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This handscroll, composed of three different scenes, depicts Chinese court ladies involved in the task of making silk. Fashionably dressed in colorful robes, these aristocratic women are shown pounding, spinning, sewing, and ironing, at times with the assistance of a young maid. Although widely produced in China during this period, silk was an expensive luxury, often presented as a gift to the Emperor. Admired for being at once exquisite and resilient, silk was used to make the finest garments and tapestries, as well as for painting. This image exemplifies Chinese court painting. By celebrating one aspect of court life, in this case the tradition of Gongcan, the painting commemorates the otherwise arduous task of producing silk.

Chinese Handscrolls

Painting on a handscroll is just one of many different formats that Chinese artists employed. Other painting formats included hanging scrolls, album leaves, fans, folding screens, flat screens, and wall paintings. Measuring between one and forty feet, handscrolls were meant to be looked at one section at a time, unrolling the images horizontally from right to left. Lavishly bound, these images were stored rolled up for preservation and ease of transportation. Upon unfurling, a viewer would first find a brocade border, then the principal image, and finally a number of inscriptions (di ba) with facts or comments relating to its production. Such a personal format allowed the viewer to take part in the narrative; moving from one section of the image to the next, and never seeing the entire image all at once. The practice of painting on silk remains one of China's most highly respected art forms.

The Artist

Known for his high regard of painting as an art equal to that of calligraphy and poetry, Emperor Huizong (1082-1135) had his own imperial painting academy. At his academy, he would undoubtedly have encouraged his students to copy ancient masterpieces as a means to improve and perfect their skills, while preserving tradition. While the Emperor may have painted this particular image, it is just as likely that one or more of his students were assigned to recreate it. That his students would have painted in a style akin to the Emperor's makes it impossible to know for certain who created it. Although now lost, it is believed that this image was based on the Tang dynasty (618-9071 artist Zhang Xuan's (act. 714-41) painting of similar subject matter. Though this provides insight into the image concerning its original artist, it leaves the subject matter open to question. Why are court ladies doing the work?

Court Life: Why are Court Ladies Doing the Work?

Artist Zhang Xuan made depictions of court life popular during the period known as the High Tang (first half of the eighth century), a very prosperous time. Zhang Xuan captured the sumptuousness of courtly life; many of his images portray aristocratic women involved in pleasurable pursuits. In this image, however, we observe elegant court ladies engrossed, not in leisure-time activities--horseback riding or playing music--but in the work of making silk. In the detail, we see two women and a young maid stretching the silk while another is busy ironing. Another young girl is curiously crouched beneath the bolt of material extended above her head. The remainder of the image includes two groups of women engaged in other aspects of silk production. One explanation of such a puzzling scene--court ladies doing the work of peasants--is that the image is a representation of Gongcan, a symbolic duty performed by the Empress each spring. Fulfillment of this custom required that the Empress lead her ladies through each different stage of silk production. Although this image depicts only parts of such a ritual, its existence as a copy, rather than an original, provides one clarification. It was not uncommon for a copyist to reproduce only specific parts of the original composition.

Questions about Meaning

Chinese handscrolls were meant to be looked at one section at a time. How does the image change if we look at it in its entirety? Why might the artist have chosen to exhibit this particular image in such a personal format?

Rather than create an original composition, Chinese artists often copied ancient models as a means to improve their skill. What are some other reasons an artist might want to copy ancient masterworks? Does it change your opinion of an artist's ability?


High School

Multiple Figure Paintings

The composition of Ladies Preparing Newly Woven Silk involves a series of multiple figure groups engaged in the activity of preparing silk. Among other things, it was important for the artist to consider the position and arrangement of the figures within each group, the relationship between the figure groups, and the placement and repetition of color to connect the figure groups. Following this example, have students choose an activity that involves many people and develop a series of preparatory drawings that show small groups of figures occupied in some part of the activity. Students can pair with another student to model for each other's figure drawings, or poses can be selected from books and magazines. Using the finished preparatory drawings, students then compose multiple figure groups into a painting that describes an activity. Figures can be placed against a solid, flat background of color to emphasize the gestures and poses.

Middle School

Copying Throughout History

For centuries, artists have been copying works of art as a means of improving their observation and technical skills. Investigate the benefits of copying by selecting reproductions of drawings throughout history and having students choose one or more to copy. Emphasize the significance of rendering the forms, values, and textures of the drawing as closely as possible. Choose materials that relate to the materials of the original drawings. Consider offering reproductions from both Western and Eastern cultures so students may experience the differences in style, proportions, technique, and materials between cultures.

Elementary School

Narrative Handscrolls

Traditional Chinese handscrolls were intended to be held in both hands and unrolled a little at a time from right to left for personal close viewing of small sections of the painting. Explore ideas related to Chinese handscrolls by creating narrative paintings that can be viewed one section at a time. Have students create a series of small drawings/paintings, all on the same size paper or cloth, based on the same subject matter. Consider the sequence of the related imagery to develop a narrative. Try arranging the finished paintings in different ways to change the meaning of the story, loin the finished paintings together to form one long horizontal painting, and create a border to unify all of the pieces. Attach dowel rods at each end to help the paintings roll.

Jennifer Kessner is an interpretation intern in the Department of Education and Public Programs, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Maureen Albano is an artist and educator in the Department of Education and Public Programs, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
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Title Annotation:Chinese scroll art
Author:Albano, Maureen
Publication:School Arts
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 1, 2001
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