Emperor Song Huizong's Ideal in Qingming Shanghe Tu:

A Confucian Society with Proper Gender Interaction

Amica O. Yeung

Faculty Mentor: Professor Patricia Berger



The 12th century Beijing handscroll Qingming Shanghe Tu (Spring Festival on the River) [Fig. 1, detail 1] is generally believed to have been painted during the Northern Song dynasty (c.a. 9071127) by the imperial court painter Zhang Zeduan. The Qingming scroll, highly celebrated ever since its creation, has been admired for its realistic artistic style and historical detail, and has been the subject of numerous studies throughout its long history. The emperors of the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing dynasties (16441911) especially admired the scroll, and commissioned artists to copy its style and composition.

However, the exact origins of the Qingming scroll and the intentions of its creator have remained subjects of debate. Soon after the creation of the Qingming scroll, the Northern Song dynasty was invaded and overthrown by the Jin, a nomadic tribe. In the surviving historical record, the most nearly contemporaneous account of the Qingming scroll and its presumed creator, Zhang Zeduan, was written in 1186 by Zhang Zhu, the imperial court curator of the conquering Jin (Johnson 147). Considering the tumultuous end of the Song dynasty, and the scarcity of surviving records from that time, historians, art critics, and connoisseurs have since argued about the identity of the Qingming scroll's creator, the date and location of origin, the intended meaning of the work, and even whether or not the scroll is authentic.

Figure 1, Detail 1

Critical Views on Origin and Intentionality of the Qingming Scroll

The Qingming scroll terminates in an abrupt manner that is out of character with the compositional style of the rest of the scroll, leading scholars to suspect that the final section of the original scroll has been lost. Because later copies of the Qingming scroll painted during the Ming and Qing dynasties all conclude with a scene of the imperial palace, many scholars think it likely that the original Qingming scroll also concluded with an imperial palace scene. If this were proven to be the case, that would strengthen the claim that the Qingming scroll was a work commissioned by the imperial court.

In a recent study, art historian Valerie Hansen argues that the Qingming scroll does not specifically depict the Qingming festival, nor Dongjing, the Northern Song capital city then known as Bian (960 to 1127). Hansen claims that there is no festival sign nor any landmark that specifically identifies the city of Dongjing, which is now the present-day city of Kaifeng (Hansen, Mystery 196). Hansen believes that the scroll may not have been an imperially commissioned work, as is generally assumed, but rather an independent work expressing Zhang Zeduan's personal, idealized vision of the city (Hansen, Mystery 192). She states her findings after comparing the harmonious scenes depicted in the scroll, with the content of a memoir, Dongjing Meng Hua Lu (Record of the Eastern Capital), written in 1147 by Meng Yuanlao, who formerly resided in the lost capital city, Dongjing (Hansen, Mystery 192). Hansen speculates that the scroll was painted after the fall of Dongjing in 1125 (Hansen, Significance 5), and that the painter, witness to the fall of the capital, was expressing nostalgia for the city's past glory, while perhaps also intending criticism of the Emperor Huizong, a political failure who presided during the collapse of the dynasty (Hansen, Significance 190).

Another researcher, historian Linda Cooke Johnson, also used Meng Yuanlao’s Dongjing Men Hua Lu as a primary resource in her study of the scroll, arriving at a different conclusion than Hansen. Johnson used a few maps of the old Northern Song capital city, Dongjing and a diagram drawn from landmarks mentioned in Dongjing Men Hua Lu (such as gates, a bridge, and the river system), comparing these records to the depiction of landmarks in the Qingming scroll. Johnson concluded that the scroll is indeed a portrayal of Dongjing prior to the Jin invasion in 1125, accurately depicting all the important city landmarks of the time (Johnson 180).

Another art historian, Julia Murray, recently published research supporting her view that the choice of subject matter in the Qingming scroll strongly suggests the influence of Emperor Huizong as commissioning patron (Murray 103104). The Qingming scroll is a handscroll with a size of 25.5 centimeters in height and 5.25 meters long, executed in ink and some color made of mineral pigments on silk, which is traditional medium for Eastern Asian painting (Chinese, Korean, and Japanese). The size of the work, the high quality of silk, highly skillful technique of illustration, and the careful study of details convince Murray that the Qingming scroll was a court commission assigned by Emperor Huizong, an artist in his own right, well-known as a patron and promoter of arts in the realistic style of the Qingming scroll.




