A great Song

China’s most famed painting

A great Song

Photographed by millions

The star attraction at the China Pavilion at this year’s Shanghai Expo was the animated version of The Riverside Scene at the Qingming Festival. The original was painted around 1100AD by Zhang Zeduan, onto a scroll 5.28 metres long but just 25cm wide.

However, the animated version – specially commissioned for the Expo – is much bigger in scale: more than 120 metres long and six metres high, in fact. Millions saw it in Shanghai, and it is now drawing sellout crowds in Hong Kong, where it is being exhibited for the first three weeks of November.

To try and imagine why it so fascinates the Chinese psyche, think of the Bayeux Tapestry. Or imagine if Canaletto had painted a depiction of Venice’s entire Grand Canal on an extraordinarily long canvas. It would feature all aspects of Venetian life, telling the story of a city in its heyday. It would have been of equal interest to historians and art lovers alike.

That is exactly the effect Zhang achieved with his own masterpiece, which captures daily life in the Song Dynasty. The scroll leads the viewer along the Bian River and through the capital of 11th century China, Bianjing (better known to many in the West as Kaifeng). Located in today’s Henan Province, Bianjing was then the world’s largest city, with a population of 700,000.

Zhang’s rich kaleidoscope begins in the suburbs, before passing through a market then strolling over a grand bridge and into the city proper – full of taverns, shops selling incense and, in a nice touch that speaks of Chinese tradeflows, a Silk Road procession of camels.

It is one of China’s most famous works of art, but for obvious reasons it’s hard to display (due to its age) and inaccessible to most. That’s why the Expo organisers caused such a stir by digitising it onto a much bigger scale, and even adding animation.

In doing so they’ve brought a static scene to life, literally. The panaroma of Bianjing now passes from morning till dusk, showing Zhang’s figures going about their daily life. A focal point is the bustling Rainbow Bridge. In one moment that appears to have captured the imagination, a little boy chases a pig across it.

In Hong Kong, tickets sold out quickly (they only cost HK$10, but have since been changing hands for ten times that).

The exhibit’s popularity perhaps says much about the rise of contemporary China. The scene depicts a city that, at the time, led the world in wealth and technology – implying the country’s current rise has its roots in a revival of an earlier state of affairs. The fact that computer animation skills have been able to bring this work of art into the 21st century also explains its mass appeal. For a generation of younger Chinese used to playing online games, the animated version looks uncannily familiar (which says something of how far ahead of his time Zhang really was). The result: an old masterpiece is transformed by technology and scale into a contemporary art installation that’s capable of entertaining huge numbers. And with the marriage of modern Chinese ingenuity – credit here goes to Yu Zheng of Crystal Digital Technology – and Zhang’s striking artistic accomplishment, it’s little wonder it’s kindled such a sense of national pride.

The question is whether it will be exhibited in other major cities. Isn’t this precisely the sort of thing to project the ‘soft power’ image that China so craves (possibly with more success than the ping-pong university, mentioned in issue 83)? WiC believes so and thinks the animated Riverside Scene at Qingming Festival deserves to be seen much further afield.

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