A Guide to Looking at East Asian Landscape Hanging Scrolls

/ Collections

Angela May, Associate Director of Learning and Engagement

East Asian hanging scrolls depicting landscapes have been popular in art for over a thousand years! Landscape painting reveals both the majesty of nature and also the way humans view their relationship with nature. Scholars who were stuck inside for long periods of time would look at landscape paintings and imagine themselves outside, wandering through forests or hiking up mountains. These paintings served as a mental escape and a tool to think about the place humans have in the world.

Many landscape paintings are hanging scrolls. Hanging scrolls can be hung so that one may view the painting in its entirety, but you can also focus on small sections at a time. Usually, you would need to get up very close to a painting to see the small sections, but the BMA has a tool to help you zoom in and see extreme details on some of the hanging scrolls in our collection. 

View the video below for a quick guide on how to access and look at landscape paintings, or follow the steps listed below. 


Before you begin, pick a song you want to listen to. I always recommend looking at a painting for at least the duration of one song. My go-to song is Ramble On by Led Zeppelin, but choose any song that gets you in the zone.

  1. LOOK at the entire painting. Notice that there are sections of the painting. A top, middle, and bottom.
  2. SEARCH the painting for: 
    • A mountain or mountains. There typically is a monumental mountain peak in a landscape painting. The mountain symbolizes a sacred area where people should not go. Mountains are the homes of gods or in Taoism, the Immortals. Mountains take thousands upon thousands of years to form, therefore they stand the test of time.
    • Mist. If you have a large mountain, there is usually mist that swirls around the middle of the painting. This swirling mist symbolizes the divide between the realm of gods and the realm of humans.
    • Water. There is usually a waterfall, river, lake, or pond. Water shows movement and also harmony in nature. Think of the relationship between mountains and rivers. Rivers begin in the snowy mountains and then flow down to areas where people live. Rivers (water) connect mountains (home of the gods) to people.
    • A tiny house or temple. Look somewhere below the mist and you just may find a Buddhist or Taoist temple nestled in the forest. This also marks the highest place that people should go to know their place within nature. You will also notice that man-made structures like temples have straight lines, and all the natural elements like mountains, trees, and water have curvy lines. That is because there are no straight lines in nature – a reminder of people’s interference in the natural scenery. 
    • A person or multiple people. Often, images of people walking, fishing, or thinking are depicted in the bottom portion of a landscape hanging scroll. Remember, these paintings were viewed by scholars who imagined themselves in these landscapes. Notice how small the human figures are in comparison to the mountain. What do you think that symbolizes?
  3. IMAGINE yourself in this landscape. Visualize yourself walking on the pathway leading up the mountain. Imagine your legs getting tired, the singing of the birds, and the wind at your back. 



Use the techniques above to explore the two East Asian landscape hanging scrolls linked below.

Did you enjoy exploring the landscapes using the zoom tool? We have more hanging scrolls in the collection for you to explore in detail. Below is a list of Japanese hanging scrolls. Not all of these scrolls depict landscapes. Have fun and let us know which scroll is your favorite. You never know, your favorite scroll may get installed in the Japanese gallery sometime soon!

JAPAN: Click the titles below to explore!