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China and Inner Asia
In Session: Making Space in Song China
2: Visual Kinetics in the Qingming Handscroll
Monday, March 22, 2021
12:30pm – 2:00pm EDT
Brown University, United States
As one of the key mounting formats of traditional East Asian painting, the handscroll is primarily understood as an intimate medium that engages a single dominant viewer in the interactive experience of unrolling the painting one section at a time. Compositional elements such as the repetition of human subjects, landscape framing, and textual insertions give many handscroll paintings an episodic narrative structure that regularizes the viewer’s engagement into a linear progression of stable scenes. The famous twelfth-century handscroll Along the River on the Qingming Festival undermines this convention by mobilizing vision along multiple vectors simultaneously. The coexistence of detail and panorama throughout the scroll forces the viewer to constantly adjust the scope of their vision by raising or lowering their head. Micro-narratives within the painting simultaneously guide the eye forward and back, encouraging the hands to continue unrolling the scroll in a clockwise direction at the same time that they demand counterclockwise rerolling to resolve scenarios that proceed from right to left. In contrast to the iconographic focus of earlier scholarship on the painting, this paper argues that it is the volitional friction between these competing focal vectors that distinguishes the work as a historically significant approach to the urbanizing spaces of Song dynasty China.