Qing Wanglian (1093-1146): Painting through the Pain

salen_sofia_finalQing Wanglian lived during the change from the Northern Song Dynasty to the Southern Song Dynasty. The Jurchen Jin Dynasty, a neighboring ethnic group, took over Northern China from the Song Dynasty. She and thousands of other Chinese people had to flee to the southern half of China for safety. Along her journey, she faced many hardships, which took a long time to recover from. Later in her life she painted a five-meter-long scroll encompassing the major events of her life, preserving her and her family’s memory forever.

Qing Wanglian’s father, Qing Liyang, was a government official, and her mother, Qing Yingzhang, spent her time reading and painting. Wanglian was born in the capital, Kaifeng, China, during the Northern Song dynasty, and grew up painting and reading stories with her mother. Being exposed to books and paintings at a young age sparked Wanglian’s interest in art and literature.

In 1111, Wanglian married Cao Yingzheng (1090 -1129). He was also born to a high status family of government officials. When Wanglian was eighteen years old and Yingzheng was twenty-one years old, the two got married. Their marriage had been arranged; at the time most arranged marriages were not great matches, however theirs was a match made in heaven. They were intellectual equals; “the two newlyweds devoted themselves to collecting books, artworks, and antiquities.”1 They lived very happily together, and had a son named Cao Yuanfei.

A few years later, Northern China was conquered by the Jurchen army; “the capital fell at the end of 1126.”2 Wanglian and her family along with thousands of other Chinese families were forced to flee to the South, leaving everything behind. The Chinese people did not know if they would escape the Jurchens, and if they made it to southern China, they did not know what they would find there. When it came time to leave, Wanglian and Yingzheng had such a large collection of antiques, artwork, and books that they had to leave most of their belongings behind. They left behind large paintings, antique furniture, fat volumes of books, etc., however they still had about a dozen cartfuls of belongings to take with them all the way south.

Their journey had taken a few weeks when Cao Yingzheng was given notice of placement in a new officer position in Hangzhou, the capital city of the Southern Song Dynasty. However to travel with his wife, son, their cartfuls of belongings, and their servants and their families would take him a very long time to arrive at his new job. So, he had to leave them and go ahead to Hangzhou to settle into his new job and get things ready for his wife and son’s arrival. They would meet at Qing Wanglian’s sister’s home in Hangzhou.

A few weeks later, Yuanfei, their son, fell ill and died during their journey. At that point, Wanglian was fed up with the belongings. Because she took so many items with her from Kaifeng to Hangzhou her husband left, and her son died, leaving her to travel alone with her servants. She thought how silly she was to bring so many things with her, had they brought less stuff, her husband might have still been with her and her son may not have passed away because of traveling for so long. She buried her son by the Yangzi River, and sent a few cartfuls of paintings, books, and artwork down the river to get rid of them.

Wanglian finally arrived in Hangzhou with one cart and a few servants. Originally she had dreamed about how she, her husband, and son would be reunited with her sister in Hangzhou, but instead of being reunited with Cao Yingzheng, she was greeted by her sister. Yingzheng had fallen ill and died a few weeks prior, leaving Qing Wanglian childless and alone.

Wanglian had lived with her sister for a few years, she gave Wanglian nice quarters to live in and meals everyday, but Wanglian did not have much money. By 1132 she had sold all of her belongings and could no longer sustain herself monetarily, and it was not her sister’s husband’s duty to take care of her financially. So she was forced to remarry. In 1134 she married Xue Zhenggao, a government official who had also been married previously. He did not have children, and had lived in Hangzhou his entire life. So, he did not understand Wanglian’s struggle of traveling so far and not only losing home, but losing her loved ones as well. One year after their marriage, they had a daughter named Xue Lianli. Both parents loved their daughter very much, however Wanglian did not love Zhenggao. He knew this but remained hopeful that he and Wanglian would learn to love each other in time. He was mistaken; Wanglian loved her first husband so much that she was incapable of loving another man. There was a hole left in Wanglian’s heart that could never be filled.

In 1138 Qing Wanglian began to paint again. She would paint with and read to her daughter, just like her mother had done with her so long ago. Painting brought back memories of living in the North both as a child and her memories with her first husband and son. She began painting these memories. She painted dozens of paintings of the mountains and plains that are in the North, of her home in Kaifeng, and of her son and first husband.

In 1142, she started painting a five-meter-long scroll that depicted her entire life, particularly her journey from Northern China to Southern China. The scroll is meant to be viewed slowly, piece by piece, not completely unrolled and then viewed all at once. Due to the length of the scroll, it became very heavy. The length made it difficult to paint sitting up, so she had to paint it on a large floor so that the paint was able to dry.

The opening scene of the scroll shows Wanglian and Yingzheng, her first husband, in their library smiling at and playing with their son. There are books and paintings everywhere. The scroll “provides extraordinary detail: each [figure] is delineated carefully.”3 Every floor board, every book, every painting is a painting within a painting. All so intricately detailed. The library is shown with very bright and warm colors, signifying that this place is full of vibrance, happiness, and life.

“As the scroll progresses and time passes,”4 the scene changes to the destroyed city of Kaifeng. There is a river in sight in the painting; this river must be the Yellow River because Kaifeng is on the Yellow River. Crossing this river signifies the first big change in her life. The city is grey and it is nighttime, signifying that this is a dark and sad time for her. Wanglian is depicted with her son, husband, servants, and several carts strung along exiting the city.

