The Craft of Mounting Scrolls
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