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On the Roads and Rivers of China

Travel is one of the most common themes in traditional Chinese landscape painting. From ancient times, the emperors of China maintained a network of roads and waterways that unified their vast realm and facilitated the movement of people and goods. Owing to this imperial association, images of ordinary travelers on the roads and rivers of the empire inherently connoted the benevolent rule of an enlightened sovereign and evoked an era of peace and prosperity.

Portraying commercial travel on land and water, these works were created for members of the political and business elite. Neither artists nor patrons were interested in documenting the hardships or actual circumstances of any particular journey. Rather, these slice-of-life images of anonymous characters traveling or working together capture some of the noteworthy sights and scenes a traveler might encounter along the way, while simultaneously promoting the fundamental ideals of a harmonious society and a well-ordered state.  

The different formats of Chinese painting (handscroll, hanging scroll, and album leaf) help to define and enhance the experience of looking at and understanding these lively scenes.

Above: detail, Boats Grappling Upstream, China, Qing dynasty, 18th century; Double album leaf; ink and color on paper; Gift of Charles Lang Freer F1911.166a


Travelers at a Mountain Way Station Travelers on the Road to Shu Boats Grappling Upstream