The Allure of Quantity: The Art-Historical Significance of the Qingming Scrolls

 

Cheng-Hua Wang, Princeton University

 

This research uses the example of the Qingming scrolls, a group of mass-produced and widely circulated paintings of seventeenth-century China, to reflect upon the mainstream art-historical presumptions and approaches that valorize “original” artworks and the values that they stand for. These scrolls share the pictorial schema established by the primordial painting entitled Qingming shanghe (Along the River During the Qingming Festival) of the Northern Song dynasty (960-1127) but fill in different details that highlight the prosperity of urban culture that was highly relevant to contemporary social life. Most of them proclaim to be original but are actually far removed from their prototype and represent the highly developed forgery industry of their time.

Based on the uncommonly abundant textual records mentioning these scrolls and the huge quantity of them surviving to this day, this research first discusses how they formed the most famous theme and popular pictorial imageries in early modern China. Secondly, it poses questions regarding how these scrolls were circulated in open art markets and received by contemporary literati. Their quantity and circulation contributed to the general impression of how “paintings” should be and what specific styles look like. Thirdly, while traditional art-historical studies emphasize the importance of artistic quality and the values associated with “originality,” this research tries to tackle the meaning of quantity and derivative works and the mutually constitutive and dialectical relationship between “the original” and its derivatives.