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Scroll through this treasure trove of Chinese history

A Chinese treasure, the “Qingming Shan He Tu” or “Scenes along the River during the Qingming Festival” scroll, can now be seen by all.

The Better Link Press’ book reproduction gives those with an interest in Chinese history a chance to enjoy this work of art now kept safely in the Palace Museum in Beijing.

The scroll looks back almost a thousand years ago to the then-capital of China, the sophisticated city of Bianjing (now Kaifeng in central China). The occasion is the Qingming Festival, a spring holiday when the Chinese visit to tend their ancestors’ graves.

The ink drawings are a day in the life of Bianjing from its outskirts to the heart of the city. It starts on the banks of the river, enters the town, and ends with the watchtower. You’d have to squint at the original to see all this detail, if you got a chance to see the scroll at all. This book is a delight.

The artist and author Zhang Zeduan was a court painter for Emperor Huizong of the Song dynasty, in the early 1100s, roughly around time of Second Crusade in the West.

In “Scenes along the River during the Qingming Festival” by Zhang Zeuan, the author has reproduced the 16-foot scroll in a unique fashion. The pages of “Scenes” unfold like a scroll. Readers lift out the first page and find that it’s one long sheet of paper, a continuous story.

Below the reproduction of the scroll are clarifying footnotes. For example, on one page there is a stone boat, a woman on horseback, and a restaurant. Below the picture is the explanation: “The restaurant is located right on the river, with a balcony supported by posts overhanging the water. Tables and benches are set up on the balcony. The balcony not only expands the business area but is also handy for customers on boats and has the added benefit of a view. At the entrance of the restaurant to attract customers an employee is putting up color flags and banners with a bamboo post.”

The exquisitely drawn town bustles with commerce with numerous restaurants, shops where banners proclaim their use — herb shop, carpenters — and a huge gate tower. Boats ply their trade up and down the river carrying goods. Children peep over walls at neighboring courtyards. A man sells sugar cane to a woman with a child. There are roughly 500 people drawn laughing, eating, offering advice to the boatmen.

The book reproduces the scroll’s end pages replete with “chops” or seals of the various owners, including the last emperor of China, Pu-yi.

There are comments from a thousand years of owners. Poets from the Jin Dynasty (1115 to 1234 A.D.) onward comment on the vibrancy of the painting of the lost capital — “The once bustling city is now reduced to rubble in war and strife” — and deplore its loss.

The most glaring mistake the publisher has made is the lack of a date chart of the Chinese dynasties for those who are unfamiliar with them. It should have been included at the front.

While this book may have a limited audience, it’s a rich treasure trove for anyone interested in Chinese art and history.


“Qingming Shang He Tu or Scenes along the River during the Qingming Festival” by Zhang Zeduan; Better Link Press, Shanghai / Tuttle Publishing, VT (52 pages, $55)


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