A Beginner’s Guide to Chinese Handscrolls
How to care for them, modern techniques, and more
Created by applying inky brushstrokes and bold swaths of pigment to silk or paper, Chinese handscrolls aim to capture the inner essence of a subject. When you begin to unravel one, you never know what you’re going to find.
Handscrolls are usually stored in a box and are meant to be read from right to left, one section at a time. The medium’s nature makes for a much more intimate viewing than, say, a painting at a museum; many were only viewed in private at home. As a result, a lot of them include colophons (such as the scroll below), or commentary, written on additional sheets of paper or silk by friends of the artist or collector. Red inscriptions, seals, or stamps are also included to indicate authorship, ownership, or approval. Some even feature poems or drawings.
Though handscrolls first appeared centuries before the Han dynasty, it was the development of calligraphy in this time that set in motion the ancient art. Calligraphy was seen as a high art; traditionally, every child studied it. A steady hand could open the door for recruitment into the higher ranks of civil service and, eventually, positions that would involve commentating on leaders and daily life. The work of these elite calligraphers was incredibly valued, with some still in existence today.
Handscrolls provide a unique perspective of what life was like in ancient China, but there’s so much more to learn about the style. We’ve compiled five of the most crucial aspects of Chinese handscrolls, below.
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1. They’re typically between 9 and 14 inches in height, but they significantly vary in length
At 10.03 inches in height and 17.22 feet in width, Zhang Zeduan’s The Qingming Spring Festival Along the River (清明上河圖) (1085–1145) provides a glimpse of what life was like during the Qingming Festival in the Northern Song Dynasty (960–1279). Often referred to as “China’s Mona Lisa” (in 2015, when it was last shown in Beijing, people waited in line for six hours to see it), it’s the only existing masterpiece from the 12th-century court artist. On the other hand, Searching for My Parents (明/清 黃向堅 萬里尋親圖 卷) (1656) by Huang Xiangjian (below) is 14.375 inches tall and 18.2 feet long.
2. They (usually) tell a story
How you read a handscroll is essential to the viewing experience. Handscrolls were never intended to be read all at once, so artists used techniques to make the viewer linger in some areas and speed through others. Some scrolls show the scene at different times of the day or different times of the year, while others show the progression of an event (like the Qingming Festival). Spring Morning in the Han Palace (1494–1552) depicts a variety of imperial activities in the Ming Dynasty, while Wei Zhike’s Landscape of the Four Seasons in the Styles of Old Masters (1635) shows a panorama of an area as it changes with the seasons and pays homage to the brushstroke techniques of various Old Masters.
3. They were never intended to be on display at all times
Designed with individuals in mind, handscrolls weren’t necessarily created to withstand prolonged viewing sessions. If they’re featured in a museum exhibition, they can’t be displayed 24/7 or they’ll deteriorate. They do well in low-light conditions with 40% to 60% humidity, but even then, they’re very prone to damage, making a conservationist’s job all the more difficult. As the Denver Art Museum’s Silber Director of Conservation, Sarah Melching, notes, “The multilayered nature of scrolls and screens makes repair inherently complicated.” When her team needs to repair or clean a scroll, they work in pairs and wear cotton or nitrile gloves to ensure scrolls endure as little damage as possible, making sure to keep their workspace free of clutter, liquids, and pens.
4. Handscrolls can take up to a year to make
Constructing a traditional handscroll first requires applying a thin, even coating of a wood starch adhesive to large pieces of xuan paper or silk using a hake brush, and attaching a lining to add stability and make sure the painting can lie flat. A panel of blank silk known as the “heaven” (similar to endpaper in book design) separates the painting from the rest of the scroll followed by the frontispiece (similar to a title page), which features an inscription or image that enhances the contents of the scroll. Constructing a handscroll from start to finish can take up to a year. To see the entire process, watch the British Museum’s in-depth video about constructing hanging scrolls, below.
5. Modern and Contemporary Chinese artists still use these techniques today
Modern Chinese artists, like Shi Jinsong (史金淞) (1969–present), marry digital practices with classic motifs to create updated handscroll renditions. Shi’s piece, Fluttering Pines: The Paired Pine Tree Garden, comes in a set of five meant to be displayed together. His work also comes with downloadable instructions so viewers can re-create his work at home. Another artist inspired by traditional Chinese painting techniques, 20th-century artist Li Keran (李可染) (1907–1989), combined ancient Chinese calligraphic traditions and European styles, such as Chiaroscuro, to create rich landscape paintings.