The Grandeur of the Qing | Asia for Educators

II. Lesson Plans

How to Read a Chinese Hand Scroll:
the Kangxi Emperor’s Southern Inspection Tour

Christine Naitove, The Chapin School, New York, New York


Artistic Technique

The physical form of the hand scroll required Qing artists to create a continuously changing perspective, as opposed to the one-point linear perspective adopted by contemporaneous Western painters. Perspective also changes as the eye enters into the depth of the painting, such that objects or figures in the middle distance are proportionate to immediately surrounding objects but may be similar in size to figures or objects that are in the foreground of a nearby part of the painting. Landscape painters tended to divide space schematically into foreground, middle ground, and background. In the farthest background, objects (usually mountains) fade into sketchy outlines. Qing artists used mist as a sort of ellipsis or transitional device to indicate a passage of distance and/or travel time (particularly notable in scroll VII). Mist also added atmosphere and a sense of mystery by partially obscuring the landscape. The viewer was meant to fill in the vague or empty spaces with his or her imagination. Qing artists regarded landscape painting as an interactive form of art. They wrote that the viewer could enter into the painting, stroll around in it, explore it, and even dwell in it.

Mountains are the quintessential subject of Chinese landscape paintings. Orthodox painters drew on a traditional definition of three classifications of space in the treatment of mountains:

  • "High distance" (gaoyuan)—"From the bottom of the mountain looking up toward the top."
  • "Deep distance" (shenyuan)—"From the front of the mountain peering into the back of the mountain."
  • "Level distance" (pingyuan)—"From a nearby mountain looking past distant mountains."