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Ancient Chinese City Life: ‘Along the River During the Qingming Festival’

In his “Along the River During the Qingming Festival,” Zhang Zeduan (1085–1145) presents each house, boat, shop, or food stall in such vivid detail and depicts so many walk of life that the ancient Chinese might have tried to picture themselves in the scroll while they were viewing it. For us in the 21st century, if …
One section of “Along the River During the Qingming Festival,” Zhang Zeduan (1085–1145). (All photos Public Domain)

In his “Along the River During the Qingming Festival,” Zhang Zeduan (1085–1145) presents each house, boat, shop, or food stall in such vivid detail and depicts so many walk of life that the ancient Chinese might have tried to picture themselves in the scroll while they were viewing it. For us in the 21st century, if offers a cinematic entry into the distant past and a chance to reflect on what urban landscapes encompass.

It is an ancient Chinese belief that a city is an industrial engine designed by cosmic mandate. The Shang Dynasty character for city is essentially a kneeling person behind a city wall. The city wall not only serves as defense for the people inside, but also symbolizes the power of state.

Just like all ancient civilizations, the ancient Chinese civilization rose along riverbanks. “Along the River During the Qingming Festival” illustrates an urban city along the Bian River, which was the life vein of the Northern Song Dynasty. This more than five-yard long handscroll depicts urban life during the flourishing Song economy. Bustling with commercial activity, the scene is set in the Northern Song capital of Bianjing, or present day Kaifeng in Henan. Ancient China had the some of world’s largest cities by 1100, the time ingenuously captured in this scroll.

The title of this piece suggests that the scene takes place during the Qingming Festival, which is a grave-sweeping festival that comes in April, 100 days after the winter solstice.

However, traditional festivities such as tomb sweeping and the worshipping of ancestry are not directly illustrated, but the artist drops hints here and there that illustrate the traditions. Qingming, by the way, can also translate to mean “peaceful and orderly,” and as there are no beggars or slums shown, the scroll can perhaps be interpreted as an idealization of the Song city.

Handscrolls such as these were meant to be viewed one section—an arm’s length at a time—and from right to left. Unrolling the scroll reveals the splendors of the city filled with streets, bridges, buildings, shops, restaurants, and lively crowds, taking us on a journey along the river. Overall, it offers a panoramic view of the city, which can be compared to screening a long take in a film shot.

