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Hanging Scrolls

Before unrolling a hanging scroll, determine first whether or not it may be safely hung. Chinese painting is most repeatedly encountered in its portable formats: horizontal hand scrolls, vertical hanging scrolls, small-scale album leaves, stiff around fans, and folding fans. The flimsy paper or silk ground of vertical and straight paintings is strengthened and preserved by a supporting frame of figured silk or paper and a backing of heavy paper. Vertical scrolls have a roller at the bottom and hand scrolls a roller at the left end so the paintings can be rolled up and stored when not in use.

Hand scrolls consist of sections of silk or paper joined together; a hand scroll can variety from a few inches to twelve inches or more in height and up to as much as one hundred feet in length. Small scale paintings are normally preserved in albums. Stiff, handled fans are rounding, oval, or square in form. They are made of paper, silk, or bamboo mounted on a strong backing or framed with thin wood.

Folding fans offer a readily accessible surface for painting and calligraphy. The painted surface of a fan could also be removed from its supports and remounted as a flat page. Painting could be a private pursuit- for personal artistic satisfaction or for amusement. Paintings could be made for appearance to a friend or in response to a request; others were appropriate for seasonal decoration, and still others were for special occasions, such as a departure gift or a wedding gift.

Among the distinguishing features of Chinese paintings are their portability and the solitude involved in their display and approval. As noted above, scrolls can be easily rolled for storage and unrolled for display. hanging scrolls were hung in a scholar’s studio or study or were shown to a small number of privileged others of like mind for respect and comment. Some vertical scrolls might be hung in the main hall of a house.

Such private viewing is unlike the situation in modern museums, where hanging scrolls are displayed for complete periods. In China, hand scrolls were carefully unrolled a short section at a time, from right to left, for perusal and admiration by one person or a few acquaintances. They were rarely seen fully unrolled, as they are so often displayed in museums today. Albums contained small paintings, enjoyed one at a time at close collection. Of all the formats of Chinese painting, the fan was, in a sense, the most individual and the most public, as both men and women in the middle of the upper classes carried fans as part of their sartorial accoutrements.


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