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Qingming Festival activities in ancient paintings

REN GUANHONG | 2022-03-31 | Hits:
Chinese Social Sciences Today

FILE PHOTO: The third painting of “Ladies’ Seasonal Activities of Twelve Months,” now on display at the Palace Museum in Beijing

The Qingming Festival falls on the fifth solar term (the 24 solar terms divide a year into 24 segments based on the Sun’s position in the zodiac) of the Chinese lunar calendar. It is a festival of diverse cultural significance. Around the festival, Chinese people usually visit the graves of the deceased, spruce up the gravesites, and make ritual offerings. The festival also marks a change in the weather, as temperatures begin to rise and rainfall increases, making it a crucial time for plowing and sowing in the spring. There are various activities associated with this festival, such as taking spring outings and playing on swings. Many painters throughout history have left works portraying these activities.
Spring outings
Going out and enjoying the spring weather during the Qingming Festival has been a tradition since the Tang Dynasty (618–907). The days around Qingming were viewed as a wonderful time to go out in the refreshing air, smell the flowers, and enjoy the change of the season. Women, especially those in the upper class, often went on an excursion around the festival.
“Lady Guoguo’s Spring Outing” was painted by Zhang Xuan, a renowned court painter in the Tang Dynasty. Since the original painting has been lost, a copy made in the Song Dynasty (960–1279) is now a national treasure. Lady Guoguo was the elder sister of Yang Yuhuan (719–756), the beloved consort of Emperor Xuanzong of Tang (r. 712–756). After making Yang an imperial concubine in 745, Emperor Xuanzong also bestowed honors on Yang’s family members, including Yang’s three elder sisters who were conferred the ranks of Ladies of Hanguo, Guoguo, and Qinguo.  
This scroll depicts a spring trip made by Lady Guoguo, Lady Hanguo, and their attendants. There are eight horses and nine characters in the painting, which can be divided into three sections. At the right end of the painting, a person wearing a navy-blue gown is at the front of the line. This person is believed to be a woman dressed in male riding garments, as women in the Tang Dynasty had more freedom and were very independent. They wore men’s clothes and enjoyed men’s sports. The woman is followed by a young woman dressed in a red gown and an attendant riding a black horse. 
The second section portrays two women, whose delicate hairstyles and elaborate clothing reveal their noble status. Most believe that the opulent and graceful woman looking forward is Lady Guoguo. With light makeup, she appears calm and at ease. It was said that Lady Guoguo was so sure of her own beauty that she did not wear makeup or dress extravagantly. This is depicted in a Tang Dynasty poem—“The Duchess of Guo state [Lady Guoguo] had won imperial grace,/ At dawn she rode through palace gates with dignity./ Disdainful of the paint which might have marred her face,/ With lightly touched-up brows she met His Majesty” (trans. Xu Yuanchong). In the painting, another woman who is talking with her is believed to be her sister, Lady Hanguo. In the third section, an elderly nanny holding a little girl rides a horse between a young woman dressed in a red garment and an attendant.
The figures in this painting look relaxed and joyful. Although there are few depictions of the environment, the theme of a spring outing is reflected through the way the figures ride horseback, leisurely and carefree.
Playing on swings
The swing (qiu-qian) was originally called qian-qiu. The first documentation of swings occurred in China as early as the Spring and Autumn Period (770–476 BCE), when they were originally used to train the warriors of the Shanrong tribe, an ancient ethnic minority in northern China. After the Shanrong were conquered by Duke Huan of Qi [the ruler of the State of Qi from 685 to 643 BCE], the swing was introduced into the Central Plain, and was renamed qiu-qian. In early days, the swing was a game exclusive to the upper class. It was not until the Southern and Northern Dynasties (420–589) that the swing became popular throughout the country and developed into an important activity around the Qingming Festival. Li Qingzhao (1084–1155), one of the most talented female poets in ancient China, portrayed the joy of a girl playing on a swing in her poem: “Dropped feet to stop the swing/ Arise, relaxed with a rope in tiny hands./ Heavy dew on a few blossoms/ Light perspiration penetrates her soft clothes.”
The graceful posture of a woman on a swing is also a classic theme in ancient Chinese paintings, represented by a painting of an album titled “Yueman Qingyou Tu” (“Ladies’ Seasonal Activities of Twelve Months”). This album was created by Chen Mei, who served as a court painter for both the Yongzheng Emperor (r. 1722–1735) and the Qianlong Emperor (r. 1736–1796) in the Qing Dynasty (1644–1911). 
“Ladies’ Seasonal Activities of Twelve Months” opens a window into the leisure life of ancient court ladies inside the Forbidden City. This album consists of 12 works. In the third painting, new leaf buds appear on willows, which signals the beginning of spring. A lady plays on a swing under the tree while others watch from a nearby bench. Chen used the paintings of feminine beauty created by Tang Yin and Qiu Ying of the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644) for his aesthetic standards. The figures in his paintings are slim and graceful, which is different from the full-figured fashion of the Tang Dynasty. Inspired by Giuseppe Castiglione, who served as a court artist, Chen combined the style of the Song Dynasty court painting with Western painting techniques, such as linear perspective, thereby making the painting more vivid.
She-liu, or willow-shooting, was an old tradition of the Qingming Festival. It combined military training with entertainment. According to Ming Dynasty documents, it was a game in which pigeons were placed inside gourds and the gourds were hung on a willow tree. Players would shoot the gourds with arrows, so as to free the pigeons inside once the gourds fell onto the ground. The winner was the one whose pigeon flew the highest on its release.  
“The Daoguang Emperor Shooting on Horseback” was painted by the Daoguang Emperor (r. 1820–1850). He portrayed himself shooting on horseback in the Qichun Garden (Garden of Elegant Spring), one of the three gardens of Yuanmingyuan. In the painting, the Daoguang Emperor is shown in a blue gown riding a white horse. He holds a bow in his left hand and an arrow in his right hand. Not far from him stand two court officials, with each leading a steed and watching the emperor intently. Parts of grand imperial buildings are visible under willow branches, implying that the willow shooting was held in the imperial garden.
Most of the ethnic groups in northern China lived nomadic lives in the past. Shooting on horseback was derived from their hunting traditions. As the descendants of the Jurchen people, the Manchus highly valued the traditional martial skills of archery and horsemanship. The imperial hunt of the Qing Dynasty was held annually to preserve the traditional Manchu way of life. The game of she-liu was often held in the third lunar month. However, after the reign of the Daoguang Emperor, the Qing military culture, with the Qing Dynasty itself, went into decline. Few imperial members were talented at archery or horsemanship, so the competition of she-liu was gradually forgotten. Since the reign of the Tongzhi Emperor (r. 1861–1875), there has been no record of imperial she-liu competition. On 6 October 1860, French and British invaders captured the Yuanmingyuan, looting and burning down the imperial collections over the next few days. This painting was brought to France. It was returned to China in 2002. 
Compared with other traditional Chinese holidays and festivals, Qing-ming Festival is unique in its cultural connotations: remembrance and missing the departed, as well as love and appreciation of life by enjoying the spring foliage. It is these unique cultural connotations that have created a wealth of folk traditions for the Qingming Festival.