Identity of the Artist

It is generally believed that the Qingming scroll was painted by the imperial court artist, Zhang Zeduan, who was a member of the Hanlin Academy. The Hanlin Academy was an art academy established in the imperial court to train artists. The court conferred official titles to the artists of the academy, who received professional training and produced art works commissioned by the emperor. During the reign of Huizong, members of the Hanlin Academy were expected to paint commissioned assignments precisely as directed by Huizong himself (Sturman 37). The 12th-century art critic Deng Chun wrote that if a painter failed to follow instructions, he could be accused of being "not in accordance with the ruler," and as a consequence would not be promoted to any higher position (Bush and Shih, 135-136). A work created by a Hanlin Academy member would strongly reflect the artistic taste and preferences of the commissioning patron. Thus, if the Qingming scroll was in fact commissioned by the imperial court, the subject matter and style of presentation would assuredly have been heavily influenced by the then ruling emperor, Huizong.

The Character and Influence of Emperor Huizong

Huizong is known in Chinese history as an emperor who was also an artist, who loved art, calligraphy, and rituals more than politics (Barnhart, 1997, 122). Huizong’s own paintings (for an example, see Fig. 2: Huizong, Cranes Above Kaifeng, hanging scroll, 1112) exhibit concentrated attention to details and proportion based on close observation of subject matter; yet his paintings are also highly poetic and ideological in composition. Huizong encouraged artists to learn directly from nature through close observation, rather than to learn by imitating their predecessors (Cahill 74).

Figure 2

During Huizong’s reign (1100 to 1125) as the last emperor of the Northern Song dynasty, the empire suffered foreign invasion and was forced to accept humiliating political compromises. Huizong's response to this declining power and prestige of the empire was to focus on artistic projects in an attempt to create a visual illusion of ruiying ("auspicious responses") to his reign and to symbolically refer to himself as an "enlightened ruler of [heaven's] son" (Sturman 34). These ruiying painting are usually highly realistic in style and yet are also highly ideological in content. Huizong decreed numerous public festivals intended to promote an illusion of joy and social harmony, and commissioned thousands of paintings of auspicious signs to assert that heaven’s favor was upon him (Sturman 36). Huizong’s own painting, Cranes Above Kaifeng [Fig. 2] is an example of such a painting. The Qingming scroll is a painting in the ruiying category, intended as an auspicious sign proclaiming Huizong as a virtuous ruler.

Huizong’s love of realistic detail coresponded to a cultural preference for close observation and mimicry that was characteristic of the Northern Song culture in Huizong’s time. A typical manifestation of this interest was the enthusiasm for culinary dishes that looked and tasted like meat but were made entirely from vegetables (West 100).


Realistic Detail and Social Ideology

Zhang painted the Qingming scroll with a high degree of realistic detail, which certainly would have appealed to the known artistic preferences of Zhang's presumed patron, Emperor Huizong. The realistic visual detail lends the weight of reality to the painting content. This is a paradox of art, because the imagery of the Qingming scroll is presumably a highly idealized vision of the society, and to that degree is inherently artificial. Whether or not the Qingming scroll was painted with the conscious intention of appealing to the Emperor Huizong's aesthetic and ideological preferences, the realistic detail applied did result in a painting that would have fulfilled Huizong's criteria for commendable official art.

Subject Content and Composition

When the Qingming scroll is rolled open from right to left, it is like a silent movie that transports the viewer deep into the city. The presentation begins in the countryside early in the morning and gradually proceeds to the heart of the capital city by late afternoon. The majority of the surface is filled with people engaging in various commercial and social activities such as shopping, working, dining out, or simply mingling with family and friends. The scroll displays common gatherings in public spaces, all conveying a sense of social prosperity, effectively implying that this prosperity derives from the beneficent rule of a brilliant, ethical, and morally virtuous emperor.

