Asian narrative scrolls – I want to know more!

Last week I had the most exciting surprise. The National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) has a Japanese narrative scroll on display. I want to find out all I can about these gorgeous artworks. Please let me know if you can help!

I am convinced a contemporary form of these artworks could be a wonderful memory device to use in education. These long scrolls from China, Japan and Korea (that I know of so far) tell stories through the most gorgeous images.

I remember from my studies in education and from experience in the classroom that mode shifts aid memory massively. A mode shift is basically taking information in one format and changing that format when recording it. That change forces you to engage deeply with the information. You can read and take notes without really concentrating, but if you have to change written information into images, or aural information into your own words, or written information into song, then you will remember it.

I believe that changing information into a narrative in pictures would work a treat. There are some written annotations as well. The narrative could be done in quick sketches or, even more wonderfully, a beautifully illustrated scroll. I am planning to do a contemporary version as one of My Memory Experiments.

Would these scrolls also work as a way to provide information to students in a highly memorable form? You really need to engage with them to know what is going on. The way these scrolls were once used suggests that is exactly the case. From the little I know so far, they were carefully preserved in boxes and brought out to be ‘read’ as they were slowly unrolled. All the detail makes them so intriguing, it would be bliss to study them.

The NGV scroll is over eleven metres long. Below is a detail from it along with its little sign. There is a bit more on the NGV website.

I first saw a Chinese narrative scroll, also called a handscroll, at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York about a decade ago and have been longing to find out more ever since. I saw them again in February and was more delighted by them than ever. I had no idea we had one in Australia – I suspect there are more for me to stumble over. I sincerely hope so!

I want to find out everything I can about these gorgeous items. If you know more or can point me to resources, please add a comment! I’d love to hear from you.

Is the Bayeux Tapestry effectively the same thing? Are there other examples? So much to learn!SaveSave









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Author: lynne

I am an Honorary Researcher at LaTrobe University. I am the author of 19 books, the most recent being 'Spiders: learning to love them' (Allen & Unwin), 'Knowledge and Power in Prehistoric Societies' (Cambridge University Press, 'The Memory Code' (Allen & Unwin, AUS; Pegasus Books, US and Atlantic Books, UK), 'Memory Craft' (Allen & Unwin, AUS; Pegasus Books, US) [and foreign translations, audio versions and so on]. My latest book is co-authored by Margo Neale. 'Songlines: the power and promise' and published by Thames & Hudson with the National Museum of Australia.

9 thoughts on “Asian narrative scrolls – I want to know more!”

    1. No, Stephanie, I knew nothing about this and it has led me on the most wonderful search. This is so fantastic. One site ( says:

      “The contemporary scrolls and paintings of Gurupada and Montu Chitrakar come from the distinct patachitra scroll tradition in the state of West Bengal. The patachitra or patua scrolls may portray stories from the great Hindu epics, such as the Ramayana, and Sufi traditions which are also sung frame by frame. The scrolls by the young painters Gurupada and Montu Chitrakar venture even further into current affairs, history and other subjects outside of the traditional canon.

      Their subjects include not only the Ramayana but the Tsunami, the September 11th attacks, the Kashmir earthquake, the Gujarat earthquake and bloody Hindu/Muslim religious riots, and incongruously even the story of the French Revolution. For examples of some recent scrolls by various artists, depicting the December 2004 tsunami, go to our Art from the Tsunami gallery.”

      I saw a superb exhibition of the Ramayana at the British library a decade ago and have wanted to revisit the narrative tradition for ages. Today is the day!

      I must go now – I want to find out lots more about these and cannot wait a second longer. You are an absolutely treasure!

      Thank you!


      1. Dear Lynne,
        At Elthambookshop we have an example of a patchitra in the form of a picture book for children. When you are in Eltham ask me to show it to you. These have been used by storytellers, balladeer sand even for family planning and literacy campaigns. I think Picture Books without words are based on this idea. Scrolling out a story has a greater dramatic effect I think.Maitrey Ray a local artist who now lives in Healesville has a better understanding of this narrative form.As a young child she grew up in Calcutta.

        1. Hi Meera,

          This all sounds fascinating. I am sorry about the delay in replying. I didn’t get notification of this comment. I am not in Eltham very often – it is a long way from Castlemaine. I really appreciate the pointer to patchitra. I knew of such things but didn’t know the correct term to find out more.

          This is all wonderful. Thank you so much for the comment. I shall ring and find out more about the book.


  1. Silly me added a contact form rather than asked for comments. That means others can’t see all the interesting additions from readers. I’ll transfer some here. Francis wrote:

    Hello Lynne,

    I don’t know if you have come across the What on Earth Wallbook series.

    They are fold-out posters that show an image-led description of a whole subject within one long document.

    They have covered various topics including big history, science and British history.

    If you scroll across the images at the top of their big history page – – you will get an idea of what they look like.

    The founder of the company explains his philosophy here –

    1. These are fantastic, Francis. Thank you. I do have a similar history fold-out poster, although this one looks better because it is less stacked full of words and more in images.

      I love the philosophy you pointed to, part of which says:

      “For me the joy of telling big stories is like the Wallbook itself, it has no beginning and no end. It is just a constant fascination with connecting together the dots of the past, giving them meaning and making them memorable through visualization, context, cause and effect.”

      I am finding that memory work, such as my walk through history, does exactly that – gives me a big picture. It is not rote learning but giving a foundation on which to build higher level thinking.

      My understanding of the Asian narrative scrolls is that they are more narrative. There is a character, or characters, who move through the scenes so as to tell a story making it more memorable. But they wouldn’t tackle all of history in a single scroll.

      I must think more about the best way to use such formats.

      Thank you again,


  2. You might be interested in the book “Streams and Montains without End” by Sherman Lee and Wen Fong, a detailed look at a hand scroll that would become influential in Gary Snyder’s long poem “Mountains and Rivers without End.” The Lee/Wen book is 50 years old, so I suppose there is more recent research on the subject of hand scrolls.

    1. I am really interested in this, Ron. Thank you so much for taking the time to respond. A quick search online shows only one expensive copy available through Amazon. Bookfinder found none. I’ll hunt around some more.

      Thank you again,


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