Chinese Painting: How to Read, Handle & Care for a Handscroll

Chinese and Japanese handscrolls Group of Twelve Chinese and Japanese Handscrolls and Hanging Scrolls, sold for $188 via Doyle New York (May 2011).

A fixture of the art of Chinese painting and calligraphy, the handscroll dates back to the 7th century B.C. Here, we explore how the format of this Eastern medium differs from the intent behind traditional Western painting, how to properly “read” a Chinese handscroll, and how to care for and display these centuries-old works of art today.

What is a Handscroll?

A handscroll is a type of East Asian painting on a long, horizontal piece of silk or paper, most often a blend of text and image. A preferred format for painting or calligraphy, the handscroll is intended to be held by hand and slowly unrolled, revealing new text or images as the scroll is exposed. The handscroll format in Eastern art differs from the purpose of Western painting, which is to be hung on a wall for continuous view. Handscrolls, in contrast, are designed for easy storage and for occasional viewing when the handscroll is unrolled. 

Chinese handscrolls

Chinese Handscroll Depicting Chrysanthemums. Sold for $2,813 via Doyle New York (February 2013).

The History of the Handscroll

In the 7th century B.C., during China’s Spring and Autumn period (771–476 B.C.), officials began to organize documents by weaving slips of text together into a format that could be rolled up for easier transportation and organization, and the handscroll was born. The new format proved practical and caught on among aristocrats and scholars who came to keep precious collections of scrolls for their own personal review and use. Over time, this simple form of storing documents evolved into the primary medium for traditional Chinese painting, calligraphy, and poetry, constituting one of the world’s great artistic traditions.

Lin Haizhong, Pure Heart, ink and color on paper, handscroll. CNY150,000 – CNY200,000 via Sotheby’s (December 2015).

To a modern collector familiar with Western-style oil painting, there are many elements of the handscroll format that may seem counter-intuitive or even puzzling. For one, handscrolls were never intended for permanent display. Unlike hanging scrolls, which were composed vertically with prolonged exposure in mind, handscrolls are intended to be intimately viewed by an individual, who observes the scroll with a great sense of intent and purpose.

How to Read a Chinese Handscroll

Holding both ends of the scroll in either hand, a scholar would advance the scroll from right to left, progressively revealing and concealing the edges of the image as they moved through the work. This method of experiencing a handscroll is essential. Since a composition could be many feet long, viewing the image in its entirety would be impractical, and as such, painters were aware that their audience would have to view a given image in a precise order, taking care to present compositions which were frequently narrative on conception.

Chinese handscroll

After Qiu Ying (1494-1552), Ink and colours on silk. Sold for £16,250 via Bonhams (November 2014).

This could be a continuous narrative, depicting a specific series of events, or more subtly invoking contrasts between the beginning, middle, and end of an image. For example, the painter of a landscape can be sure that a lake along right edge of an image will be revealed before a mountain in the center, and wants the viewer to consider this, as they continue their journey through the image.

Handscrolls, because they were intended to be viewed by a single person (with perhaps a second peeking over the shoulder) are a very intimate medium, and tend to blur the relationship between the composer and observer of an image.

Care and Handling

Due to their intimate nature, handscrolls are very prone to damage. To view a scroll on one’s own today, the traditional method of rolling from hand to hand is not advised, as the materials can easily tear. Overexposure to the skin’s natural oils, sunlight or humidity can also damage a work. Instead, scrolls are typically removed from their wooden case and placed on a clean, flat surface. A fastener keeps the scroll from unfurling, it should be undone and wrapped in a soft tissue, to prevent accidentally chafing the scroll as it is advanced.

Carefully roll the scroll across the surface, right to left, advancing until the frame ends, or the scroll is two or three times longer than shoulder width. In a typical handscroll, paper is mounted on a background of silk, which is specifically chosen to enhance the content of each image. A blank portion of the mounting surface will appear first, as the scroll is rolled out, and is referred to as the “heaven.” After the heaven, comes the frontispiece, which can be an inscription or an image all to itself, and is chosen to enhance the central image or calligraphy, which follows.

As one proceeds through the image, it’s usually helpful to have two pairs of gentle weights to keep the paper from curling up when you don’t want it to. When you’re ready to move on from a scene, remove the set of weights and lightly allow the loose side to curl up, then move the scroll back towards the right, before unfurling again towards the left. Upon reaching the end of the scroll, the end mounting will be revealed, which forms the axis of the furled piece, and the paper will be in a loose spiral next to it. Gently apply pressure and reverse the process used to unfurl, correcting the paper if it starts to telescope and become misaligned.

Display

When displaying a Chinese painting for a longer period of time, it’s best to keep in mind several factors that limit even the most well-equipped of institutions. Handscrolls were not created with prolonged viewing sessions in mind, and as such must by allowed to “rest” at regular intervals lest they deteriorate. Additionally, light must be kept at low levels, and humidity should be kept at 50 to 60 percent. Even museums can find the right exposure difficult to maintain, and materials can vary depending on the scroll, so it’s best to consult an expert or to simply limit viewing sessions, as is the traditional method.

Notable Examples of Chinese Handscrolls

Famously, one of the finest works of the medium, Han Gan’s Night-Shining White, depicts a brilliantly realized rearing horse, tethered to a pole but still containing the ferocity of a wild animal. The beast’s strong spirit emerges as much from the huge eye rolling in its socket as from its flailing tongue and flexed chest muscles. Han used sparse shading and a plethora of negative space to heighten the intensity of the image; it’s just the observer and the horse. Except, today, it isn’t, because the horse has lost most of his breathing room.

Han Gan, Night-Shining White, Tang dynasty (618-907). Handscroll, ink on paper. Image courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The comments and family crests of over a thousand years of appreciative collectors, including emperors from the Song and Qing dynasties flank him on every angle, some of the work’s original minimalism is lost. In its place, though stands a sense of history that few, if any, other paintings can match. While most pieces can’t hope to rival Night-Shining White’s level of venerable provenance, it is by no means unique, as the addition of a colophon section was later standardized in handscroll construction, providing a sort of “comment section” for a piece, allowing each owner leave their thoughts, or provide biographical information about the original artist. To own a handscroll is to join yourself in this long tradition of warm appreciation.

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Sources: China Online Museum, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Palace Museum, Williamstown Art Conservation Center, Artnet News, University of Chicago.