The Qingming scroll follows the course of the city's main waterway, the Grand Canal. None of the dwellings portrayed provide any glimpse into their interiors. This visual composition of the scroll entirely as an externally viewed outdoor scene without any view of domestic interiors appears to have been a conscious choice in accord with Confucian respect for the privacy of home and family.

Visual Perspective Implies Social Code

In a commentary Huizong composed about a Five Dynasties scroll attributed to the 9th-century artist Gu Hongzong (a painting Huizong had in his own collection), Huizong strongly condemned spying on or otherwise intruding into private lives. The painting in question, titled Night Entertainment of Han Xizai [Fig. 3] is a handscroll portraying the private life of Han Xizai, a minister in the court of Li , the last emperor of the Southern Tang dynasty, who reigned from 923 to 936. This scroll, apparently commissioned by the emperor for his own amusement, portrays Han Xizai and his house guests engaging in improper physical relations with singing girls, violating the social code for acceptable conduct between the genders. Instead of commenting on the improper moral behavior of Han Xizai, as did many earlier and later commentators on the scroll, Huizong decried the offense of invading someone's private life, as Emperor Li had done by commissioning this scroll. Huizong wrote,

Isn't it an outrage for Li to have peeped into his subject's private and disreputable life? . . . For a ruler to become interested in his minister's private life is already an error; it is even worse to have it painted and leave the painting to the world–it would have been better to throw it away immediately after viewing it! (Wu 43).


Figure 3

Although he suggested that one should "throw it away immediately after viewing it," Huizong was well aware that the viewer would already have captured the image in his mind and could not "throw it away." Obviously, Huizong did not "throw away" the scroll. He cataloged it and placed it in his imperial art collection, ensuring that it would have future viewers, as it has for the ensuing eight centuries. Nonetheless, Huizong made clear his sense of ethical outrage.

The difference in social values objectified in Night Entertainment contrasted with Qingming Shanghe Tu is reflected in compositional design as well as in choice of subject matter. In the Night Entertainment, there are no obstacles limiting visual access to any area of the painting. The screens behind the figures in the painting are room dividers, a decorative furnishing feature common in traditional Chinese homes. These screen dividers serve to mark separate scenes in the continuous visual narration, and denote transitions to more intimate settings. In comparison, the artist of the Qingming scroll purposely closed off all possible sight lines into private households [see Fig. 1, detail 2]. The fact that there is not a single household interior scene in the entire scroll suggests that this omission was deliberate, reflecting the artist’s intention to avoid violating conventions of personal privacy. The painting as a whole, however, is presented from a bird's-eye perspective along unobstructed lines of sight, affording viewers

Figure 1, Detail 2

complete visual access to the commoners' public lives as seen from the air above. Viewers may figuratively wander into the households on view–especially into those with doors ajar [see Fig. 1, detail 3] –but only with their imaginations, not with their eyes. Indeed, in his recent book, Double Screen: Medium and Representation in Chinese Painting, art historian Wu Hung states that distance is essential for successful observation, and for voyeurism as well (Wu, 1996, 68-69). This unobstructed aerial perspective gives a viewer unlimited power to gaze at the figures in the scroll, who are portrayed as unaware that they are being observed. All actions captured in the painting are the visual possession of the viewer, who thus becomes powerful over the imagery (Wu, 1996, 68-69).

Figure 1, Detail 3

Figures in Appropriate Confucian Class Interaction

In the Qingming Scroll, people of various social strata are on the street –the rich and the commoners, officials and merchants–interacting with each other peacefully and in accordance with Confucian social propriety. Confucius had written 1,500 years earlier that the "superior" man does what is proper to do: "In a position of wealth and honor he does what is proper to a position of wealth and honor; in a poor and low position, he does what is proper to a poor and low position" (Confucius, 104). In other words, Confucius advocated class conformity and opposed the crossing of class lines. Zhang the artist depicted his figures behaving in ways appropriate to their class. For example, most members of the common class are portrayed as having only indirect interactions, if any, with members of the upper class. Rich merchants–invariably men–are shown sitting on the sidelines quietly supervising male laborers without addressing them in any conversation. All of their instructional communications to the laborers are conveyed at a distance, by gesture only [see Fig. 1, detail 4].

