When fair weather finally broke winter’s hold on the Yellow River valley, a whole great civilization went on holiday and a Sung dynasty painter recorded every detail…
The Chinese scroll painting known as Ch’ing Ming Shang Ho, or Spring Festival on the River, is surely one of the most remarkable documentary pictures ever painted. Because of it, we know more about the life and look of twelfth-century China than of most other medieval societies: how a twelfth-century Chinese quacksalver peddled his herbs and medicines on a suburban road, and what a Chinese restaurant looked like back then. Its almost thirty-three feet long and about eleven inches high; n some respects its the Chinese equivalent of the European miniatures of say a Hans Memling. That kind of intricate detail.
Spring Festival on the River does not merely record a festivity; it encompasses, with an encyclopedist’s passion for detail, nothing less than an entire civilization as it looked nine centuries ago on its annual springtime spree. It is a painting to amble through, from right to left, in the Chinese manner, following the route of the holidaymaker and taking in the sights, that they too, went to see.
The scroll is a Ming dynasty version of a lost original commissioned around 1120 by the Sung emperor Hui Tsung, a ruler chiefly remembered for an act of monumental folly: in one year 1126, he lost half his empire to northern barbarians by stupidly provoking them into invading his realm. Still, Hui Tsung, a lover of the arts, did commission the artist Chang Tse-tuan to paint Spring Festival, for which we can be grateful.
An occasion for universal rejoicing, Ch’ing Ming falls on the 106 th day after the winter solstice, which is about the time the baseball season begins. Its a short-lived spring. On the day of the festival, all China takes a holiday, except for those who must labor while others make merry: the keepers of shops, food suppliers, peddlers, hucksters, and mummers who dare not remain idle while millions of their countrymen congregated with a gleam of pleasure in their eyes and a few extra coins in their pockets.
It is with this latter aspect of the festival that the painting of the Ch’ing Ming on which we are at work is concerned. In fact, in the picture itself there is no hint at all of the purpose of the festival-no tombs, no mounds, no willow wands, no paper prayers; that part must be taken for granted as a ceremony completed, so that the observer may give full attention to the worldly business of the day….be mistaken for an accurate panorama of either the city or the river. But, on the other hand, in its myriad detail it gives a very accurate picture of the life and city of its period, and this is true also of later copies, which, though they may slip into anachronistic detail here and there, on the whole follow the original closely. In this seeming contradiction-it is not accurate; it is very accurate-lies one of the fundamental concepts of Chinese painting, the spirit, or ch’i, so well described in George Rowley’s Principles of Chinese Painting. Take, for instance, the palace scenes: they are not exact as an architect’s drawing pretends to be, but they look far more like the real thing than any such drawing or a photograph. This is what is meant by ch’i-the very breath and soul of a thing. Our Western critics get a dusty inkling of the idea when they speak lightly of a “spirited” sketch….
…It is the amazing content of this work which is its chief interest. The artist has made, in a single scroll, an extraordinarily complete pictorial record of life in medieval China. The historian with all available data at hand, if he wishes to make a picture of a particular time, must reconstruct it from fragments of pictures and bits of written description. In this instance -and so far as I know the work has no parallel in the pictorial records of other civilizations almost everything that the historian wants to see is here. Here, first of all, are the people of China as they have lived for many centuries and much as they were still living at the beginning of the twentieth century. Life in China as late as 1935 had so much that was like what one sees in this picture that one knows that most of the details are true and believes in the rest. Read More:http://www.metmuseum.org/publications/bulletins/1/pdf/3258128.pdf.bannered.pdf