A Rare Look at 'China's Mona Lisa'

Even among the stuffy bureaucrats in Beijing, the Song dynasty ink-on-silk painting "Along the River During the Qingming Festival" has an affectionate nickname: "China's Mona Lisa." Though it's a landscape, not a portrait, "Qingming" has a mysterious allure that has captivated the popular imagination and spawned debate about its hidden meaning, much like da Vinci's fabled work. But unlike the "Mona Lisa," which is on view at the Louvre, "Qingming" has been seen only rarely by members of the public.

Now's their big chance. The stunning 12th-century work by the court artist Zhang Zeduan is making its first appearance outside the mainland as the star attraction of "The Pride of China," an exhibit of 32 important paintings from Beijing's Palace Museum (through Aug. 11) marking the 10th anniversary of Hong Kong's return to Chinese control. The five-meter-long "Qingming" scroll—named after the spring holiday for honoring ancestors—features more than 800 figures, 28 boats and 170 trees in a buzzing waterside city.

It captures scenes of everyday life in finely wrought detail: traders lead camels, heavy with merchandise, through the city gate. Sedan-chair bearers balance wealthy passengers through busy streets. Children scream for attention while elders engage in chitchat. Stevedores unload sacks of food from boats. A woman's laundry hangs from a roof. " 'Qingming' is a great ambassador for Chinese culture," says Maxwell Hearn, curator of Chinese painting at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, who recently visited Hong Kong in connection with the exhibit. "It has enormous popular appeal. You don't have to understand calligraphy, brush painting, poetry or symbolism which infuses so much of Chinese art with meaning. It is about humanity."

As an imperial treasure originally meant for the pleasure of the emperor and select members of his court, "Qingming" has always been inaccessible to the masses—which has only strengthened its appeal. Since the time of its creation in the 12th century, the artwork's fame has spread mainly through stories in books and poems. Pu Yi, the last Chinese emperor, took the scroll with him when he left the Forbidden City in the 1920s. The painting was missing until it was found in a bank vault in the 1950s.

Now tea-colored with age, the scroll is considered too delicate to go on permanent exhibit. Beijing's regulations allow it to be on view for only three weeks at a time, after which it must be retired to the vault for years. But like all important Chinese works of art, it has been much replicated, ensuring that the public knows well what it looks like. In fact, one such 16th-century "fake" by Qiu Ying will take the place of the original Song piece during the second half of the Hong Kong show, beginning July 23.

In addition to its esthetic qualities, "Qingming" continues to fascinate because of what it celebrates: "a prosperous, urban state from the perspective of the working class," says University of Hong Kong art historian Yeewan Koon. The painting clearly depicts great Chinese achievements of the time—including innovations in architecture and engineering, as evidenced by a wooden bridge without piers and a variety of vessels designed to transport goods and people. "Qingming" also prominently illustrates trade in wine and grain, which were monopolies of the emperor and represent his control, and shows people from all strata of society thriving in a place held together by a sense of order and unseen powers. For Hong Kong, 10 years after reverting to mainland rule, that makes "China's Mona Lisa" an especially relevant guest.