Figure 1, Detail 4



Women Largely Excluded from General Society

Similarly, the Qingming scroll depicts very few interactions between the sexes. Although the scenes suggest that the heart of the city was a lively attraction of commercial activity where people could come to trade freely and safely, there are very few women present in the painting The Qingming scroll depicts the prosperity of a Song capital city dominated by men. Of the 500 human subjects portrayed in the painting, only about 20 are women. This near absence of women from the painting raises questions concerning social conventions of the time, and of intentionally on the part of the artist and the art patron (if any). With carefully selected pictorial elements, the Qingming scroll suggests an idealized image of proper gender relationships in the city of Dongjing, under the rule of Emperor Huizong. This unequal distribution of gender is an indication that femininity, at least in the public sphere, was suppressed in Confucian culture. Commercial activity appears to be almost exclusively a male prerogative.

In China during the Song dynasty, men and women were strongly differentiated and segregated, in accord with the Confucian belief that this segregation was essential to the maintenance of a peaceful empire (Ebrey 24). Without segregation, Confucius wrote, "disorder would arise and grow" (Confucius 133). Men and women were not allowed to have physical contact or to express themselves emotionally to each other. Providing examples of acceptable social conduct, Confucius wrote:

Thus men and women, in giving and receiving, allow not their hands to touch; in driving even with his wife in his carriage, a husband holds forth his left hand; when a young aunt, a sister, or a daughter is wed and returns to her father’s house, no male relative should sit with her upon the mat (Confucius 134).

According to historian Patricia Ebrey, artists of the Song period were primarily well-educated gentlemen who knew the classics, such as Confucius and Mencius, and were far more aware of gender segregation then the commoners in their society. Gender segregation defined class distinction. In an ideal upper class, women would remain indoors absolutely (Ebrey, 1993). By depicting very few women in the publicly visible sphere of society, the artist of the Qingming Shanghe Tu was respecting the conventional virtues of society and fulfilling the expectations of the commissioning patron.

Figure 4

The Proper Role of Women in Confucian Society

Women were expected to remain confined indoors at home serving their husbands and taking care of the family home (Ebrey, 25). The role of women as homemakers subservient to their husbands had been established in Chinese culture long before the Song dynasty. Paintings from earlier historical periods often presented women in the company of their husbands [see Fig. 4: attributed to Yan Liben, The Imperial Sedan Chair, handscroll, 7th century] or simply showing off their beauty [see Fig. 5: Zhou Fang, Palace Ladies with Flower Head-Dresses, handscroll, 8th century, detail]. The only men that married women were allowed to have personal contact with were their husbands. Women were strongly encouraged to stay indoors all the time so that they would avoid contact with nonfamily members, especially with other men (Ebrey 25). Thus, women rarely interacted with men other than their husbands and other male members of the immediate family.

Figure 5

During the Song dynasty, there was an increased social expectation that women would display their virtue physically. In this period, women (especially those of the upper class) were expected to bind their feet, a painful practice that was intended to emphasize womens' physical delicacy (Ebrey 37). Footbinding restrained women's movements, providing their husbands assurance that their wives would most likely stay put at home and not venture out. Bound feet in effect served the same function as a chastity belt. The softness and languidness of women, emphasized by the physical limitations imposed by footbinding, provided men a sense of superior strength and mastery over their feminine and vulnerable subjects (Ebrey 41). A woman's willingness to physically restrain herself from contact with the seductive outside world was considered evidence of her virginity and virtue.

In contrast to the tightly restricted relations between adult men and women, Song society allowed unrestricted contact between women and children. Women and children together are the essence of the Confucian ideal of family harmony and security. Confucius admired the relationship between mother and child:

A happy union with wife and children is like the music of lutes and harps! When there is concord among brethren, the harmony is delightful and enduring. Thus may you regulate your family and enjoy and delights of wife and children (Mencius 1139).

Accordingly, children are prominently portrayed in the Qingming scroll. Women in their nurturing, motherly role are shown playing with, holding, or simply being next to children.

