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A Seamless Painting Simply Does Not Exist: The Mystery of Street Scenes in Times of Peace

Object Study without Objects


The image above is misleading.

While modern-day digital technology brings us closer to the artworks in unprecedented ways, a computer screen does not always do justice to specific works. The image above can only reveal a small section of this 25-foot-long scroll.

Whole Scroll

Photograph of the full scroll

Notice how wide it is compared to the height, a not uncommon feature among premodern Chinese handscroll paintings.

Fully unrolled, Street Scenes in Times of Peace, attributed to Chinese painter Zhu Yu in the 14th century, depicts more than four hundred figures who represent a broad variety of professional occupations and social types engaged in public interactions and expressive poses.

Ways to Experience This Object

Man Unrolling Scroll

The viewing of a typical Chinese handscroll painting

Photo courtesy of Wu Hung

There are many ways to experience this artwork. Viewed privately or in small groups, as it would have been in Zhu Yu’s time, this scroll would have offered a portable, interactive experience. As the reader/viewer unrolled segments of one-arm’s length, moving from right to left, a sequential narrative or a panoramic view would unfold.

Scroll In Case Smart Museum

Scroll in customized display case at the Smart Museum

Photo courtesy of the David and Alfred Smart Museum of Art, The University of Chicago ©2020

These portable and interactive sensibilities can be lost in modern displays, which often display scrolls encased and on an inclined surface, partially or fully unrolled.

Today, we can also experience this scroll through digital, interactive versions which complement and enhance the viewing experience of the actual artifact. Relying on these versions, as we have had to during COVID-19, may shed new light on the processes of making and displaying Chinese scrolls over time. In what follows, we will focus specifically on the form and function of seams, visual elements that are perhaps more discernable in digital copies than in museum displays.

A Study of Seams

A painting of this length is not done on a single sheet of paper. Technological limitations prohibit making a piece of paper that long, therefore, multiple segments are attached at seams. Ideally, seams should slice through the scroll vertically without touching any painted subject matter. When considering the impact of seams on compositions, we might ask questions like: Do the figures respond to the seams? Do the seams play any conceptual role by dividing the overall composition into sections? Are there any signs of cross-section interactions?

Zhiyan New Scroll Graphic

Notice the disparity in size of the middle sheet depicted.

Seams appear at regular intervals throughout this scroll with one notable exception; the placement indicates that the middle section is substantially shorter than the other four parts.

Looking more closely at this segment, especially on the right hand of the sheet, one can see that the long scroll held by the gentleman at center has been chopped short abruptly. This suggests that a portion of the paper segment (we estimate about 40 cm) has been removed and the seams rejoined. What could explain this abridgement, and what are its implications?

Screen Shot 2021 01 28 At 101 16 Pm

To understand this, let us consider how artists have historically handled the relationship between format and composition as it pertains to seams in scrolls. 

Traditional Approaches to Seams


Peach Blossom Spring 桃花源圖卷

Attributed to Qiu Ying. Museum of Fine Arts Boston, Keith McLeod Fund, 1956.494. Photograph © 2020] Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Note how images do not align perfectly along the seam.

View the scroll.

There may be two main approaches: 1) “go-with-the-flow” composition, which entails painting each segment separately before assembling, and 2) holistic composition, which involves assembling the scroll segments before painting them. While most artists across both categories choose to ignore seams altogether (as in the example above), some collectors would choose to highlight seams with “cross-seam seals” (example below) as a testament to the painting’s authenticity.

Screen Shot 2021 01 27 At 122 17 Pm

Illustration to the Second Prose Poem on the Red Cliff 後赤壁賦圖 (detail), Northern Song Dynasty (960–1127)

Qiao Zhongchang. The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri. Purchase: Nelson Gallery Foundation, F80-5. Photo: John Lamberton

View the scroll.

Others deliberately avoid painting things near either end of the paper segment (a tactic we often see in non-landscape scrolls) or they avoid seams in the pictorial program altogether by shortening the image length, alternating painting with calligraphy on separate papers (see below), or using the seamless medium of silk instead of paper. While paper size is subject to the size of paper-making screens, usually rectangular in shape, a piece of silk could easily extend beyond thirty feet long on a 14th-century loom.    


Odes of the State of Bin 詩經豳風圖

Ma Hezhi. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, C. C. Wang Family, Purchase, Gift of J. Pierpont Morgan, 1973

View the scroll.

Which scenario does Street Scenes adopt?

Seam Between 2 And 3

It seems that the artist largely avoids painting things near both ends, bringing a spatial “closure” to each of the five sections and creating a centripetal composition within each compartment. This possibly indicates that the sections were painted separately and assembled afterwards. Therefore, the abridgement could suggest a missing section altogether, or the removal of a deteriorated portion of the section for conservation purposes.

To pursue this latter possibility, we consulted an 1877 colophon towards the end of the scroll that provides a headcount of all the depicted subject matter (470 people, 3 cows, 15 horses, etc.). This can serve as evidence as to whether the conservation took place before or after the 19th century. As it turns out, viewers today are looking at the same frame as did Tonghe Wen, the prestigious government official and art collector who made the inscription. This indicates that the possible abridgement took place before 1877.


Object study without objects sheds new light on both the pervasive and specific material/technical limitations of Chinese scroll painting. For example, the material limit of the paper length and the desire to paint long, continuous scenes constitute a long-lasting tension among traditional Chinese paintings. Sometimes the tension is skillfully covered up by the artists, artisans, and collectors, while other times, it manifests itself in unexpected ways. Digital imaging and viewing technology allow us to locate levels of specificity more effectively and quickly.

Furthermore, studying this object through its digital versions offers some critical distance to reflect on the incompatibility of Western museum display practices and Chinese scroll painting, a genre rooted in portability and interactivity. This line of thinking creates opportunities to understand objects not just as holistic entities, but as physical remnants of layers of history.

 —Zhiyan Yang, COSI Rhoades Curatorial Intern, and Lucien Le Sun, PhD student, University of Chicago


  • Conservation
  • Collection
  • Perspectives


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