A map is a functional and sometimes symbolic illustration that reveals how objects, regions, or themes relate to one another within a confined set of boundaries. Many maps are static, two-dimensional images, printed on paper. This map, however, is not static. It is a handscroll, a long and narrow work that is unique in its horizontal span. Designed to be held and viewed, the work is to be unrolled from the right to left. As it is opened, the scroll is viewed section by section as if the person holding it is traversing a landscape in a continuous motion. The handscroll simulates a narrative journey through and across space.
The notion of a continued journey is sustained in this map of the Yellow River. Starting from the right side of the scroll and moving from west to east (so that the south is at the top of the map, and the north at the bottom), the viewer embarks on a trek through river networks that move towards the sea. At the beginning of the journey only smatterings of towns are visible from the river behind abutting mountains. But their numbers and presence grow in the landscape as the river enters flatter land. With more forgiving topography comes the promise of farmland. This is represented in the greenery that encircles the now-frequent towns and villages. The presence of green, farmable terrain plays a key role in the narrative that connects this river with the Nian Rebellion Battlescene (the focal painting in this exhibition). The river provides water for farming, but it also poses a danger to farmers.
The Yellow River’s relationship with surrounding farmlands was essential during the events that presaged the Nian rebellion. In 1851, the great river flooded and the banks burst, so that serious flooding severely damaged northern China’s countryside. With farmland destroyed and once fertile lands devastated, many members of the farming class were now without livelihoods. Relief in the form of Qing court aid was needed, but unavailable at the scale that was required. The Qing government’s finances were heavily depleted due to recent conflicts with Great Britain, as well as the ongoing Taiping Rebellion to the south. Therefore, little aid was provided to refugees of this environmental disaster that originated from the Yellow River. The lack of effective relief enraged the already existing Nian movement, who under guerilla leadership lashed out against the Qing government, which it saw as incompetent. This marked the beginning of the Nian rebellion.
Inscriptions at the end
Daoguang 25 year, April
Painted by Xiugu, Sima Zhong
Xiugu is the courtesy name of Sima Zhong, a nineteenth-century official and artist.
Daoguang 25 is the year 1845