Where the legitimate needs of their children were concerned, women were sanctioned to interact with men. Such interaction between men and women is represented in the scroll as occurring with as minimal a degree of interaction is possible. For example, the woman depicted in [Fig. 1, detail 5], who appears to be buying a product for the child alongside her, does not pause or linger, but remains in motion throughout the transaction, thereby maintaining relational distance between herself and the male vendor to preserve their mutual propriety.

Figure 1, Detail 5

Although women were subservient to men in Song society, the social status of men was directly related to their relations with women. As Ebrey notes, a man required the presence of a number of female attendants to show off his political and material power:

This is, of course, as much a construction of masculinity as of femininity: A successful man has women to attend to him. Attending to men may well have been an aesthetically appealing image for many women too. Rewarded for pleasing men with their appearance and their service, such women probably found it gratifying to know that important men enjoyed the sight of them and wanted them around (Ebrey 32).

Women (and their parents) understood this invisible power that women held. Women attended to their physical appearance to attract the interest of a powerful man, hoping to enter one of the great houses by marriage. Even after they were married, however, women were expected to maintain themselves in a manner attractive to their husbands, and so women remained concerned about distinguishing themselves from other wives and concubines. This competition among women is revealed in an interlude of a Song play, the Chenghua version of Baituji (The Story of a White Hare), which tells how Liu Zhiyuan, emperor of the latter Han empire (reigned 947948) rose to power. The wife of the play’s main character, Hongzhao, says:

I've been born with a face as white as limeash, and I love to make it up for every single season of the year. I certainly do surpass Missy Li, and am far better than Little Lady Liu! From time to time those little studs stand by the door or pass back and forth, stroking me with their eyes (Act 2, Baituji. Rec. in West, pp. 81)

Women (those who could afford it) accentuated their appearance by applying makeup and wearing fancy coiffures and clothing. A woman was likely to be socially successful on the basis of her beauty, service, and chastity. An artist executing work commissioned by an emperor would have been obligated to portray women in accord with these standards, even if the women were only indirectly depicted.

Visual Representations of Social Standing

In the Qingming scroll, there is not a single occurrence of a man being accompanied by a woman. Zhang Zeduan has portrayed his common class male citizens as being without female companions, signifying their lack of social status and power. This is in contrast to the portrayal of the emperor, shown in the company of numerous female attendants, as any emperor traditionally would be (see Fig. 4). This is one example of how the painter of the Qingming scroll pictorially depicts the subservience of the commoners to the emperor. By their own lack of any visual display of power, these common men without women reflect glory on the emperor, who is surrounded by women.

Zhang Zeduan, as an artist commissioned by Emperor Huizong to create the Qingming scroll, would have been keenly aware that his painting would be interpreted as a reflection of the emperor's character and prestige. Zhang Zeduan would therefore have had powerful incentive to select details depicting gender roles and relationships that would reflect virtue upon his emperor patron. These suppositions are consistent with the artistic choices made in the depiction of women in the Qingming scroll. By excluding women from closely observed public view, the artist was upholding the social conventions of Confucian society that relegated women to private seclusion as the exclusive, intimate possessions of their husbands.


The Qingming Shanghe Tu presents an idealized view of a commercial city, most probably the Northern Song capital city of Dongjing, probably in the early 12th century during the reign of Emperor Huizong. The society depicted is one governed by Confucian social and moral precepts; accordingly, in the public sphere, men and women are almost entirely segregated. To reflect the Confucian consciousness of his patron, the artist Zhang Zeduan has refrained from any depiction of private life, and has carefully selected elements of street life, and limiting gender interaction to superficial commercial transactions. The public orientation of the visual perspective, and the sexual segregation of human subjects, would have served to promote Confucian social codes among contemporary viewers of the painting (who would have been primarily upper-class male associates of the emperor). Because the painting avoids any depiction of men engaging in public social contact with women other than their wives, and preserves the privacy of personal life by respectfully not depicting it, contemporary male viewers of the painting would encounter nothing to engage them imaginatively with women other than their wives. Viewing the Qingming scroll, they could identify themselves morally as well as visually with the perspective of the "virtuous" ruler and patron, Emperor Huizong.


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