ChineseLong-term Exhibitions

The origins of the handscroll format lie in the ancient texts and documents of China. From the Spring and Autumn period (770-481 BC) through the Han Dynasty (206BC-AD 220), texts were chiefly written down on slips of bamboo or wood. These narrow strips were then bound together side-by-side with cords to form a series that could be rolled up. From the Eastern Han period (25-220), the use of paper and silk became more common, and these materials were mounted to form handscrolls following in this traditional format. Up until the T'ang dynasty (618-907), the handscroll was the principal format for texts.

        When works of painting or calligraphy are mounted in the horizontal handscroll format, they are glued to a wooden roller (mu-kun) at the left end to form an axis around which to roll the scroll. At the beginning of the mounting (i.e., the right end), a wooden stave (t'ien-kan) serves as the outer end support. On this is attached a silk cord (tai-tzu) and a fastener (pieh-tzu), which are used to secure the scroll after it is rolled up. At the back of the scroll attached to the stave is a protective flap of heavy silk (pao-shou) that also serves as decoration. On top of this flap is a title label (t'I-ch'ien) that allows identification of the work without unrolling it. Originally, the labels on ancient scrolls were mostly inside, and the frontal section of silk or paper, known as the "heaven (t'ien-t'ou)," was very short. However, from the Yuan (1279-1368) and Ming (1368-1644) dynasties, the label gradually came to be placed outside, and the "heaven" became longer, from which developed a space for writing the frontispiece (yin-shou) and thus making for a complete format. The title of the work or an inscription is often found here in seal or clerical script, and to the left of the title would be the painting itself (hua-hsin). Handscrolls can be as short as ten centimeters or as long as several hundred, or even thousand. Furthermore, most handscrolls contain only one painting, but several short ones can be mounted together one after another. To the left of the painting, sections of colophon paper (pa-chih) provide space for connoisseurs and collectors to express their admiration or record other information. Vertical strips (ko-shui) often serve as boundaries to separate the sections of the scroll (such as the painting, preface inscription, and colophons). Since the Six Dynasties period (AD 222-589), the handscroll format has developed into a standard form of mounting, but with much room for variation as each generation seeks new twists on tradition (see the accompanying diagrams for the most common types).

        The height of a handscroll is generally about thirty centimeters but can reach fifty or sixty, which is known as a large-mounting handscroll (kao-t'ou ta-chuan). Because the width of handscroll paintings is greater than the height, compositions usually unfold gradually from right to left. Now, for the sake of convenience during display, a large section or the entire scroll is unrolled at once. In the past, however, the proper way to view a handscroll was to unroll with the left hand and roll with the right at the same time, thereby examining one section at a time. The part on view was always that which could be comfortably opened. This intimate and consecutive method of appreciating works differs from the "all-at-once" one of viewing hanging scrolls or album leaves. Artists have taken advantage of this unique feature of the horizontal scroll by adapting subject matter, such as by encompassing events from different times in the same composition for a dramatic effect. With the handscroll format, a world of Chinese painting literally unfolds before the eyes of the viewer.



Diagrams of the Basic Handscroll format