Out of the Darkness; A Hong Kong Exhibit Offers a Rare Glimpse of the 12th-Century Masterpiece Known as 'China's Mona Lisa.'

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Byline: Alexandra A. Seno

Even among the stuffy bureaucrats in Beijing, the Song dynasty ink-on-silk painting "Along the River During the Qingming Festival" has an affectionate nickname: "China's Mona Lisa." Though it's a landscape, not a portrait, "Qingming" has a mysterious allure that has captivated the popular imagination and spawned debate about its hidden meaning, much like da Vinci's fabled work. But unlike the "Mona Lisa," which is on view at the Louvre, "Qingming" has been seen only rarely by members of the public.

Now's their big chance. The stunning 12th-century work by the court artist Zhang Zeduan is making its first appearance outside the mainland as the star attraction of "The Pride of China," an exhibit of 32 important paintings from Beijing's Palace Museum (through Aug. 11) marking the 10th anniversary of Hong Kong's return to Chinese control. The five-meter-long "Qingming" scroll--named after the spring holiday for honoring ancestors--features more than 800 figures, 28 boats and 170 trees in a buzzing waterside city.

It captures scenes of everyday life in finely wrought detail: traders lead camels, heavy with merchandise, through the city gate. Sedan-chair bearers balance wealthy passengers through busy streets. Children scream for attention while elders engage in chitchat. Stevedores unload sacks of food from boats. A woman's laundry hangs from a roof. " 'Qingming' is a great ambassador for Chinese culture," says Maxwell Hearn, curator of Chinese painting at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, who recently visited Hong Kong in connection with the exhibit. "It has enormous popular appeal. You don't have to understand calligraphy, brush painting, poetry or symbolism which infuses so much of Chinese art with meaning. It is about humanity."

As an imperial treasure originally meant for the pleasure of the emperor and select members of his court, "Qingming" has always been inaccessible to the masses--which has only strengthened its appeal. …