Detail of Peace Reigns over the River. Although it now hangs in Beijing’s Palace Museum, the painting is a handscroll and would have been viewed in an intimate setting: When unfurled from right to left it would reveal shoulder-length sections of the painting at a time.
The twelfth-century painted handscroll known as Qingming shanghe tu (Peace Reigns over the River; previously known as Qingming Festival on the River) is considered to be one of the best depictions of daily life in China.
Painted by Zhang Zeduan, Qingming shanghe tu (Peace Reigns over the River; previously known as Qingming Festival on the River) portrays the activities of a bustling city set along a busy river. This work is said to represent the Song-dynasty (960–1279) capital of Bianliang (modern-day Kaifeng) on the Bian River, a waterway that joined the Grand Canal and was used to ship commercial goods. Done in ink and slight color on silk, this painting measures just over five meters in length and slightly less than 25 centimeters in height. The painted scroll has been famous since the fourteenth century and inspired many forgeries and imitations, but the original disappeared from public for centuries. Its whereabouts were unknown until 1954, when it was returned to the Palace Museum in Beijing after having passed through many hands over the centuries; this painting is accepted as the earliest version known, predating the famous imperially commissioned scroll of 1736 in the National Palace Museum, Taipei.
A handscroll was originally meant for intimate, close-range, and occasional viewing. When not in use it would have been kept tightly rolled around a wooden pin, secured, perhaps, by a silken cord with a jade or ivory toggle, then wrapped in silk and stored in a wooden case. When unfurled from right to left the handscroll would reveal shoulder-length sections of the painting at a time.
The intricate detail and astonishing realism of Peace Reigns over the River accurately depict the architecture, carts, boats, and bridges that would have been associated with a bustling commercial center in the Northern Song dynasty (960–1126). Moving from right to left, this painting takes the viewer on a journey through time and space: from early morning to early afternoon, and from the pastoral outskirts of town to the crowded urban center. The painting is composed of three sections. The first shows quiet farms shrouded by mist. A few figures quietly go about their duties among the trees. Activity increases as the scroll moves toward the city. The second section shows in exacting detail the area outside the city wall with its taverns, restaurants, and shops as well as barges moored along the river. Here excitement mounts at the Rainbow Bridge, where a crowd has gathered to watch one barge swing under the bridge. The third and final section is of the city itself, marked by a large gate in the city wall. It is now midday and people enjoy the activities that a large, prosperous city has to offer.
Although the painting is unsigned, the attached colophons (or written notes) attribute the work to Zhang Zeduan (dates unknown), a native of Dongwu (modern-day Zhucheng, in Shandong Province). Biographical details are few. The earliest colophon, datable to 1186 and written by Zhang Zhu, an official curator of the Jurchen Jin dynasty (1125–1234), states that Zhang Zeduan also went by the name of Zhang Zhengdao. He studied painting at the capital and excelled in a painting technique known as jiehua, or fine-line drawing, that he used for depicting such objects as boats, carts, markets, bridges, and moats. In Zhang Zhu’s opinion, the work is inspired and ought to be treasured.
It has been generally accepted that the painting depicts the city on the day of the Spring or Qingming (literally “clear-bright”) Festival that takes place one hundred days after the winter solstice when the graves of ancestors are swept, giving the painting its earlier and most familiar title, Qingming Festival on the River. Recently, however, scholars suggest that the size of the crowds and the relative lack of women allow another reading of the title. Qingming is also translated as “peaceful and orderly”; thus, with a title of Peace Reigns over the River, Zhang Zeduan has depicted an idealized city in which people from all classes mingle harmoniously at a time of economic and commercial prosperity characteristic of this period.
Hansen, V. (1996). The Beijing Qingming scroll and its significance for the study of Chinese history. Journal of Sung-Yuan Studies, University of Albany, Department of East Asian Studies. Retrieved on January 16, 2009, from http://www.yale.edu/history/faculty/materials/hansen-qingming/essay.pdf
A person cannot be judged by his appearance in the same token as the sea cannot be measured with a bucket.
rén bú kě mào xiàng, hǎi shuǐ bú kě dòu liàng
Source: Pagani, Catherine. (2009). Peace Reigns over the River. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 1727–1730. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.
Painted in ink and slight color on silk, Peace Reigns over the River measures just over five meters in length and slightly less than 25 centimeters in height. Moving from right to left, this handscroll takes the viewer on a journey through time and space.
Detail of Peace Reigns over the River. A train of camels passes through the city gate; an ornate tower guards the entrance. Willow trees planted along the river bank to hold the earth are beginning to turn green as the time for the Spring Festival nears.
Detail of boats and barges on a river from Peace Reigns on the River. Most art historians concur that the painting depicts the city on the day of the Spring (or Qingming, literally “clear-bright”) Festival.
Peace Reigns over the River (Qīngmíng Shànghétú 清明上河图)|Qīngmíng Shànghétú 清明上河图 (Peace Reigns over the River)