Qingming is a traditional Chinese festival where families pay their respects to ancestors by tending to the graves. As it is the beginning of spring, it is also a time for people to go outside and enjoy the warm spring days. It falls on the 15th day of the spring equinox, usually around April 5th on the Gregorian calendar.
The first time I heard about Qingming festival was in 1984 when I studied Chinese painting in Nanjing, China.
One day, Tan Laoshi, my painting teacher, brought a series of leaf pages to my room. They were old and yellowing. Each loose leaf was a reproduction of a section of the famous scroll, ‘Along the River During Qingming Festival’ by Song Dynasty artist, Zhang Zeduan (1085-1145). Tan Laoshi told me that this painting is one of the most famous in China’s history. Because it is regarded as a national treasure, it is on exhibition at the Palace Museum in Beijing only for brief periods every few years.
As well as being an artistic masterpiece, ‘Along the River During Qingming Festival’ is a wonderful historical record. It depicts daily life in the Northern Song dynasty capital, Kaifeng in minute detail.
This is a handscroll that is viewed flat on a table. You begin unrolling from right to left. While the left hand is unrolling, the right hand rolls up the already viewed section of the scroll. It is very much like watching a movie.
The original scroll is 25.5 centimetres high and 5.25 meters long. There are 814 humans, 28 boats, 60 animals, 30 buildings, 20 vehicles, 9 sedan chairs and 170 trees.
Without any further instruction, Tang Laoshi told me to copy each reproduction so that in the end I would have my own scroll. The traditional way of learning Chinese painting is to copy from the masters.
It was a daunting task. But one that I relished.
This is a section of the original painting.
The whole painting took me about five months to complete working full time every day. I painted in sections. Firstly I traced each page leaf carefully onto non absorbent Chinese water colour paper, the kind used for ‘gong bi’ or fine brush technique. Sometimes though, because the reproductions were so old dating back to the 1930’s, I could barely see the linework. In these cases I used a bit of artistic licence.
The biggest problem I found was that my brush technique improved everyday. I would be painting for example, the fifth section of the scroll and look back at an earlier section and be totally dissatisfied with what I’d done back then. As a result I had to start over many times.
Once I had finally completed the painting, I took all the sections to a scroll maker and he put them seamlessly together.
To give you an idea of the story that unfolds, here are some of the scenes from my own painting.
The painting begins in the quiet countryside.
But wait … perhaps it’s not so quiet after all. A thief is running away with his loot.
As we get closer to the city, we see market stalls and a river, which will play a climactic role three quarters of the way through the painting.
Here you can see men pulling the boat. And the start of the big climactic scene.
And here it is! A boat is going to smash into the bridge. In the panic, men throw down ropes.
And then calamity is diverted and peace on the river is restored.
Now we come to the grand city gates.
And now we see life inside the city walls. There’s a story teller on the right surrounded by intrigued listeners.
The next picture is the very last scene of the scroll. I painstakingly painted 814 humans. But as far as I could tell, the only two women are the ones in the shop with the baby. That, in itself is a social comment.