The Craft of Mount­ing Scrolls

Beijing (English) - - CONTENTS - Trans­lated by Sun Hong­shan Edited by David Ball Pho­tos by Zhao Meng

The craft of scroll mount­ing arose with the ap­pear­ance of tra­di­tional Chi­nese paint­ings and cal­li­graphic works and is a spe­cial tech­nique par­tic­u­lar to China for pro­tect­ing and beau­ti­fy­ing art­work.

Jin­nang yuzhou (“bro­cade bag and jade roller”) refers to a tra­di­tional tech­nique for mount­ing paint­ings or cal­li­graphic works in­tended to en­hance and pro­tect the art­works.

The Chi­nese art of scroll mount­ing is a cher­ished craft in tra­di­tional Chi­nese cul­ture. One well-known say­ing amongst those in the busi­ness goes, “The paint­ing is three tenths, while the mount­ing is seven tenths,” which shows the im­por­tance scroll mount­ing has played in the dis­play and preser­va­tion of scroll works. In an­cient China, paint­ings and cal­lig­ra­phy were mostly cre­ated ei­ther on xuan paper (soft paper from China)or silk, which crease eas­ily. Mount­ing the works there­fore not only makes them look more at­trac­tive but also means they can be stored more con­ve­niently.


The craft of scroll mount­ing arose with the ap­pear­ance of Chi­nese tra­di­tional paint­ings and cal­li­graphic works and is a spe­cial tech­nique par­tic­u­lar to China in pro­tect­ing and beau­ti­fy­ing art­works, which are con­sid­ered to pos­sess greater artis­tic beauty once they have been mounted.

When dis­cussing the his­tory of scroll mount­ing, it is nec­es­sary to men­tion the sim­ply dec­o­rated Renwu yu­long bo­hua (“Silk Paint­ing De­pict­ing a Man Rid­ing a Dragon”) from the War­ring States Pe­riod (475–221 BC) which was un­earthed from a Chu State tomb in Hu­nan in 1973. An ar­chae­o­log­i­cal field note states: “Along the up­per hor­i­zon­tal bor­der is a thin

wrapped bam­boo rod, to which there is a brown silk cord at­tached.” This pro­vides tan­gi­ble his­tor­i­cal ev­i­dence as to the ori­gins of scroll mount­ing, which can be traced back to the War­ring States Pe­riod over 2,000 years ago.

Through the en­su­ing ages, the an­cient Chi­nese con­tin­ued to im­prove the craft of mount­ing. By the Qin and Han dy­nas­ties (221 BC–AD 220), fold­ing screens had be­come preva­lent in up­per­class so­ci­ety. These screens were painted and then set in frames. How­ever once dam­aged, these works of artis­tic and aes­thetic value would then be de­tached from their frame for stor­age. It was at this time that scroll mount­ing in the true sense of the word ap­peared.

Dur­ing the Song Dy­nasty (AD 960–1279), the craft of scroll mount­ing de­vel­oped rapidly. The em­per­ors at the time showed a strong pref­er­ence for paint­ings and cal­lig­ra­phy, which led to the emer­gence of a great num­ber of fa­mous painters and cal­lig­ra­phers. As a re­sult, the mount­ing trade flour­ished. The crafts­men there­fore not only in­her­ited the best prac­tices from be­fore the Tang Dy­nasty (AD 618–907) but also made their own in­no­va­tions in mount­ing hang­ing scrolls and paint­ings. Dur­ing the Xuanhe Pe­riod of the North­ern Song Dy­nasty (AD 960–1127), scroll mount­ing reached its peak: Af­ter Em­peror Huizong (reign: 1101–1126) pro­mul­gated rules re­lated to scroll mount­ing, the qual­ity of crafts­man­ship im­proved, silks were widely adopted for use in mount­ing and a widerange of elab­o­rate and gor­geously-coloured fin­ished prod­ucts were cre­ated. Hence, this pe­riod is re­garded as the his­tor­i­cal high­point of the mount­ing craft.

Dur­ing the Ming Dy­nasty (1368– 1644), the mount­ing craft con­tin­ued to de­velop: more di­verse for­mats and styles ap­peared, tech­niques be­came in­creas­ingly so­phis­ti­cated and a wide range of books on the sub­ject were pub­lished. Dur­ing an­cient times, the gen­eral term for scroll mount­ing was “zhuanghuang” (dec­o­ra­tion) and as such, Zhuanghuang zhi (Records of Dec­o­ra­tion) writ­ten by Zhou Ji­azhou dur­ing the Ming Dy­nasty is rated as the first com­plete trea­tise on the craft. Zhou Ji­azhou an­a­lysed the im­por­tance and process of mount­ing scrolls in great de­tail, clearly demon­strat­ing both the craft of mount­ing and its artis­tic value.

