The Qingming Scroll

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The Title of the Scroll

The full title of the scroll is "Qingming shanghe tu" 清明上河圖.  Its exact meaning is not clear, and has been a subject of some debate among modern scholars of the scroll.  The second half of the title, i.e. "shanghe tu," meaning "going-along-the-river picture," is relatively unproblematic; most scholars agree that it refers to the river that runs through the entire scroll.  The first term, however, "Qingming" is much more ambiguous.  It literally means "clear-bright," i.e. "peaceful and orderly," but it is also the name of a popular grave-sweeping festival on the one-hundredth day after the winter solstice, sometime in April.  Much of the debate over the title is focused on whether the term "Qingming" refers to the festival or not, and by extension, whether the artist Zhang Zeduan meant to depict a scene from the Qingming festival or simply a peaceful, orderly, and prosperous scene along the river.  It has, therefore, been variously translated as "The Spring Festival Along the River" (Ebrey) or "Peace Reigns Over the River" ( Hansen).

The Scroll Artist Zhang Zeduan (fl. 12th-century)

The Qingming Scroll has traditionally been attributed to a certain Zhang Zeduan 張擇端.  There is basically no trace of him at all in the historical records from his time, and what little information we have of him now is exclusively from the colophons to the scroll by later writers, the earliest of which is dated to the year 1186.  This earliest, and arguably most informative, colophon reads as follows:

"Hanlin Zhang Zeduan, styled Zhengdao, is a native of Dongwu [now Zhucheng, Shandong].  When young, he studied and traveled to the capital for further study.  Later he practiced painting things.  He showed talent for ruled-line painting, and especially liked boats and carts, markets and bridges, moats and paths.  He was an expert in other types of paintings as well.

According to 'A Record of Mr Xiang's Views on Paintings,' Regatta on the Western Lake (Xihu zhengbiao tu) and Peace Reigns Over the River (Qingming shanghe tu) are placed in the category of inspired paintings.  The owner should treasure it.

On the day after the Qingming festival, in 1186, Zhang Zhu from Yanshan wrote this colophon." 

[Translation adapted from Valerie Hansen's "The Beijing Qingming Scroll and its Significance for the Study of Chinese History" in the Journal of Sung-Yuan Studies 1996.]

Qingming Scroll Colophon

Format of the Scroll

The Qingming Scroll measures 10.03 inches in height and 17.22 feet in width.  It was done in monochrome ink on silk, and considering that it is already more than 800 years old, it is in surprisingly good condition.  Most of the original details are intact, and there are only a few patches and blemishes throughout the scroll.  The original is now housed at the National Palace Museum in Beijing, PRC.

In a modern museum, the Qingming Scroll is usually displayed flat in a glass case.  This is, however, not how the original scroll was intended to be viewed.  The bulk of it would have rolled up, and the viewer would unroll it only one section at at time, beginning from the right end.  For more information about this handscroll format, please refer to this useful site at the Palace Museum in Taiwan, ROC.  For a diagram of the handscroll format, adapted from the same site, please click here.

Qingming Scroll Display Case
The original scroll on display at the
National Palace Museum, Beijing, PRC.


The City in the Scroll

There is no definite answer to this question.  Much of the scholarship presupposes that the city depicted in the scroll is the Northern Song capital of Kaifeng 開封.  The river in the scroll would therefore be the famous Bian River 汴河, one of the major canals running through Kaifeng during the Northern Song dynasty (960-1127).  Efforts have been made to identify various structures depicted in the scroll, such as the Rainbow Bridge or the various wine shops, as those mentioned in the historical records on the city of Kaifeng during the Northern Song.

However, some scholars, such as Valerie Hansen of Yale University, have argued that the Qingming scroll is in fact a depiction of an idealized city, with no particular reference to the Kaifeng or any specific city in the Northern Song for that matter.  Her argument is that virtually every single detail in scroll is depicted in an extremely generic way, despite the tremendous amount of realistic details, and no obvious landmarks of Kaifeng that we know of from historical sources can be clearly identified in the scroll.  In fact, Hansen found that the scroll contains not a single apparent historical landmark at all.  She argues that it is a painting of an ideal city, evoking with nostalgia perhaps the prosperity of the new urban space in Northern Song times.  Regardless of whether the city is real or imaginary, all scholars would agree, however, that the scroll has a tremendous amount of realistic details pertaining to the new urban space that arose in the Northern Song.
Kaifeng map

Further Resources

Animated Version of the Riverside Scene at Qingming Festival "River of Wisdom"
Asian Topics in World History: The Song Dynasty in China (960-1279)

This online module was developed at Columbia University under the faculty consultant Conrad Shirokauer. Headlined with the question, "Does modernity begin with the Song dynasty?", it uses the Qingming scroll to illustrate various aspects of urban life in Song dynasty China. It has a full reproduction of the scroll, as well as individual sections on "economic growth," "commercialization," "urbanization," "intellectual life," and "social changes."

Professor Valerie Hansen's Introductory Essay on the Qingming Scroll

Yale University professor of Chinese history Valerie Hansen's introductory pamphlet entitled "The Beijing Qingming Scroll and Its Significance for the Study of Chinese History." For Professor Hansen's more contentious study of the scroll, see her article The Mystery of the Qingming Scroll and Its Subject: The Case Against Kaifeng in the _Journal of Song-Yuan Studies_ 26 (1996) 183-200.

A Visual Sourcebook for Chinese Civilization [Section on Urban Life]

This website is taken from _A Visual Sourcebook for Chinese Civilization_, developed by Professor of Chinese history Patricia Ebrey at the University of Washington. In addition to a full reproduction of the scroll, it also has three individual sections: "Shops and Commerce," "Means of Transportation," and "Individuals and Groups." Each section has a set of useful guiding questions towards an appreciation of the rich details of the scroll.

NOVA Builds a Rainbow Bridge
Article on the 2005 International Conference on the Qingming Scroll in Beijing, PRC

Citation of Sources

The information contained in this module is, in part, drawn from the following sources:

Zhou Baozhu 周宝珠. Qingming shanghe tu yu qingming shanghe xue 《清明上河图》与清明上河学 (Henan: Henan daxue, 1997)
Zhao Guangchao 趙廣超. Biji Qingming shanghe tu 筆記清明上河圖 (Hong Kong: Sanlian, 2004)
Ihara Hiroshi 伊原弘, ed. Seimei jôgazu o yomu 清明上河図およむ (Tokyo: Bensei Shuppan, 2003)
Roderick Whitfield. "Chang Tse-tuan's Ch'ing-ming shang-ho t'u." PhD diss., Princeton University, 1965.

The digital reproduction of the scroll is based upon the following print reproduction:

Qingming shanghe tu (yuanda jingyin zhencangben) 清明上河圖(原大精印珍藏本)(Hong Kong: Shangwu, 2005)


This project was made possible by the generous funding from the Presidential Instructional Technology Fellows (PITF) Program of the FAS Instructional Computing Group sponsored by the Office of the Provost at Harvard University.  Originally conceived by Dr. Michael Szonyi, the design and content of the online scroll module were subsequently realized by the PITF's Vincent Leung, Tsong-han Lee, and Alan Wagner, in the summer of 2007, under the supervision of then interim director of ICG Annie Rota.  Appreciation is also due to Mr Xiao-he Ma and Ms Nanni Deng at the Harvard College Library for their assistance in securing a high-quality reproduction of the painting scroll.




See also: History