Upriver at Qingming

An Excellent Adventure

By Heather Clydesdale

A loose and fun American film from the late 1980s causes pangs of longing in the hearts of teachers. Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure tells the story of two slacker students on the brink of failing social studies when a time machine whisks them off to meet Socrates, Abraham Lincoln, Genghis Khan, and Napoleon. They discover that history is riveting, relevant and, in their words, “Awesome, Dude!” If all students had a time machine, they would undoubtedly have the same revelation. Fortunately, three educators of Chinese language have commandeered such a device, and are inviting others to share the ride.

Dali Tan, president of CLASS and a former member of the Advanced Placement (AP®) Chinese Language and Culture Development Committee, explains how she uses the Song dynasty masterpiece Qīngmíng Shànghé Tú《清明上河图》(“Along the River at Qingming Festival”) to connect her students at Northern Virginia Community College to Chinese history, culture, and language while building 21st-century skills. “I am frequently surprised,” remarks Tan, speaking in Chinese. “My students think that history is extremely rich.”

As they explore the scroll, her students practice the “Four Cs” identified by the National Education Foundation as well as engage activities that meet the five "C" goal areas of the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Language’s World-Readiness Standards for Learning Languages. They communicate and exercise critical thinking as they interpret scenes and action within the scroll. They demonstrate creativity by making posters complete with speech bubbles for figures in the painting, and collaborate on group projects that include writing and performing skits. Throughout, they use a touchstone of Chinese culture to broaden their vocabulary by naming animals, clothing, and trees; and practice sentence patterns in speech, writing, and reading.

The original handscroll, painted in ink on silk, is in the collection of the Beijing Palace Museum, and is available through numerous online platforms that support magnification (see resources below). Executed by Zhang Zeduan in the late 11th or early 12th century, it offers a cinematic depiction of the Northern Song (960–1127) capital city, Kaifeng, during Qingming, a festival of renewal as well as caring for the graves of deceased ancestors. Only 25 centimeters high but more than five meters long, the scroll is viewed from right to left. Viewers enter a rustic scene of gnarled trees, placid waters, and thatched cottages, and soon encounter peasants and travelers. Scrolling along the river, the variety and tempo of activities increase: ships are loaded with grain, town folk enjoy lunch at restaurants and tea houses, money changers await customers, women empty bathwater, a storyteller and a fortune reader cater to passersby, a yamen’s office and jail uphold law and order, and a Buddhist temple promises transcendence. The manifold and minute spectacles of city life reach a climax where a crowd presses in to see whether an approaching ship will be able to lower its mast and avoid crashing into the bridge arcing over the river.

Vicky Wang, a teacher at Georgetown Day in Washington, DC was inspired by Tan to integrate the scroll into her high school classes. She first shows an animated video of the painting to her students, which she finds makes them curious about and attentive to the fine details in the painting. Conducting research on the Internet, students then complete a worksheet about the scroll, Qingming, and Kaifeng, and discuss related topics of Song architecture, clothing, celebrations, and food. As a summative assessment, Wang asks students to act out a scenario in which one of them “falls” into the painting, and interacts with people in it. The skits must utilize a certain number of predetermined language patterns and vocabulary. “The first time they performed in front of the class, they were nervous,” admits Wang, “so I asked them to [record] themselves. They are very tech-savvy and edit these [videos] on their cell phones.”

Wang’s colleague, Xueying Zhang, also found success using the scroll in her AP Chinese classes. Zhang, director of the Chinese program at Georgetown Day, likes that the scroll allows students to follow their own interests as they develop projects. Zhang’s assignments include giving each student a perspective based on the figures in the scroll, which they use to complete a questionnaire and learn new vocabulary in anticipation of a class discussion. This also helps prepare them for their 20-second oral responses in the AP exam. For a writing exercise, students compare Zhang Zeduan’s painting with later Ming (1368–1644) and Qing (1644–1911) dynasty versions, analyzing differences in city life, technology, and architecture, and discussing how Chinese culture has changed through history.

Zhang, speaking in Chinese, maintains that the scroll is adaptable and “can be studied by all different levels.” Perhaps this is ultimately why the scroll is a masterpiece. Zhang Zeduan’s careful observations transform viewers into participants, engaging them in a historic, and excellent, adventure.

Annotated reproduction with the ability to zoom in and out

Section-by-section view with thematic tags

Scrolling version with animated interaction

Animated version

CCTV documentary on the scroll

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