1. The scroll begins at early dawn with a woodsman who leads several donkeys to cross a bridge in the bucolic countryside. The elm trees are barren after shredding their leaves, which signifies the winter or early spring. A stream in the foreground leads to a wooden house with a tiled roof that is situated in the woods. A tranquil atmosphere pervades the scene.
2. Here we see some willow trees, which were believed to have the power to purge ghosts and demons. Their trunks, scarred from pollarding, will sprout new, lush growth in the spring. Beyond the willow trees, a procession of figures carries a sedan chair with hanging willow branches. Within this pageant are laborers with willow brooms, perhaps returning from grave sweeping in the countryside. In front of the stream, two hooded women ride donkeys and are aided by three men who are on their way to pay tribute to their ancestors.
3. Near the river‘s shore, people are up and engaged with their morning routines. Several are having breakfast in a shop alongside a road that sells steamed buns, while a restaurant keeper is just about to install a pole to open up. A merchant sits on a bag of grain by the river and seems to orders workers to unload more grain from the boats docked near the shore.
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 to do laundry.
5. We finally approach the Rainbow Bridge, which is dramatic high point of the scroll. To the right of the bridge, a boat approaches at a rather awkward angle as the strong current seems about to crash it into the bridge. Boatmen work quickly to lower the mast while one tries to get leverage by hooking on to the bridge above. The onlookers on the bridge stare anxiously down below as someone tosses down an uncoiled rope. To the left of the boat, several men gesticulate and holler toward a boat on the opposite shore to avoid a collision.
       Meanwhile, there is just as much commotion on the bridge itself as there is below it. The bridge is jam-packed with action: Food stands and people line the two sides, further congesting the traffic. There is another potential collision on top of the bridge as servants carrying a sedan chair run into several men on horseback. Workers near the shore carry goods on shoulder poles and donkeys try to cross to the other side. In the lower left side, a man pushes a wheelbarrow next to a vendor shop while three workmen put down their cargo to buy refreshments from an umbrella stand. As we watch all this unfold, the feeling is reminiscent of the traffic jam that fill our present day streets.
6. The turmoil settles down as a Chinese bar catches our eye with its towering bamboo lattice structure and three-striped flag, which were both distinctive features of wine shops. Next to the horse, a server delivers two bowls and chopsticks for a takeout order. In the lower right corner, a trader negotiates with a woman alongside a small child while a vendor sells rope from his cart just above them. To the left of the gate, customers sit around a table inside a restaurant while a woman gazes down and rests her arm outside the window. Several boats are afloat as trackers pull a boat upstream.
7. It is later in the day, and the river flows upwards and out of sight. Near the shore, three workers load their cargo onto boats. A winding street follows the river’s course while outdoor shops and restaurants line the sides of the streets. Two oxen pull a wagon in the foreground while a woman follows on horseback. Several events signify that it is lunchtime as a maid carries a bowl to her mistress in a sedan chair and as a worker carries steamers with a folded table. Traveling along the street, we see a wheelwright and his apprentice making a wheelbarrow with the wooden frame pieces on the ground. Going further along, a man sits down to tell a story to a crowd surrounding him.
8. People mingle around on the pier-like bridge that extends out into another body of water. On the bridge, many robed literati men like low-level officials, clerks, and students wear kerchiefs over their head to tie up their hair. The laborers and workers on the other hand, wear trousers to work efficiently. Bullocks pull two large wagons filled with household goods while to the right, a woman in a straw hat on horseback travels in the opposite direction with her servants. In the background, a monk stands next to a Buddhist temple with studded gates.
9. The towering city gate marks the city border and is another climax of the scroll. The gate itself is built with brick and includes characteristic architectural features of the Tang and Song dynasties such as the Dougong, which is comprised of a series of interlocking wooden brackets that support beams and join pillars. Gazing up the steep staircase inside the room reveals a large tanggu, or Chinese drum, that is hung sideways on a frame. Meanwhile, camels pass through the gate below from distant deserts.
10. A fancy three-storied inn with the façade of a tavern sits on the other side of the gate. Guests arrive in sedan chairs and prepare to move in while the entrance is flanked with two signs that read “wholesaler” and “fragrance wine.” Maids sort brooms from two large baskets in front of the inn for tomb sweeping. To the right, a man tries out a bow and arrow in a shop. To the left of the tavern, vendors sell refreshments and a crowd of literati men gathers around a storyteller. The activity outside the gate accurately depicts how the 12th century commercial revolution freed cities of government restriction and even allowed expansion outside of city walls.
11. The crossroad section is filled with bustling activity containing a wide range of social groups. Near the bottom, literati men stand next to a pawnshop as they watch a small child learning to walk. Two donkeys pull two wine barrels and directly above, a Buddhist monk converses with a scholar. To the right of them stand two Daoists wearing white robes and distinct hairpins. On the far end of the street, the sign denotes the presence of a sandalwood furniture shop. A vendor sells figurines under umbrella stands while to the left (but in the center), three workers draw water from the well. In front of them, a street trader carries a back-frame to sell toys.
     As we travel further left to the final section of the scroll, there is a house with a sign that reads “Official Zhao’s House.” It is home to a pharmacist who is inside consulting with patients. Looking above, we see that his house is very elaborate with a courtyard of bamboo gardens. In front of the house is a scholar on horseback wearing a sombrero-like hat, perhaps a portrait of the artist himself.

By Mike Cai


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