Up the River of Time: Qingming Shanghe as Painting Tradition

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Very likely the most famous Chinese painting in the world and a household name in China, Qingming shanghe (Up the River during Qingming), a late Northern Song handscroll attributed to Zhang Zeduan, had already gained a reputation as a legendary artwork in the late Ming period (ca. 1550s-1644). One manifestation of such was the emergence of a huge number of paintings assuming the same title that were produced from the second half of the sixteenth century throughout the High Qing period (ca. 1680s-1795). At the same time, these paintings with the title of Qingming shanghe formed one of the most discussed topics related to art in Ming-Qing China.

The old model of studying a painting and its so-called derivatives is to treat the painting as the original and see its influence upon later ones. My book project, instead, takes Qingming shanghe as a painting theme popular in early modern China, discusses the complicated relationship between the first known version and later ones, and then tackles issues that arise from the linkages between these paintings. In the process, two clusters of issues are involved. First, the book is about the formation of a theme and thematic transmission that demonstrates one way of understanding the Chinese painting tradition. As such, this book examines the long-term development of Chinese painting by means of theme and linked elements, such as brushwork, subject matter and iconographical details, that created a tradition over time. Second, the book investigates the historical contexts in which the theme of Qingming shanghe became viable and flourished. It delves into the “Qingming shanghe” phenomenon that became integral to the rise of city views in the late Ming, to the mass production of fake paintings in the early modern period, and to the establishment of benchmarks for Qing dynasty (1644-1911) court painting. It also examines the cultural resonances associated with the theme that made it popular and historically meaningful.

The book takes the Northern Song version as a starting point but does not treat it as a classical work that emanates all of the associated meanings about the theme. It deals with the dating and possible original meaning of this painting and its afterlife in the period from the twelfth century to the High Qing period, but it does not make the “biography” of the painting as the only storyline, as some other authors do when dealing with a classic painting. Rather, it is a story about how one painting became a painting theme--from one to many; how a primordial version was linked to later ones; and how a painting tradition was established and transformed with codified and reinterpreted formal features and cultural resonances. Qingming shanghe as a painting theme provides a valuable case in the study of Chinese art to discuss not only how one painting went through history and was re-imagined at different historical moments, but also how thematic transmission sheds light on what we know about the Chinese painting tradition. In a nutshell, the important question asked is how a painting, originally as a material object existing somewhere in a collection, entered the cultural realm and was associated with clusters of notions and imageries.


Cheng-hua Wang, a specialist in Chinese painting and visual culture, joined the Department of Art and Archaeology at Princeton University in 2016 as an associate professor. She was previously Associate Research Fellow at the Institute of Modern History, Academia Sinica, Taipei. Wang has published widely in both Chinese and English. Her English-language publications appear in the journals Archives of Asian Art, The Art Bulletin, Artibus Asiae, and Nan Nü: Men, Women, and Gender in Early and Imperial China. She has also contributed to a number of edited volumes including Handbook of the Colour Print in China 1600- 1800, Reinventing the Past: Antiquarianism in East Asian Art and Visual Culture, and The Role of Japan in Modern Chinese Art. She is currently working on two book projects. The first focuses on the painting theme Qingming shanghe (Up the River during Qingming), tackling issues regarding the construction of a painting history through thematic links, the complicated relationship between a primordial artwork and its later derivatives, and the rise of city views in late sixteenth-century China. The second investigates the city views and landscape painting of eighteenth-century China.

Sponsor(s): Center for Chinese Studies