The Project


The digitization of the Chinese scroll Colorful Lanterns at Shangyuan on an educational CD aims at combining historical and art historical considerations for the study of Chinese genre scroll paintings of cityscapes. It is a great opportunity to have this treasure which today is housed in the Hsü collection in Taibei come to live again on a new medium for a new generation of admirers.

This scroll represents a rich source of information regarding the economic situation and sociological structure of cities. This category of painting originated in the Song Dynasty (960-1279) and was further developed in the subsequent dynasties. Since the Song dynasty, cities had evolved from administrative centers representing government authority to economic entrepôts. The system of walled wards and nightly curfews had been abandoned for a street-oriented structure with markets and shops lining the streets and offering their goods day and night. This economic revolution challenged the definition of cities as ritual and administrative centers. The changes in the role of the city are vividly captured in handscrolls depicting scenes of urban life, merchant and artisan activities, and entertainment. Considered to have been mostly commissioned by wealthy merchants who patronized commercial artisans, this category of painting represents a unique source commemorating specific features of the depicted cities.

The painting presented here is from the brush of an anonymous painter from the mid to late Ming dynasty (1368-1644). It depicts a street in the southern capital of Ming China, Nanjing, on the occasion of the Lantern Festival. This public display of colorful lanterns that compete in size and design concludes the celebrations welcoming the New Year and continues even today. In Ming Nanjing the festival was accompanied by activities that were designed to delight everybody. In the painting we find scholar-officials and wealthy citizens who meet in restaurants for tea, wine, food, and female company. Others stroll across the market where they indulge in their passion for collecting. Books, paintings, musical instruments, furniture for the house, potted plants and landscapes for the studio or garden, and animals for the park are for sale in the market. The painting shows all the ‘must have’ items described in the manuals of taste and style popular at the time. People interested in more mundane entertainments are shown while betting and gambling, listening to storytellers, or observing the attempts of players to balance a football or shuttlecock in the air. There are wrestlers and fortune tellers, toy vendors and servants leading horses through the street. This painting documents the enjoyments of the festival in a more lively way than any other medium including plays, songs, poems, sculptures, carvings or embroidery.

Cityscapes as a painting genre

Cityscapes represent a unique genre among handscrolls. Most examples of the limited number of cityscapes that are still extant seem to have been commissions given to professional painters or artisans. The earliest surviving example, which is regarded as the parent scroll of the genre, is the Qingming shanghe tu (Going up the river at Qingming [Festival]) by Zhang Zeduan (fl. 12th century). The painting today belongs to the collection of the Palace Museum in Beijing and has attracted enormous scholarly attention since it was rediscovered in 1958. All known cityscapes follow its model to a certain extent.

In the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing Dynasties (1644-1912) this parent scroll became so popular that a series of copies of very different quality was produced. Some of these follow-up versions borrowed the title of the painting without showing the Qingming borough of the Song capital Kaifeng at all. When the later paintings were produced severe floods had buried Kaifeng under meters of loess soil. The fame of the Qingming shanghe tu as well as nostalgia for the former capital may have inspired patrons to commission productions of new paintings of the genre showing prosperous cities. All these cities were, with the exception of Beijing, predominantly located in the Lower Yangzi region. Among the cities favored for depiction were Suzhou, Nanjing, and Yangzhou.

In the Qing, the categories of landscape handscrolls and cityscapes were merged in some remarkable scrolls. The Manchu emperors Kangxi and Qianlong, ordered their respective ‘Southern Inspection Tours’ to be recorded in sets of handscrolls which described the highlights of their visits to the productive and prosperous south of the realm. Today, these scrolls are dispersed among the museums of the world.

The handscroll as a medium

The format of the handscroll was first used in the recording of Buddhist texts. This process involved pasting together sheets of paper inscribed with vertically arranged lines of characters in a consecutive way. Large amounts of text were accumulated in a format that served the process of memorization and facilitated easy transportation. Paintings produced in this format shared these same obvious practical advantages. Additionally, they also offered a new way of art appreciation. In China hanging scrolls were often enjoyed in the company of friends on certain occasions. Instead of permanently adorning a wall in the living room of the house as it is common in the West, hanging scrolls were taken from the shelf and viewed with the assistance of servants who had to hold them up with a long pole to which a hook was attached. When the scroll was suspended from the pole the art lovers would examine its style and content. There are famous examples of paintings showing such “elegant gatherings”, of gentlemen jointly contemplating a scroll.
The handscroll was different from the hanging scroll since it could be viewed by a single viewer without assistance. While textscrolls usually showed a continuous flow of characters, the visual structure of a painted handscroll of landscapes and cityscapes may be compared to a film in its visual advancement or to a musical composition with regard to its dramatic composition of alternating depictions of scenes of tranquility and activity. The narrative told in the original handscroll as well as in this digitized version can be enjoyed at an individual pace. The viewer travels through the landscape by letting her or his eyes wander from scene to scene, resting on a specific detail or accelerating the speed of viewing at personal preference. The movable sides of the scroll form a dynamic frame that can be widened or narrowed when unrolling the painting in order to view a scene in its totality or closely inspect the intriguing charm of refined details. The viewer may shift at will between the perspectives of panoramic overview or a view with intimate insights into the private activities, the clothing, even the mood expressed on the faces of the depicted individuals.

These qualities are preserved when presenting a narrative handscroll on an electronic medium. In addition, a multitude of new practical as well as aesthetic pleasures are opened by storing a painting on a CD or website: The painting can be viewed by many without raising conservatory concerns. It can be seen in its entire dimensions which is not always possible in a museum display. In one aspect the digitized image even surpasses the original: the clarity of the depiction cannot be matched by the original.

The design of the CD

The digitization of the scroll Lantern Festival at Shangyuan makes a unique work of art accessible for a wide audience. The interactive CD is designed to allow studying the painting in its complete length. After the scanning process was completed the painting has undergone a process of meticulous electronic cleaning which made details visible that are unrecognizable in the original. The details of the painting can be read like paragraphs of a text. This approach insures an uninhibited perception of the painting on a level of exploration which is of great importance in introducing this work to first-time viewers.

The digitized version contains a great variety of ‘hotspots’ or details of special interest that are related to a series of selected topics distributed over the scroll. These ‘hotspots’ glow when a mouse pointer passes over them. Clicking on these ‘hotspots’ opens up a window that contains detailed background information related to the particular item selected from the scroll. The windows of information can be accessed by the user at any time during the progressive contemplation of the painting. Any sector of the scroll can be selected and zoomed. This allows scrutinizing of even minute details which are impossible to detect with the bare eye when looking at the original painting.

The CD can be used in individual study as well as in classroom presentations. The multilayered structure allows for accessing a wealth of additional information stored beyond the surface. The background information accessible in pull down menus cover the political history and social conditions at the time, and the level of economic development conveyed by the panoramic view of shops, services, entertainment facilities, transportation, public buildings, customs and costumes featured in the scroll.