Excerpt from
“The Beijing Qingming Scroll and Its Significance for the Study of Chinese History”
by Valerie Hansen, Professor of History, Yale University

from the Journal of Sung-Yuan Studies, 1996 | Reprinted with permission | Read the full article online


... The scroll’s first shops are just opening for business…[depicting] the large- and small-scale enterprises so characteristic of the twelfth-century commercial revolution. ... An individual peddler adjusts his shirt before picking up his display rack loaded with small round items, possibly toys. We also see a long-distance grain boat, staffed by many laborers and directed by a seated merchant. Several centuries earlier, improved agricultural techniques, combined with new rice strains from Southeast Asia, had produced sufficient agricultural surplus so that some farmers could devote themselves part-time to growing cash crops or making handicrafts. Others continued to grow their own food. As the market economy developed, the people who pursued full-time occupations came to buy all of their foodstuff at the market.

By the time of the scroll, a complex network covered the entire empire, with some goods, like grain, salt, and luxury items, being traded across regions. As the market system expanded, merchants found coins, silver, and gold too cumbersome. Instead they used personal notes for financial transactions. Eventually these notes circulated so widely that they developed into the world’s first paper money, which the government took over at the beginning of the eleventh century. By 1100, China’s cities numbered among the world’s largest, and the population of its capital exceeded some five hundred thousand.

As the viewer unrolls the scroll, one sees the many pleasures cities offered: taverns, restaurants, stores, and, above all, lively crowds. The bridge scene, the undeniable high point of the scroll, appears just at its halfway point. It shows a bridge teeming with people coming and going, some pausing to buy a snack from its stalls, others peering below at the water traffic. A few of the stands on the bridge, like that for cakes on a table, are temporary, while those with roofs could not be dismantled as easily. Crowds gather on the bridge and on the near bank where they urge on the boatmen struggling to regain control of the ship whose tow-line has snapped. Other bystanders watch the action on the bridge itself, where a figure in a sedan-chair has a stand-off with a mounted rider who refuses to give way.

... Because the level of commercial activity remains equally high on both sides of the dilapidated city wall, one can barely detect the difference between the areas inside and outside the wall.

In this respect, twelfth-century Chinese cities differed markedly from earlier cities, which had been subject to strict government controls. Officials had carefully monitored markets, which opened only at noon, closed at sunset, and occupied designated sections of the city, always within the city wall. By the twelfth century, markets had burgeoned outside city walls, where they stayed open all day and night without government interference.

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