Life along the Bian River at the Pure Brightness Festival (Qingming shanghe tujuan)
Qingming Shanghe tu depicts flourishing and bustling scenes along the Bian Canal and around the southeast gate of Bianjing (modern day Kaifeng), the capital of the Northern Song dynasty.
The long composition consists of three sections. Beginning from the right-hand end and moving to the left, the first section portrays the thatched cottages, paths crisscrossing fields, and farm life in the suburbs. At the center of this section is a stand of ancient willow trees. Because officials were responsible for planting willow trees to secure the embankments of canals, these huge trees are emblems of a caring government.
With a grand arching bridge as its center, the second section depicts commerce along the Bian Canal. The wooden "rainbow" or "flying" bridge was invented in Qingzhou, Shandong province, in 1031-32, and was built over the Bian Canal during the 1040s, linking water and land transportation. The innovative design was free of supports that interfered with the passage of barges. On top of the bridge, carts, sedan chairs, equestrians, peddlers and pedestrians jostle. Beneath the bridge, a large boat is lowering its mast in order to continue its journey upstream. However, it has been caught in the stiff current and is in danger of being swept back down stream. The boatmen's intense work attracts many on-lookers who shout advice.
The last section depicts the streets in the urban area, where the centerpiece is the city gate with a camel train passing beneath. Shops are dense: big shops like hotels are ornamented with decorative scaffolding; small shops are hardly more than shacks. A government office and Buddhist temple also appear in the painting. Crowds of pedestrians jostle each other, while carts, horses, sedan chairs and camels navigate the busy streets. Among them are gentlemen, officials, servants, peddlers, stevedores, sedan-chair bearers, bakers, shopkeepers, storytellers, barbers, doctors, fortunetellers, mothers, ladies of the entertainment quarter, itinerant monks, urchins and even beggars. With different identities and attires, they go about their daily lives. In the painting, the vehicles include sedan chair, wheelbarrows, train of camels, ox-, horse- and donkey-drawn carts. Even the carts are of different types. The lofty gate tower is likely the one that was located at the southeast of Bianjing's inner city, and was known as the East Corner Gate.
With fine, freehand brushwork and pale, elegant colors, Qingming Shanghe tu is different from most architectural paintings. It gives a bird's eye view of Bianjing, a typical urban area during the Northern Song dynasty. Long but not lengthy, complicated but not disorderly, the close-knit design seems to have been drawn by one hand and its details form a coherent whole. The painting's motifs are elaborately delineated, no matter whether they are grand scenes of open country, broad canal, and high city walls or small details like figures inside boats or carriages, goods displayed on a vendor's mat, or characters on a shop sign. The monumental painting with over 500 figures is interspersed with many interesting plots.
Following the painting are colophons inscribed by thirteen scholars including Zhang Zhu of the Jin dynasty who in 1186 mentioned the name of Zhang Zeduan (otherwise unrecorded) and that he excelled at genre and architectural painting. (The title Qingming Shanghe tu is open to interpretation including reference to the grave sweeping festival and "Qingming" meaning a peaceful and flourishing society.) Zhang Zhu's contemporary Zhang Zhiyao wrote that the painting depicted the capital during the Xuanhe era (1119-1125) of the Huizong emperor (1100-1125). Wu Kuan of the Ming dynasty provided an inscription and contributed to the 96 seals affixed to the scroll. The painting is recorded in books such as Qinghe Shuhua Fang, Gengzi Xiaoxia Ji and Shigu tang shuhua ji.