In a painting nearly one thousand years old, shopkeepers tend their stores, teahouses serve customers, and camels pass through the city gates. Although the trees have yet to sprout new leaves, boats are moored along the river as the city springs to life. In the painting, Along the River during Qingming Festival (also sometimes referred to by the title Peace Reigns along the River), attributed to Zhang Zeduan, we are offered a rare glimpse of the thriving commercial activity of medieval China. Nearly seventeen feet of painting portray a bustling city (possibly Kaifeng, the capital of the Northern Song dynasty, 960–1127), all done with incredible technical skill, precision, and accuracy. Numerous shops, watchtowers, moats, and bridges play host to people from all walks of life, horses, camels, and carts bustling throughout the city. All told, there are 814 humans, 28 boats, 60 animals, 30 buildings, 20 vehicles, 9 sedan chairs, and 170 trees.
Zhang portrayed this wealth of visual information in the format of a handscroll, which involves mounting the painting onto a stiff backing that can be unfurled to view up close. The viewer moves along the river, progressing from right to left through a rural agricultural area to the gated city, and then over a bridge, known as the “Rainbow Bridge,” which marks the center of the composition (see below).
The Rainbow Bridge is a wooden structure of interlocking timber beams woven into a large arc, reminiscent of a rainbow formed over the water. There is some commotion around the bridge, where a ship is approaching with its mast lowered. Onlookers gesture and try to stop the ship from crashing into the bridge. The artist used extraordinary detail to convey this moment, visually recording the everyday objects (such as sedan chairs, barges, horse trappings, ox carts, food and drink) and cultures (such as peddlers, shopkeepers, women and children, well-robed figures on horseback) of what is likely to be the Northern Song dynasty.
This iconic handscroll showcases the flourishing urban economy of the Song dynasty. Prior to the period spanning the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms China had fragmented into several dynasties and kingdoms governed by warlords, with each vying for control of a single empire. This scene of harmonious city life reflected the peace that common people enjoyed following reunification during the Song dynasty in the year 960, exhibited here in a subtle form of medieval propaganda showcasing the peaceful city life and bustling economy of the dynasty.
Though little is known about Zhang, he is thought to have been close to the imperial court in some way and may have been commissioned by the emperor to create this work. However, definite authorship remains to be determined.
Artists during this period often used the “ruled-line” painting technique to capture the man-made structures that define urban city life in incredibly realistic detail (the technique is not used on figures, but it is often used in figure paintings to portray the palaces, boats, bridges, garden architecture, etc.). The technique, jiehua 界畫, which alternatively could be translated as “boundary painting,” involved two elements: a ruler or compass and a line-brush, which were used together to create straight lines. The line-brush would be guided alongside the ruler to create straight lines of unvarying widths useful for depicting the architecture of palaces, gardens, and other man-made objects such as boats and chariots. It was initially looked down upon as a technique that stifled expression by so rigidly controlling the brush (in contrast with the expressive potential of calligraphy and ink painting), but it soon grew popular as a mode for depicting architecture and its wooden constructions with incredible precision and accuracy. This aesthetic was especially popular during the Song dynasty, a time when specific regulations applied to nearly every aspect of the visual world. Since the ruled-line technique could be used for any object that required attention to careful measurements and rules, artists soon began to use the technique for picturing everything from the inner workings of grain mills to palace festivities.
In light of the title (Along the River during Qingming orQingming shanghe tu 清明上河圖) and its vibrant scene of urban life, some scholars suggest that the scroll depicts the busy Qingming Festival—though this is far from certain. “Qingming Festival,” (literally “Pure Brightness Festival”) is a national holiday in China. Also known as “Tomb-Sweeping Day,” Qingming Festival is the fifteenth day after the Spring Equinox, a time when family members honor their ancestors by sweeping their graves. Ancestral worship has always been a major part of Chinese civilization, as seen in tombs that contain preparations for the journey into the afterlife. The holiday itself is mentioned in texts dating back as early as the Tang dynasty (618–907).  Regardless of whether the handscroll portrays an imagined vision of a twelfth-century Chinese city during Qingming Festival, or offers an historical record of contemporary life, it would have been viewed by scholars, officials, and others at the court as visual evidence of the emperor’s good governance. As in Fan Kuan’s Travelers Amid Streams and Mountains, the concept of a peaceful society relates to the Neo-Confucian order: the emperor is mandated by Heaven, with nature in harmony and all the subjects of the empire flourishing in their proper place. A bustling and harmonious city, like a peaceful and orderly landscape, suggests that the emperor is capably governing his people.
Marks of the time
Part of the allure of Along the River stems from its dramatic history. The painting was repeatedly stolen over time, and finally taken by the last emperor Puyi, the puppet ruler of the Japanese state of Manchukuo.
Copied as early as the 14th century, several versions of this handscroll exist today. Art historians believe that this one in Beijing is the original 12th-century work due to careful analysis of its style, materials (ink painting on the medium of silk), and seals that document its provenance. Copies and reproductions function as studies for later artists and as a method for preserving significant works. However, artists often updated the original, using features and styles specific to contemporary tastes.
A copy from the 18th century (below), the collaboration of several Qing dynasty court artists, depicts customs of the Ming and Qing dynasties. With many more figures attired in fashions of their time, and with abundant use of pastel hues on an even larger composition, there appears to be less of a focus on the lifestyle and economy of the Song capital than of the worldly tastes of the Qing dynasty (1644–1912). In the Qing version, elaborate ornamentation, well-dressed palace figures, and vibrant colors overshadow the common figures and detailed cityscape that characterize the earlier version.
Concluding the 37-foot handscroll, the Qing artists characterized the final section with elaborate palace gardens and architecture—an element not present in the earlier handscroll attributed to Zhang. In this way, copies can build on the original concept—to portray the flourishing economy and sophisticated urban life of the Song dynasty, for instance—and translate it into the visual terms of the present.
“The Pride of China”
Along the River (the original one) was exhibited amid much fanfare in Hong Kong in the summer of 2007 to commemorate the 10th anniversary of Hong Kong’s transfer from the United Kingdom (as a colony) to the People’s Republic of China. Titled, “The Pride of China,” the exhibition sent a message of cultural unity in Chinese identity politics, particularly directed toward politically peripheral areas of China. The painting continues to be an icon of Chinese nationality. Having been stolen several times throughout its history, and for portraying a glorious moment that followed a period of disunion, this painting attained cultural prestige as a symbol of national reunification.
In the 2010 World Expo in Shanghai, the scroll was remade into a computer-animated version thirty times its original size, with figures and objects moving through the scene as it shifted through day and night.
This animated version of the famous work sets aside the calculated restraint of the Song dynasty to celebrate China’s technological advances on a global stage. As its captivating features gave way to a long history of reproductions, one may wonder how artists would portray Along the River during Qingming Festival today?
 The holiday was only suppressed in 1949, when Mao Zedong and others of the Chinese Communist Party deemed ancestral worship to be superstitious and feudal. Coinciding with the highly publicized exhibition of Along the River in Hong Kong in 2007, the government reinstated Qingming Festival as a national holiday in 2008.
More on Rainbow Bridges from PBS