Variation on the Qingming shanghe tu
Anna Deavere Smith: Take your time to study the details in this epic painting. It traces a winding river across fertile landscapes and through a prosperous city. Many sections show the townspeople abuzz with activity. When fully unrolled, the silk scroll stretches for nearly 17 feet. Because of its age and delicate materials, though, we can keep it on display only if we show a portion at a time, to limit its exposure to light.
This exquisite scroll was probably painted in the Chinese city of Suzhou, in the 17th or 18th century. But when the Library acquired the work in 1940, it received little attention. It was catalogued simply as a “copy” of the Qingming shanghe tu—the most famous painting in China’s history. The original Qingming scroll dates to the late 11th or early 12th century. And it was assumed that this “copy”—and others like it—were mere duplicates, facsimiles unworthy of close examination or scholarly study.
But researchers now see these so-called copies as significant works of art in their own right—creative reinterpretations of the original’s essential structure and themes. While retaining certain elements, like bridges and city walls, each variation also introduces changes that reflect the time period in which that iteration was made. For example, this scroll—painted 600 years after the original—updates the city’s infrastructure, replacing a central wooden bridge with a stone structure more typical of 17th-century Suzhou.
As for the sprawling city itself depicted here, we don't quite know what it represents. Maybe it's a real location—or, as some scholars believe, an imaginary scene of an idealized prosperous city, inspired by the flourishing urban life of Suzhou itself.
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We gratefully acknowledge the editorial guidance of Dr. Susan Su-Chen Chang, Dr. Timothy Brook of the University of British Columbia, and Dr. Einor Cervone of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
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