By Tom Booth
For those interested in art and paintings approaching Chinese landscape paintings can often be a daunting challenge. For starters, Chinese landscape paintings are extremely long; so long in fact that they are normally painted on long scrolls that, once unfurled, are several metres in length. They also contain an exceptional amount of detail; trees are adorned with individually painted branches and leaves, and people are distinguished from one another by minute detailing on their clothes and appearance. All in all, a first glance at a Chinese landscape painting can be quite overwhelming, and this often pushes people away from studying the paintings more closely.
In Chinese, the practice of analysing and deciphering a painting is called du hua 读画 or the art of ‘reading’ a painting. Hopefully this blog post can help de-mystify Chinese landscape paintings so they can be ‘read’ and appreciated by a wider audience.
This short blog post will focus on one of the most famous Chinese landscape paintings of all time: ‘Along the River During the Qingming Festival’ or Qingming Shanghe Tu 清明上河图. This painting was painted during the Song dynasty (960-1279 AD) by Zhang Zeduan (1085-1145 AD) and is thought to depict a fantastical version of Kaifeng city, the capital of the Northern Song dynasty. The original is kept in the Palace museum in Beijing and is brought out only on special occasions every few years. It is widely considered to be one of the greatest pieces of artwork ever produced in China, and is celebrated as a national treasure.
When looking at the painting it is important to try to capture the feeling that you are visiting the festival from the countryside. We start by looking at the far right side of the painting, and slowly move our way left towards the city.
Our first scene is in the countryside just outside the city. The houses are primitive with thatched roofs and the only people are farmers driving their livestock along the narrow roads.
As we move closer to the city we see more signs of habitation. In the background are fields growing crops, and in the foreground we can see people buying and selling goods. There are also some small commercial ships in a make-shift harbour, suggesting a small amount of commercial activity. The houses now have tiled roofs, indicating greater sophistication.
These small commercial vessels soon give way to much larger Chinese junks and a fully-fledged port. Horse and carriage rumble by in the background, and many people are engaged in moving and organising the ships.
Just a little further we come to the main bridge leading to Kaifeng city. This is the centre of the scene, and is the site of most activity. It is abuzz with people moving to and fro: there are a huge number of people pushing past each other while others attempt to peddle business to the growing crowds. We can see a crowd of people shouting from the edge of the bridge as a boat risks crashing into the bridge. One can really sense the drama and excitement!
Eventually we reach the main city gates. Carts pulled by horses are pouring through the gates; we can even see exoctic camels, reflecting the multiculturalism of Song China.
Through the gates we can see a bustling inn, crowded with people eating and drinking. Energy radiates from the scene and makes one feel like they are there themselves!
By stepping into the shoes of an imaginary visitor to Kaifeng and the Qingming festival the painting itself becomes a kind of story. We walk through the countryside, past the harbour and along the suburbs. We cross the bridge where the main drama of the painting is unfolding, and we finish by entering the main gates on the far left of the scene. By reading from right to left and breaking the painting into distinct sections the narrative quality of the painting is much more clear and ‘reading’ the painting becomes a much less overbearing task!
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