Chinese Artist Dai Xiang Draws on Classical Song Dynasty Work to Engage Contemporary Social Problems

March 27, 2024

In February 2024, Chinese artist Dai Xiang presented his “New Qingming Scroll” (2014) at Yale in a long-awaited visit to Yale’s Council on East Asian Studies that had been postponed since 2020. 

His scroll, an elaborate photographic composite measuring nearly 40 feet long, is a modern recreation of the Song-dynasty scroll “Along the River During the Qingming Festival (Qingming Shanghe Tu),” which was painted around 1,000 C.E. The conceptual photographer spent three years taking the more than 10,000 photos that would be used in the project, which involved building sets, and sourcing actors, costumes, and props for the more than 30 different scenes depicted. The scroll was last displayed in China in 2019.

“Dai Xiang’s new Qingming scroll uses the landscape in the Song-dynasty Qingming scroll as a backdrop for multiple real-life incidents that occurred between 2009 and 2011, when he began his photo montage,” explained Valerie Hansen, Stanley Woodward Professor of History at Yale and an authority on the original scroll.

She said, “The Song-dynasty scroll is remarkably positive and shows a bustling city with very few problems—it is quite likely that it was painted for the emperor—but Dai’s scroll captures abuses of power by Communist party officials, police, and real estate developers.”

Using AI to overcome the language barrier and discuss the scroll in English, Dai explained that because he studied the ancient scroll so carefully when preparing his new Qingming scroll, he noticed many details previously overlooked by art historians, specifically the moments of averted disaster. He argued that, contrary to the general consensus, he believes the original scroll reflects moments of crisis under the overall prosperity in the Song Dynasty. Dai used his interpretation as a jumping-off point for his portrayal of contemporary social problems in China, including food contamination, cyber security threats, rising housing prices, and environmental degradation. 

“Dai’s selection of a Song-dynasty frame for his critique of modern Chinese society reveals how important the past is in today’s China,” Hansen said. Dai’s visit also allowed Yale students in Professor Hansen’s seminar, “Song-Dynasty China (960-1276): Modern Before Europe?”, to explore the interaction between China’s past and present more deeply.

“As an Irishman, I knew nothing about Chinese history before taking Professor Hansen’s class,” said Joe Thames ’25. “Therefore, the modern Qingming Scroll opened my eyes to issues in the country and various aspects of Chinese culture in the context of this history course. Dai Xiang was very helpful in pointing out features of the old scroll and explaining how this inspired the new one.”

“On my first look at the Qingming scroll, I did not realize that it had political motivation,” said Annie Citron ’25. “However, Dai Xiang’s scroll illuminates the political nature of the original scroll. I found Dai’s scroll interesting because it gave me insight into Chinese politics and scandal of the early 2000s that I would have not had.”

View the photo gallery.