The Song Dynasty in China | Asia for Educators

China in 1000 CE

The Most Advanced Society in the World

Two Versions of the Scroll

The Beijing Scroll - Song Dynasty

... In 1954 Chinese scholars announced the discovery of a previously unknown scroll in the Beijing Palace Museum, where it had been returned from Manchuria after World War II. It was entitled Qingming shanghe tu 清明上河圖. Most scholars now accept this as the earliest extant version of the scroll ... and date it to the twelfth century.

This scroll, which appears above and throughout this teaching module is often referred to as the “Beijing Qingming scroll” because it is in the collection of the Palace Museum in Beijing. Painted during the Song dynasty by the artist Zhang Zeduan, this scroll is believed to be the earliest extant version of the famous Qingming shanghe tu 清明上河圖 (see 'Translations of the Qingming shanghe tu' for more about the translation of this title), of which there are many versions. Widely considered to be China’s best-known painting (it has even been called “China’s Mona Lisa”), this rarely displayed 12th-century scroll was briefly on view in Hong Kong in July 2007.

Later Copies and variations: One from the Qing Dynasty, 1736

Copies and variations of Zhang Zeduan’s qingming scroll abounded in later dynasties. Copying the works of renowned old masters has a long history in traditional Chinese painting as a legitimate art form, with outstanding copies of earlier works being treasured and revered, and even becoming famous in their own right. In copying these earlier works, artists sometimes revised scenes and added details relevant to their own times, even while following the basic composition of the original. A well-known example of such a copy of the Song scroll is a Qing-dynasty version in the collection of the National Palace Museum in Taipei. Completed in 1736 and representing a collaboration of five court painters of the imperial painting academy under the Qianlong Emperor (r. 1736-1795), this copy is easily distinguished from the Song original by its brilliant colors and depiction of urban life and customs that are specific to Ming and Qing times.  [Examine this colorful 1736 version of the "Spring Festival on the River" scroll on the site of the Taipei NPM's site where there is both a slow video of the scroll or a version which you can click through.]

The Song-dynasty Qingming Scroll

Bridge Scene, Qingming shanghe tu, Song dynasty, 12th century, Zhang Zeduan The Palace Museum, Beijing

Bridge Scene, Qingming shanghe tu, Qing dynasty, 1736 Court painters of the imperial painting academy

Note: 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