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Insights into Established Prosperity: Ding Guanpeng's Painting of "Peace for the New Year"
Date: 1 Apr - 25 Jun 2010

Ding Guanpeng (fl. 1708-1771 or slightly later) was a native of Shuntian (modern Beijing). He entered service at court under the Yongzheng Emperor (r. 1722-1735) and excelled at painting Buddhist and Daoist subjects as well as figures and landscapes with ruled-line motifs, his painting style being painstakingly neat. He also learned Western oil painting from a renowned Italian missionary-artist at court, Giuseppe Castiglione, and became an expert in using light and shade in coloring and one-point perspective. Under the following Qianlong reign (1736-1795), he was promoted to "Painter of the First Rank." Consequently, History of the Qing Manuscript ranks Ding Guanpeng as one of the best painters of his day.

In addition to the imperial collection seals at the top of Ding Guanpeng's painting "Peace for the New Year" is a Qianlong imperial poem on the New Year dated to the equivalent of 1745. Referring to lanterns and music of the market, it indicates that the festivities shown here inside and outside of the Forbidden City relate to the Lantern Festival (falling on the 15th day of the first lunar month) and that the curfew is lifted for this day. Lanterns and festoons adorn the painting, presenting an auspicious aura of peace and prosperity as people from all walks of society celebrate the beginning of a new lunar year.

The title of this painting translates literally as "Taicu, Start of Peace." In traditional times, activities in life closely followed the seasons, and a section from the ancient Book of Rites states that musical tones and the calendar are related. With a semitone for each of the lunar months, that known as Taicu corresponds to the first month of spring, or the new lunar year, hence the title. The palace archives for the workshops of the Imperial Household Department detail the process and date of production for this painting (signed and sealed by Ding Guanpeng on a rock in the lower left corner in his capacity as a court painter). They state, for example, that in the 7th month of Qianlong's 13th year of rule (1748) twelve sheets of xuan paper were delivered for an imperial production of poems for each month, and that an order was passed down for four painters in the Ruyi Lodge, including Ding Guanpeng, to cooperate in painting drafts for imperial review. The emperor ordered the court artists to paint according to the poetic contents using the twelve semitones in the titles. With each artist doing three paintings, the entire set of hanging scrolls known as the "Twelve Forbidden Gardens" is now in the collection of the National Palace Museum.

This painting takes a panoramic view of many scenes condensed into a single hanging scroll composition. Misty clouds obscure some of the scenery to set off the forbidding mystery of the imperial gardens. Outside the crenellated city wall in the lower middle part is Prospect Hill (Jingshan) Front Street of modern times, while proceeding to the left is the area of Jingshan West Street and the old censorate offices. The painting even shows the now-demolished gate entrance to Dagaoxuan Hall, part of the imperial Daoist temple at the left. To the north end of this complex is a building, the top part of which is the Qianyuan Pavilion with its round, pointed roof. The lower part of the composition shows the gardens of the Palace of Established Happiness (Jianfu), located in the northwest part of the Forbidden City. In addition to the palace halls, temple, and gateway are colorful tiled roofs, the rest of the courtyard buildings being residences with gray-tiled roofs.

Shops in the capital have opened for business at the start of the new lunar year, selling all sorts of seasonal goods. People have gone out to enjoy the Lantern Festival, the streets filled with acrobats and performers of all kinds. Tea and wine establishments feature shows with martial arts performances taking place in the temple plaza, the entertainments including monkey, tightrope, plate spinning, and puppet shows for a rich variety attracting large groups of people. Individuals are also engaged in fortune-telling and divination. The groups bustling with business and entertainment reveal a life of peace and prosperity at all levels of society in the capital during the heyday of Qing rule under the Qianlong Emperor.

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