Dur­ing the Qing Dy­nasty (1644–1911) the craft of mount­ing scrolls reached new heights. A spe­cial in­sti­tu­tion called the “Ruyi Guan,” ex­clu­sively in charge of the em­peror's paint­ings, was es­tab­lished in the im­pe­rial palace; a spe­cial depart­ment was set up in the Palace Work­shop to mount scrolls; and the Min­istry of In­ter­nal Af­fairs also in­vited masters to the palace to mount art­works. Dur­ing the Kang-qian pe­riod (1662–1795), a cul­tural street ap­peared at Li­ulichang in the cap­i­tal where an­tiques, paint­ings and cal­li­graphic works were sold in bulk. The mount­ing trade in Bei­jing there­fore de­vel­oped so rapidly that the “Bei­jing Mount­ing” school emerged, which, to­gether with “Suzhou Mount­ing,” were con­sid­ered the two ma­jor schools in China. Com­pared with the sim­ple and neat “Suzhou Mount­ing” style, “Bei­jing Mount­ing” tends to be more or­nate, thicker in tex­ture and more strongly coloured. To­day, the Time­Honoured Brand of Rong­baozhai and the group re­spon­si­ble for mount­ing, re­pair­ing and restor­ing scrolls in the Palace Mu­seum are the two prin­ci­pal rep­re­sen­ta­tives of “Bei­jing Mount­ing.”

“Bei­jing Mount­ing” has al­ready been added to the list of Bei­jing In­tan­gi­ble Cul­ture Her­itage and the unique “Wang Fam­ily Mount­ing Craft” has been widely ac­claimed for its so­phis­ti­cated tech­niques. Wang Xu is the third­gen­er­a­tion of moun­ters in his fam­ily. He has spent more than 30 years in his of­fice at the Bei­jing Fine Art Academy. It con­tains two large red ta­bles, be­hind which are xuan paper, paste, cop­per wires and silks, as well as walls cov­ered in traces of xuan paper.


The tech­niques in­volved in mount­ing scrolls are highly so­phis­ti­cated, with even sim­ple art­works re­quir­ing more than 10 separate steps, the first of which is back­ing the work. Tra­di­tional Chi­nese paint­ings or cal­li­graphic works are in­vari­ably pro­duced on xuan paper, tis­sue paper or silk, which be­ing thin and ir­reg­u­larly shaped, be­comes un­even af­ter paint or ink is ap­plied due to changes in tem­per­a­ture and hu­mid­ity. There­fore, the mounter must back the art­work with a sheet of xuan paper and paste it onto a smooth wall, so as to make it more even and thicker.

The mounter must choose the right back­ing method ac­cord­ing to the par­tic­u­lar tex­ture of the work. Nowa­days there are two com­mon meth­ods: wet back­ing and flight back­ing. The former is also some­times called solid or di­rect back­ing and in­volves the mounter spread­ing the huaxin (lit. “painted heart,” the art­work in the mid­dle of the scroll) face down­wards on a bright red ta­ble and spray­ing wa­ter evenly over it with a brush or sprin­kler so that it stretches nat­u­rally and does not wrin­kle. Next, the mounter loads a broad brush with paste and slowly brushes out­wards from the cen­tre of the huaxin ac­cord­ing to the strokes of the Chi­nese char­ac­ter “米” un­til the work is spread flat across the ta­ble, and there are no wrin­kles or air bub­bles.

Af­ter ini­tially smooth­ing out the huaxin, the mounter then ap­plies paste with a brush. Each stroke re­quires the right amount of paste and should be done gently, en­sur­ing the paste is evenly spread, af­ter which any ar­eas that have been missed are filled in. Novices of­ten make the mis­take of ap­ply­ing too much paste, but this can dis­turb the paper's pulp or the ink, or worse still, dam­age the huaxin it­self. Af­ter brush­ing on the paste, any hairs or any other for­eign ob­ject on the huaxin, are re­moved us­ing a small pair of tweez­ers. Next the back­ing paper is placed on top of the huaxin, and a coir brush is used to flat­ten the back­ing paper down un­til it cov­ers the huaxin evenly. Fi­nally, some paste is ap­plied along the edge of the back­ing paper, the huaxin is turned over and it is stuck to the wall. This method is rel­a­tively easy, but it does have draw­backs. For in­stance, if the mounter uses too much wa­ter in the paste then the ink or colour on the art­work will be­come di­luted and bleed. In that sit­u­a­tion, re­pair­ing the scroll would be very dif­fi­cult in­deed.

