Why is Chinese art and calligraphy mounted on scrolls?

In ancient civilizations all over the world, scrolls were one of the first formats used for recording large amounts of text. Before the invention of paper, papyrus was used to create long scrolls, which could be written and painted on, rolled up and stored.

In a world before the invention of the book, scrolls had many advantages over their competition - stone and clay tablets - such as portability, the speed with which ink text could be written on them and being light-weight. 

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However, since the invention of the book form we know and use to this day, the use of scrolls as a medium for the recording and distribution of information began to decline. This was in part due to the benefits codex-style books had over scrolls. Scrolls were long and had to be unraveled in order to be read. Books, in comparison, were separated by page, so indexing and page marking could begin. Having books opened at a certain page also meant books were much easier to copy. With the spread of Christianity, the ability to quickly and easily duplicate religious texts was very attractive to the Church, and this was the driving force behind the adoption of books in the west. 

Nowadays, the scroll as a medium has been almost completely replaced by books and more recently, digital media. With the exception of the Jewish Torah Scrolls (which are used today in the religion as they were thousands of years ago), it is in East Asian art and calligraphy where the use of scrolls can be found most easily.

So why are scrolls still so prevalent in Chinese art? 

The hanging scroll (立轴 lì zhóu) is a format that is commonly used to this day to present Chinese national ink painting and calligraphy. It originated from silk banners that hung vertically on walls, which date back to the Han Dynasty (206 BCE – 220 CE). By the Tang Dynasty (618 – 907 CE) the hanging scrolls' aesthetic and technical conventions had been established. 

Creating a hanging scroll is seen as an art in itself. Aside from the different established sizes; brocade silk borders, hanging threads and rollers are all essential components.

Scrolls on display at the Shanghai Museum

Scrolls on display at the Shanghai Museum

During the Tang Dynasty (618 – 907 CE), book printing began in China and the technology went through various phases of development, such as folded-leaf pamphlets, back binding and stitched binding. However, scrolls as a medium for presenting art and calligraphy persisted.

Whilst books successfully replaced scrolls as a means to record and distribute information in China, the hanging scrolls as a medium for presenting and preserving art and calligraphy persists to this day precisely because of the tradition, craft, and conventions that grew up around the practice of scroll mounting over the past two thousand years.