Jun 26, 2013




Along the River During the Qingming Festival” (清明上河图 Qīngmíng Shànghé Tú), a panoramic painting reputedly created by Song Dynasty (960-1279) artist Zhang Zeduan (张择端), celebrates not only a festival, but an entire culture. The resounding spirit of life captured in this grand painting has played muse for centuries, most recently inspiring a series of animated TV episodes.

清明上河图 offers a panoramic view of the festival in Kaifeng (开封), Henan Province, then the capital of China, but Zhang’s true focus lies elsewhere. The ceremonies of the Qingming Festival become a side feature as he vividly portrays the social and political machinations that were integral to the culture of the time. The diversity he captured has endured for centuries and has inspired a long succession of artists to attempt to capture the spirit of their times in near identical fashion.

Qingming (清明节, clear and bright) festival falls on March 14 by the lunar calendar, and is probably better known as Tomb Sweeping Day. It is a day of remembrance, a time when respects are paid to ancestors, tombs are swept and gifts bestowed. It also welcomes in the spring and is a time for family outings and reunions.

The original scroll is currently housed in the Palace Museum in Beijing, and is an impressive 5.28 meters in length, with three main sections. Using a tableau format, it moves from leisurely rural scenes on the right, through the commotion of commerce in the center, and ends in an urban district, a locus of economic activity. Featured are people from all walks of life taking part in the elaborate play of their day-to-day before an extensive backdrop, which includes detailed infrastructure, contemporary transport and technology, plants and animals. “Along the River During the Qingming Festival” offers deep insight into 12th century China.

There are a number of versions of the piece, including one from the Yuan Dynasty (1206-1368) and another from the Qing Dynasty (1616-1911), both of which were adapted to reflect the eras in which they were created. A more recent version was executed in digital media and exhibited over three months at the 2010 World Expo in Shanghai.

Called “River of Wisdom,” it brings to life the original “Along the River During the Qingming Festival” on an epic scale. Projected on a screen 120 meters long and six meters high (30 times the size of the original) it is an animated, four-minute long digital cycle running from day to night. Throughout, figures interact and participate in a wealth of scenes from ancient Chinese life based on those depicted by Zhang, as well as additional night scenes to demonstrate the thriving trade of the night market.

Now the piece is about to enter a new phase of life. Xinhua reported earlier this month that it is to be the basis for an animated TV series. Sponsored by Wanhao, an internet, film and TV center and the publicity department of the Kaifeng Communist Party of China Committee, 365 episodes will be developed (yes, one for each day of the year.) Divided into seven parts, it will consider agriculture, transport, science and technology, folklore, commerce, culture and art, and international communication. The ultimate aim is to take Zhang’s painting beyond the realm of art, and literally breathe life into each of his characters and the lives they lived.

While an in-depth knowledge of ancient Chinese societal culture can be obtained from “Along the River During the Qingming Festival,” the question remains: how can even this most epic of paintings inspire 365 episodes?

Suggestions welcome!

Check out the painting here.

By: Marie Cahalane [www.theworldofchinese.com]

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