Back­ing is an ex­tremely im­por­tant pro­ce­dure be­cause the fol­low­ing steps de­pend upon its suc­cess. In ad­di­tion, any prob­lems that do arise are dif­fi­cult to deal with—for ex­am­ple, if the ink or paint bleeds or fades, the dam­age can­not be re­paired fully. The xuan paper back­ing the huaxin not only pro­vides it with ex­tra pro­tec­tion but also ab­sorbs some ink or colour. In this way, the back­ing paper in­cor­po­rates it­self with the huaxin and nour­ishes the soul of the art­work, which is why it is also called “life paper.” Once the two sheets com­bine they be­come in­sep­a­ra­ble com­pan­ions, with the back­ing paper ac­com­pa­ny­ing the scroll for decades, cen­turies or even mil­len­nia.


Af­ter the mounted paint­ing or cal­li­graphic work has be­come flat, thick and com­pletely dry, it is re­moved from the wall with a sharp screw­driver. The art­work is then stretched flat and the bor­der is trimmed with a pair of scis­sors to make the edges neat, in a process known as “squar­ing.”“scroll mount­ing is de­mand­ing and time-con­sum­ing, so you have to be pa­tient,” ex­plained Wang Xu. Even af­ter decades in the busi­ness, he is still cau­tious when it comes to this pro­ce­dure.

Af­ter squar­ing the huaxin, the ma­te­ri­als, such as silk and bro­cade, are pre­pared for the “dec­o­ra­tive work.” “Dec­o­rat­ing” in­volves mount­ing var­i­ous ma­te­ri­als onto the huaxin ac­cord­ing to pri­or­ity and plays a role in con­nect­ing and fram­ing. There are two ba­sic meth­ods for dec­o­rat­ing: One is dec­o­rat­ing the front i.e. past­ing the dec­o­ra­tive ma­te­ri­als on the side of huaxin that will be dis­played; the other is re­verse dec­o­rat­ing, that is, af­fix­ing the ma­te­ri­als to the back of the huaxin. Both meth­ods have their ad­van­tages and dis­ad­van­tages. As for dec­o­rat­ing the front, since paste is ap­plied for mount­ing the ma­te­ri­als, this re­duces both the size of scroll and also the value of work. Worse still, if the seal is near the edge, it will be cov­ered by the dec­o­ra­tive ma­te­rial. The method of re­verse dec­o­rat­ing on the other hand, is eas­ier to ap­ply, but it can­not en­hance the aes­thet­ics of the scroll.

The first step in dec­o­rat­ing is xi­angju, mount­ing paper to frame the huaxin. The fram­ing strips are mostly made from coloured paper, which are mounted onto a sin­gle sheet of xuan paper and put on the wall to stretch. Af­ter dry­ing out, the paper will then be taken down for fur­ther use. Xi­angju is men­tioned in Zhuanghuang zhi: “Af­ter the mounter fin­ishes any re­pairs, he will use paper the same colour as the huaxin to at­tach a lin­ing around the bor­der about two or three cen­time­tres from the huaxin; the lin­ing is where the paste is brushed and the edges are trimmed, but it should not en­croach on the huaxin.” The lin­ing men­tioned in Zhuanghuang zhi is to­day's paper strips. Paper the same colour as the huaxin is used in or­der to make the scroll more el­e­gant; and the paper strips are at­tached “about two or three cen­time­tres from the huaxin,” with the width of strip used de­pen­dant on the size of the huaxin. To af­fix the strips, paste must be brushed evenly, with­out miss­ing any spots, af­ter which

the strips are af­fixed face down­wards one-by- one to the bor­der be­hind the huaxin. When the strip reaches the end, the ex­tra part is cut off along the edge. Once the strips have been at­tached, stiff paper is placed on the mounted strips which the mounter presses two or three times with his hands to en­sure they ad­here firmly.

Af­ter af­fix­ing the strips to the huaxin, the mounter mounts the pre­pared dec­o­ra­tive ma­te­ri­als on the strips one-by­one. Tak­ing a black-and-white mounted hang­ing scroll as an ex­am­ple: Af­ter the strips are at­tached, the mounter brushes paste on the strips to the left and right of the huaxin, dec­o­rates the two bor­ders, cuts the top and bot­tom ends to make them neat, dec­o­rates the tiantou (up­per part) and di­tou (lower part), and then folds the two edges back two or three mil­lime­tres—this fi­nal step be­ing known as “bao­bian.” Bao­bian, which refers to wrap­ping the edges, helps pro­tect the art­work: On one hand, it pre­vents the edges from fray­ing, and on the other, it in­creases the thick­ness of the edges, mak­ing them more rigid and aes­thet­i­cally pleas­ing. Af­ter this step, the dec­o­ra­tive work is ap­proach­ing its end. Fi­nally, the mounter will leave space ac­cord­ing to the size and width of the scroll for the tian­gan (a thin wooden bar at the top of the scroll) and di­gan (a wooden cylin­dri­cal bar at the bot­tom of the scroll).