Next is a dirt road with carts upon carts filled to the brim with paintings and books. The line of carts is rather small in the picture; the vast majority of the scene has mountains and northern geography portrayed. “Great peaks that kept their snow all summer could be seen in the distance. The air was sharp and cold. The sides of the valley were thickly covered with the dark green of pines and the autumn gold of birches. Mountain streams poured down the slopes of the valley into the twisting roaring river that ran through it. A road had been cut down the valley, with tunnels and cuts along the cliff sides and forty-eight timber bridges wide enough for two carts to meet. ”5 Colors start to get lighter but cool, the sky is a pale grey-blue. She had a few dozen people traveling with her, presumably servants and their families. The larger the group of people traveling together, the safer they may be. For the dozens of people traveling there were about forty horses, and many of them were used to pull the cartfuls of belongings, so many people had to walk the entire distance.

On their journey, they “had seen the spring flowers on the endless grasslands, crossed at night a stretch of towering sand dunes, and”6 then they came to another river, the Huai River. It took a string of boats to ferry them all across the Huai.”7 Once they were able to cross, Wanglian’s husband, Yingzheng, is shown hugging Wanglian while she cries, showing that he is leaving to take his position in the capital of the South. Crossing this river signifies the next big change in Qing Wanglian’s life. At this point the colors become more cool, more blues and grays and less red and yellow.

Now that Yingzheng is gone, Wanglian is in charge of the troop of people going from north to south. She is responsible for getting them to Hangzhou. Along their journey, her son becomes ill, he is wrapped in a blanket, as the scroll progresses he is shown dead lying in his crying mother’s arms. The Yangzi River is in the distance. The colors here are grey and dark, it is pouring rain, and Wanglian is in the mud with her son. They travel to the Yangzi River where they bury him. Afterwards, they try to cross the river, but it was the hardest river they had to cross yet. Five carts were taken away in the tide, and so Wanglian was forced to let them go. “The pull of these possessions is readily understood. They are all she has left of her marriage and of her husband.”8 Paralleling how she is forced to let her son go. The difficulty in crossing the river shows the difficulty in getting over this loss and huge change in her life.

As the scroll progresses, there are significantly less carts and less people traveling with Qing Wanglian. The colors in the painting are very dark, symbolizing her grief that her son is now gone. He face is emotionless, just numb.

The colors suddenly change to be a little lighter; this may be because Wanglian and Yingzheng will be united again soon. However, upon her arrival Yingzheng is not there. Depicted in the painting is Wanglian’s sister holding Wanglian as she cries.

Then there is just gray.

Next depicts a wedding where Wanglian is the bride, she looks slightly older. Though typically a happy occasion, the colors are not as bright as the beginning of the scroll where she lived with Yingzheng and their son. The final scene in the scroll shows Wanglian painting her five-meter-long scroll with her daughter playing beside her. In this scene the color comes back a little, showing that she is a little happier. The absence of her second husband shows that they did not have a great marriage.

In 1145 she finished painting the scroll, it had taken her three years to make. After seeing Wanglian’s scroll, Zhenggao, her second husband, realizes that she is still in love with Cao Yingzheng, her first husband. He takes her painting as a sign of betrayal of their marriage, that she was disrespecting him by painting her life before him. He made her life worse for this; Zhenggao began spending all his time with concubines, and tortured Wanglian by ignoring her and treating her badly. This time Wanglian could not push through the pain.

Wanglian was unable to get past the losses she suffered years ago. Painting the scroll brought back the grief, and so she began to neglect her daughter. However, painting the scroll also allowed Wanglian to gain closure and accept the deaths of her husband and son. She was finally able to forgive herself because she created a masterpiece that would preserve their memory forever. When she was done with the scroll she felt spent, like she had nothing more to give. She was ready to join her husband and son, and so in 1146, she committed suicide by swallowing her earrings. The earrings punctured her organs, causing her to bleed out.

She wrote a note to her daughter telling her how much she loved her, and that she would understand one day. Wanglian also requested to be buried with her painted scroll and with her first husband, who was buried in Hangzhou as well. However, to spite her, her second husband did not respect her wishes. He took the scroll and gave it to his favorite concubine as a present. She hung it on the walls of her quarters.

When Qing Wanglian’s daughter grew older, she did understand why her mother was in so much pain. To redeem her mother, she took the scroll back from the concubine, and kept it safe as her last memory of her mother. She kept the scroll and passed it down to her children. The heirloom stayed in their family for generations, therefore allowing it to be preserved.


1  Hansen, Valerie. The Open Empire: A History of China to 1600. New York: Norton, 2000. Print. Page 251.
2  Wills, John E. Mountain of Fame: Portraits in Chinese History. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton UP, 1994. Print. Page 170.
3 Hansen, 259.
4 Ibid, 259.
5 Wills, 181.
6 Wills, 182.
7 Hansen, 253.
8 Ibid, 253.

Thumbnail: Sofia SalenSOFIA SALEN is a Mathematics Major and Chinese Minor at the University of Rochester. She holds two positions in SA Government: Associate Director of Public Relations and The Mural Project Coordinator. In her spare time she enjoys painting. More by Sofia