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Pieces of China, Scholar Alfreda Murck, 6.18.20

Pieces of China, Scholar Alfreda Murck, 6.18.20
Pieces of China is an online series using objects to tell the story of China.

In our fourth episode, we discover the secret jokes hidden in Along the River During the Qingming Festival, (清明上河圖), a panoramic Song dynasty hand scroll that captures the daily life of people in the Song capital of Bianjing汴京, today’s Kaifeng 开封 in Henan 河南. It is the most celebrated painting in Chinese history.

According to scholar Alfreda Murck, the scroll is filled with hidden stories. The detailed scroll shows rich merchants, poor peasants, and everything between. Journey along the river with Murck and see Song society come to life.


Selected Quotes from the Program:

This is such a great painting — it is a masterpiece of genre art. It’s a really historical document of architecture, and clothing, and technology. It’s painted in ink and light color on silk. It is brilliant in terms of composition, draftsmanship, spatial manipulation, and the depiction of human interactions.

The painting has a tripart composition, with each section having an important motif — the government pollarded willows that are a sign of good government, the rainbow bridge, which was pretty new at that time, and the city gate. So we go from the countryside, to the suburb, and then the city. Many people date it to the early 12th century but in fact stylistically, it fits much more into the second half of the eleventh century.

(The painting) is only 10 inches high – not even! And seventeen feet long!

The painting opens with a train of donkeys coming into the city hauling charcoal. Soon we come to a farmyard, where the morning is still misty and there is very little activity. Now all of a sudden we are at the middle and you have these pollarded willows planted by the imperial command to stabilize the banks of the canal. They represent good government because (the government) insisted they be planted and pollarded regularly.

…Here we have a drama unfolding with a beast of some sort, maybe a horse. He is charging down the road. One of the wonderful things about this painting, is that the artist has shown reactions to the events (taking place).

Now we come to the Bian canal and … we have a boat that is being towed upstream. Here are the trackers, five of them pulling upstream. …Meanwhile on the top of the bridge, another drama is unfolding as a fancy sedan chair is being carried up and people clearing the way. From the opposite direction, there are two gentlemen of very high distinction on horses, and they also have guys clearing the way. Are they going to be able to pass without incident? Not clear!

…And there is Dr. Zhao’s surgery, where a woman has brought a child. She looks a little dubious, very concerned… To the left is a sign that indicates that this shop has cures for hangovers.

The painting is a treasure trove of interesting details and has been studied a lot by social historians.

The painting’s provenance is so storied and conflicted because people loved this scroll. At one point, it was in the Imperial collection, then it’s stolen by an official mounter. It’s sold then repeatedly. It moves from private collector to private collector. At the end of the Ming dynasty, another family owns it, and then the evil prime minister Yan Song owned it and when his family was brought down, it was confiscated by the court. But it was stolen again, and left the court. Then it was owned by the Wang family, and when they were brought down, the court confiscated their art. In the Ming Dynasty it left the court — it’s not recorded in (Emperor) Qian Long’s catalogues until the next century.

We know it was in the Bi family, we know that from the seals. Then that family meets its demise, and in 1798, it is confiscated again and put into the Imperial collection where it stays until 1925. Then Pu Yi, (the last emperor), carried it out to Manchuria until (it was discovered) in 1945 in his possessions. After that, it is in the Liaoning provincial museum, and then Beijing says, we would like to study it to see if it really is a Northern Song painting. It goes to Beijing in the early 50’s and of course never returned. After the Gang of Four was arrested, it was found in the basement of Yao Wenyuan, one of the Gang of Four! It’s definitely an entertaining painting, and it is great art. It really is an amazing painting.

If you want to see this painting in person, you can fly to Beijing next time it is exhibited and stand in line for perhaps 8 hours and shuffle by this 17 foot painting. Never with enough time to enjoy every detail. OR you can go to scrolls.uchicago.edu and look to your heart’s content!

Full Video of Pieces of China with Alfreda Murck


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