China in 1000 CE

The Most Advanced Society in the World

The Handscroll Format

The Beijing scroll is a handscroll measuring 25.5 centimeters (10.03 inches) in height and stretching 5.25 meters (5.74 yards) in length, done in monochrome ink on silk. The original has faded to a warm brown with a few details — like the green buds of willows — in color. Although the scroll is over eight hundred years old, it is in surprisingly good condition, with only a few patches and many fine vertical cracks along the grain of the silk.

Even though modern museums often display handscrolls stretched out full-length under a glass case, they were originally intended to be held by the viewer, who would unroll only an arm’s length section at a time. Starting at the right end of the scroll, and progressing to the left, the viewer determined the pace. The Beijing scroll includes many moments of suspense to entice the viewer to keep on looking. Because, with the use of perspective, the artist can make something seem to come closer and then to recede, a handscroll can show the same object from different angles. The Beijing scroll often employs an overhead perspective, as if one is watching the people and activities from above — standing on a city wall perhaps — but occasionally the artist dramatically shifts his angle of vision. In the center of the scroll, the artist first paints the underside of the central bridge and then draws back to depict the many people and shops on top of the bridge. ...

Note: Excerpt from “The Beijing Qingming Scroll and Its Significance for the Study of Chinese History” by Valerie Hansen, Professor of History, Yale University from the Journal of Sung-Yuan Studies, 1996 | Reprinted with permission | Read the full article online