefutably identify the original painter of Qingming shanghe tu or presented a watertight case for an alternative interpretation of the work. There seems to be no definitive explanation of all the issues surrounding Qingming shanghe tu. Perhaps this is why so many veteran art historians and other scholars simply opt for accepting the view that the work is by Zhang Zeduan or prefer to read the painting as though it is a photograph of a particular scene in time and space. Its meaning, beyond its provenance, also still remains unexplained, most scholars agreeing that half of the original scroll is now missing. [BGD]


1. See Yang Xin, 'Qiannian gong'an: Qingming shanghe tu sichu-wujin gongmen' (A millennium-long mystery: The four exits and five entries of Qingming shanghe tu through the palace gates), Wenwu tiandi, Beijing, 2002:12, pp 40-45.

2. See Alfreda Murck, Poetry and Painting in Song China: The Subtle Art of Dissent, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2000.

General References:

Zhao Guangchao, Biji Qingming shanghe tu (Notes on Qingming shanghe tu), Beijing: Sanlian Shudian, 2005.

Zhou Baozhu, Qingming shanghe tu yu Qingming shanghe xue (The painting Qingming shanghe tu and Qingming-shanghe studies), Zhengzhou: Henan Daxue Chubanshe, 1997; and, Songdai Dongjing yanjiu (A study of Song dynasty Dongjing), Zhengzhou: Henan Daxue Chubanshe, 1992.

Papers Presented at the October 2005 Conference:

Bo Songnian (Zhongyang Meishu Xueyuan/Central Academy of Fine Arts), 'Guanyu Qingming shanghe tu yanjiu zhong de jige wenti de qianjian' (Tentative views on several issues in research on Qingming shanghe tu).

Chen Yunru (National Palace Museum, Taipei), 'Zhizuo Qingming shanghe tu' (The production of Qingming shanghe tu in the Qing imperial painting academy).

Jonathan Hay (New York University), 'Qingming shanghe tu zuozhe kao' (A study on the creator of Qingming shanghe tu).

Kondō Hidemi (Tama Art University), 'Fengsu-hua de gemingjia, shiyin huajia Zheng Dianxian dui ruoshizuqun de zhushi' (A focus on the socially disempowered in the genre paintings of the revolutionary and urban eremitic painter Zheng Dianxian).

Liu Heping (Wellesley College), 'Cong fengge yanhua dao Wang Anshi bianfa: Qingming shanghe tu yu shiyi shiji Bei Song gongting huihua' (author's English title: From style to state: (Re)positioning Qingming shanghe tu in the art of eleventh-century Northern Song court painting).

Alfreda Murck (Palace Museum), 'Xifang xuezhe dui Qingming shanghe tu de sikao yanjiu' (Western research on Qingming shanghe tu).

Nie Chongzheng (Palace Museum), 'Luo Fuwen hua Qingming shanghe tu juan' (Luo Fuwen's scroll painting titled Qingming shanghe tu).

An-yi Pan (Cornell University), 'Fengsu-hua de dingyi yu Qingming shanghe tu de qishi' (Defining genre painting and the Qingming scroll).

Shan Guolin (Shanghai Museum), 'Geyue tu juan shidai ji neirong kao' (A study of the date and content of the scroll painting 'Geyue tu).

Shan Guoqiang (Palace Museum), 'Zhang Zeduan Qingming shanghe tu juan jiancangyin bianxi' (An analysis of the seals of connoisseurs and collectors on Qingming shanghe tu).

Tang Huancheng (Zhongtie Daqiao-ju Jituan Youxian Gongsi/China Railway Bridge Construction Company), 'Qingming shanghe tu shang Bianshui guanmugong Hongqiao' (The woven timber arch and the Rainbow Bridge across the Bian river in Qingming shanghe tu).

Tsao Hsing-yuan (University of British Columbia), 'Jiegu-songjin de chuantong: Qingming shanghe tu suo jieshi de meishushi wenti' (The tradition of eulogising the present through reference to the past: Art-historical issues elucidated by Qingming shanghe tu).

Wang Cheng-hua (Modern History Institute, Academia Sinica, Taiwan), 'Guoyan fanhua: Wan-Ming chengshi-tu, chengshi-guan yu wenhua xiaofei de yanjiu' (The representation of urban life and the cultural consumption of cityscapes in late-Ming China).

Roderick Whitfield (London University), 'Qingming shanghe tu de chuancheng' (The Qingming shanghe tu tradition).

Xu Shucheng (Zhongguo Yishu Yanjiuyuan/China Arts Academy), 'Qingming shanghe tu he Bei Song gongting shenmei guannian' (Qingming shanghe tu and the aesthetic concepts of the Northern Song palace).

Xu Zhongling (Palace Museum), 'Qingming shanghe tu zhuangbiao ji' (An account of the mounting of Qingming shanghe tu).

Yang Boda (Palace Museum), 'Guanyu Songren Danuo tu de zhengming wenti' (On the correct title for the painting known as Danuo tu).

Yang Chenbin, 'Zhuben Qingming shanghe tu he kao' (A comprehensive study of the various editions of Qingming shanghe tu).

Yang Xin (Palace Museum), 'Tan dangqian dui Qingming shanghe tu yanjiu de piancha' (A discussion of present day distortions in research on Qingming shanghe tu).