Move with the times

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 07 November, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 07 November, 2010, 12:00am

When one of the mainland's most prized national treasures - Northern Song painter Zhang Zeduan's masterpiece Along the River During the Qingming Festival - went on show at the Hong Kong Museum of Art in 2007 to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the handover, the 5.3-metre-long panoramic handscroll drew 150,000 visitors in 24 days, allowing each roughly five minutes to look at the piece. Over three weeks, starting on Tuesday, an even bigger crowd of 968,000 is expected to descend on the AsiaWorld-Expo to view River of Wisdom, the animated version of the 12th-century painting that was on show inside the China Pavilion at the World Expo in Shanghai.

However, what fascinates curator Szeto Yuen-kit most about Along the River During the Qingming Festival, which is now in the vaults of the Palace Museum in Beijing, is not its magnetic appeal but how the piece has long been part of this city's life.

'Not many people realise the theme park Song Dynasty Village [built in Lai Chi Kok in 1979 and closed in 1997] was modelled on this scroll,' says Hong Kong Museum of Art's Szeto, who is joining forces with the Hong Kong Science Museum to stage a parallel exhibition on the painting at the same venue.

'I've also seen a replica of the scroll hanging inside a bank's headquarters as well as selected scenes printed in restaurant and cha chaan teng menus. So the work has had a presence in our society for a long time. And that is something we want to highlight at the exhibition, to make this masterpiece relevant to our visitors.'

On show alongside River of Wisdom will be a replica of the scroll made on the mainland ('It's so good even experts might have difficulty telling the difference') as well as educational materials that were used in the 2007 exhibition. They include everyday objects, such as wooden pillows, accessories and coins that are recorded in the painting. Szeto, the curator in Chinese painting and calligraphy, says these objects will help visitors gain a better understanding of how people lived at the time and how that lifestyle and customs either evolved or, in some cases, remained the same to this date.

Offering a detailed glimpse of architecture and life in what is believed to be the capital of the Northern Song dynasty (960-1127), near today's Kaifeng, Zhang's piece, says Szeto, is the richest pictorial record of how the Chinese lived 900 years ago. Both rich and precise, it depicts customs and traditional practices that no longer exist on the mainland but, interestingly, have continued in Hong Kong, a former British colony.

For instance, one scene shows a stall selling paper offerings. 'The burning of these offerings for ancestral worship was banned on the mainland during the Cultural Revolution [1966 to 1976] but has survived in this city. You can still find shops selling paper offerings in Sheung Wan,' Szeto says.

Another scene shows labourers holding a bamboo stick that's used to keep track of the number of jobs they perform on any given day. 'This method was used [locally] well into the 1970s,' says Szeto. 'We found a well-preserved box of these bamboo sticks, which will be on display at the exhibition.'

What is most exciting about the upcoming exhibition, he says, is how modern technology will bring all these minute details vividly to life through animation: 'This is not based on some Chinese fable but is a factual account of how people used to live 900 years ago.'

Created by Crystal Digital Technology, River of Wisdom features computer animation projected on a screen about 120 metres long and six metres high, 30 times as big as the ancient scroll. The duration of animation is around 10 minutes and is played in a loop. Unlike the 2007 exhibition, visitors have up to an hour to examine the piece. Though there are copies of this animation, only one can be screened at any given time so the Hong Kong screening will have to end when the China Pavilion reopens on December 1.

Given the time limit, Szeto advises visitors to first take a look at the parallel exhibition to get the basic concept of what the work is about and identify scenes or characters that interest them before focusing on them in the animation. 'I'd walk through the whole stretch, from one end to the other, first. Then I would return to scenes that are of interest,' he says.

Szeto says one interesting aspect of River of Wisdom is how the animators have interpreted the original painting by adding their own storytelling.

The major dramas in the painting are played out at the highest point of the Rainbow Bridge, which is also believed to be exactly the mid-point of the scroll, where city life is at its busiest: a boat is about to go under the bridge and the mast has to be lowered immediately. Merchants riding on donkeys, horses and litters have to give way to one another while the stalls are buzzing with business.

'Familiarising Hong Kong people with Chinese culture has to mean more than learning the national anthem and watching flag-raising ceremonies,' says Szeto. 'Culture is to be experienced and appreciated and Along the River During the Qingming Festival gives the public this opportunity.'

River of Wisdom - Animated Version of the Riverside Scene at Qingming Festival, Tuesday-Nov 29 at AsiaWorld-Expo