Af­ter the paste is dried, the next step is to mount the back­ing paper to the ob­ject to strengthen it fur­ther. The back­ing paper is gen­er­ally made from ei­ther sin­gle- or dou­ble-ply soft xuan paper. To mount the back­ing paper, the art­work is placed on the ta­ble face-down. A stiff-haired brush or writ­ing brush is then dipped in wa­ter and used to smooth out the edges and cor­ners of the ob­ject. Wa­ter is sprayed evenly across it, and it is folded to make sure the wa­ter is well-dis­trib­uted. A thin layer of paste is brushed on the coarse side of the back­ing paper, which is then at­tached to the rear side of the ob­ject it is be­ing mounted to. Then the paper is brushed to cover the ob­ject. Fi­nally, the whole art­work is brushed to make sure it is even and sturdy. At this point, Wang Xu ex­plains he lifts up a sec­tion of the mounted ob­ject to pre­vent the wet, sticky edges from ad­her­ing to the ta­ble. Af­ter the back­ing paper is af­fixed, he will brush some paste along the edges and put the mounted ob­ject on the wall to stretch. Although the ob­ject is se­cured to the wall, that does not mean it can be left alone. Dur­ing the first fif­teen days, the mounted ob­ject may be­come de­tached from the back­ing paper or the strips, so wa­ter must be sprayed fre­quently onto the spots that dry more rapidly to make the joints thicker and less vul­ner­a­ble from dry­ing out ear­lier.

Hav­ing com­pleted the steps above and af­ter the mounted ob­ject has been hung on the wall for the req­ui­site amount of time, it can be taken down for fur­ther treat­ment. Wax is ap­plied to the back­ing paper to make sure it is smooth and damp­proof and a cal­en­der­ing stone is used to flat­ten and soften it. The cal­en­der­ing stone used by Wang Xu is a cob­ble­stone about the size of two fists, but to Wang it is a “fam­ily heir­loom.” He said, “My fa­ther col­lected it from a river­side and we've been us­ing it for decades.” Cal­en­der­ing re­quires strength and is not as easy as you might think. As the stone has been used to smooth out hun­dreds of mounted ob­jects over the years, it has be­come ex­tremely flat and smooth. The process of cal­en­der­ing is car­ried out in sev­eral stages: the mounter should be gen­tle the first time; ap­ply mod­er­ate force the sec­ond time; and fi­nally use more pres­sure on the third and fi­nal time. As the pres­sure is in­creased, the mounter will clearly see the back­ing paper be­come in­creas­ingly smooth. Wang Xu ex­plained the rea­son why they grad­u­ally in­crease the pres­sure: “The Xuan back­ing paper may con­tain im­pu­ri­ties or even some grit, so if you use your full strength the first time, you'll scratch both the back­ing paper and the huaxin. But if you cal­en­der it gently, you'll pol­ish out any im­pu­ri­ties or grit which you can then re­move us­ing a pointed knife. In that way the back­ing paper be­comes clean and smooth.”

Af­ter the cal­en­dar­ing work is fin­ished, any frayed edges of the mounted ob­ject are neat­ened up with a knife, and the tian­gan and di­gan are at­tached. Af­ter the rods have been fixed, the mounter must wait four to five hours un­til the paste is com­pletely dry be­fore drilling holes in the rod to at­tach the cord used to hang the scroll. By now, all the pro­ce­dures for mount­ing the scroll have been com­pleted.

In the craft of scroll mount­ing, each and ev­ery step must be done with the ut­most care, since one small mis­take can lead to dis­as­ter. Wang Xu still re­mem­bers how his grand­fa­ther in­stilled a work ethic of work­ing care­fully in his fa­ther and how his fa­ther also in­stilled it in him. He said, “If we can con­tinue to main­tain the orig­i­nal stan­dards, this tra­di­tional craft will never leave us.”

Wrap­ping the edges to pro­tect the art­work

Ex­am­in­ing silk used in mount­ing

A piece of wax used to smoothen and damp-proof the back­ing paper

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