It’s been called the China’ most popular painting and even China’s Mona Lisa. It’s a prize possession of the Palace Museum in Beijing and is only unveiled to the public every few years, at most. It truly is a magnificent treasure, that astounds all who can catch a rare glimpse of it.
But for all its fame and glory, it remains an enigma – concealing much more about its mysterious past than has been established as fact. Indeed, no-one in modern times knew of the scroll’s existence until scholars discovered it in the bowels of the Palace Museum in Beijing in 1954, after it was returned from Manchuria after the second world war. By some accounts, the scroll was a favourite of Puyi, the Last Emperor.
Apart from the technical brilliance with which it was completed, there is so much that remains unknown about is handscroll measuring 25.5cm high and 5.25 metres long, depicting everyday life in a busy Chinese city. And while the sheer technical brilliance of the scroll is there for all to see, just about everything else purported to be fact about its location, provenance and even its purpose is conjecture.
The work is attributed to Zhang Zeduan, who is to have lived from 1085-1145 and is often referred to as “the most popular court artist of the Song dynasty”. But the only historical mention of Zhang that has ever been found is in a written message (called a colophon) on the scroll itself, signed by one of its first owners in the subsequent Jin Dynasty when it was already some six decades old by its own account. No further hard evidence of Zhang has been found, either in other paintings or written accounts by other. Zhang Zhu, the colophon’s author and presumably no relation, was an official curator of paintings for the non-Han Chinese Jin Dynasty that conquered North China in 1126.
The colophon said that “Zhang Zeduan (styled Zhengdao) is a native of Dongwu [today’s Zhucheng, in Shandong province]. When young, he studied and travelled to the capital for further study. He showed talent for ruled-line painting (draughting and rendering), and especially liked boats and carts, markets and bridges, moats and paths. He was an expert in other types of painting as well.”
He concluded: “On the day after the Qingming festival, in 1186, Zhang Zhu from Yanshan wrote this colophon”. This, as far as is known, is the only contemporary official mention of Zhang Zeduan.
Another problem for scholars is the scroll’s name, Qingming shanghe tu, which roughly translated from the same characters could be A stroll along the river during the Qingming Festival or Peace reigns over the river. The first name implies a period of stability and peace, while second implies a more volatile epoch.
Scholars are also divided over the location of the scroll. Some say it is Kaifeng, the venerable Song capital, while others say there is no reason to presume, especially as none of the buildings in the painting resemble ones known from records. The scene, they say, is of an idealised city. Many copies, some of them twice the length of the original, were made in subsequent centuries.
Valerie Hansen, a US professor of Chinese language and history who also supports the idealised city hypothesis, wrote in a 1991 essay The Beijing Qingming Scroll and its Significance for the Study of Chinese History: “We can only speculate about [the artist’s] unrecorded motives. It would have been natural for him to make his scroll as a reminder of the past glories of the Song, before the humiliating defeat [by the invading Jurchens] of 1126. If Zhang created his scroll under non-Chinese rule, and the first records place it in the Jin-dynasty imperial collection, he would have a good reason to depict a generic city defying easy identification. His scroll evokes a bygone time in which cities prospered and their residents flourished. Like more recent Chinese critics of the government, he left it to the viewer to deduce his target.
“The Qingming scroll is a masterful artistic creation, whose many layers of meaning defy a pat reading. With each viewing, the observer gains new understanding of the people and the city show in such vivid detail. The spellbinding artistry of the scroll, coupled with the lack of documentation about its maker and his subject, guarantee that future generations will fund the study of the scroll just tantalising – as their predecessors.”