A Short History of Chinese Handscrolls

Chinese handscrolls are made up of long, horizontal pieces of paper attached to wooden rollers. (Image: Screenshot / YouTube)
Chinese handscrolls are made up of long, horizontal pieces of paper attached to wooden rollers. (Image: Screenshot / YouTube)

Chinese handscrolls are made up of long, horizontal pieces of paper attached to wooden rollers. The scrolls are usually rolled up when not in use. When viewing, the left hand unrolls the scroll, while the right hand rolls it up. In height, a handscroll typically measures about 10 to 16 inches. However, they can be several feet in length. This format enables the depiction of an event in continuous narration.

History of handscrolls

Handscrolls are believed to have originated in China during the Spring and Autumn period (770 B.C. to 481 B.C.). Officials in those times organized documents by weaving together several text slips into a format that could be easily stored and transported. During the Han Dynasty (206 B.C. to A.D. 220), the slips were made from bamboo or wood. During the Eastern Han period, which spanned from A.D. 25 to A.D. 220, silk and paper started to be used. The Three Kingdoms period (A.D. 220 to A.D. 280 ) cemented the role of handscrolls for paintings.

Ancient Chinese art practitioners favored the handscroll format for various reasons. “Firstly, the long paper reel buffers environmental intrusions such as dust, mould, or dampness, from threatening the painting. Secondly, a rolled-up handscroll takes up little space and is utterly portable… the format of a handscroll enables a bibliographical reading of the painting. The extended paper sheets attached in front and after the painting provide platforms for the owners and/or viewers to leave their commentaries on the handscroll,” according to Art Net.

(Image: Screenshot / YouTube)

Ancient Chinese art practitioners favored the handscroll format for various reasons. (Image: Screenshot / YouTube)

Storing handscrolls

Unlike traditional Western paintings, handscroll paintings are more susceptible to damage over a long period. Western paintings tend to last longer since the color pigments are preserved in oil and thus shielded from the effects of natural elements. By contrast, handscrolls can become too fragile to touch over time. This is especially true in the case of scrolls made from silk, since it is a protein-based animal fiber that will break down as time passes.

Today, the ancient handscrolls are not read in the traditional way of unrolling them hand to hand since the material can tear apart easily. 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,” according to Invaluable.

When displaying handscrolls, a humidity level of 50 to 60 percent has to be maintained and the light should be kept at low levels. Plus, the scrolls should not be kept unrolled for a prolonged period. Experts who take care of the ancient handscrolls often wear nitrile or cotton gloves to limit the damage caused to them.

(Image: Screenshot / YouTube)

The scrolls should not be kept unrolled for a prolonged period. (Image: Screenshot / YouTube)

Modern practices

Creating a traditional handscroll in today’s times is hard work since the process can take up to a year. It “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’… separates the painting from the rest of the scroll followed by the frontispiece, which features an inscription or image that enhances the contents of the scroll,” according to Meural.

There are modern artists in China who continue to use handscroll techniques. A popular figure, Shi Jinsong, merges classic motifs with digital practices to create sleek, new handscrolls. Li Keran combines Chinese calligraphy with a European style to create landscape paintings.

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