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The Ancient China we know from scrolls

Hailstones Melt

Realized Sentience
Staff member
Board Moderator
Who has the feeling they may have lived in ancient China in some past life now faded...?
A past life in ancient China as a Mandarin of the bureaucracy came up in one of my QHHT sessions a few years back. In that session reviewing the life, the sheer hopelessness of trying to fit into a highly regulated lifestyle and maintain status throughout one's life was highlighted as the life's major lesson.

One book I have on the shelf at home is: "Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio", which are eerie and fantastic Chinese stories of the Supernatural, originally penned by Pu Songling in the 1600's. The book version I have has been translated by Herbert A. Giles and is published by Tuttle Publishing (Tokyo/Rutland, Vermont/Singapore).


Pu Songling died on February 25, 1715, in the seventy-first year of the Qing dynasty (1644-1911). The collection of tales he called "Strange Tales of the Make-Do Studio" was given over to his sons in a stack of one hundred and ten loose-leaf sheets, hand-written and unpublished.

Here is one of the tales (selected at random, page 388):

144. The Great Rat

During the reign of the Emperor Wan Li [1573-1620CE, the epoch of the most celebrated "Blue China"] the palace was troubled by the presence of a huge rat, quite as big as a cat, which ate up all the cats that were set to catch it. Just then it chanced that among the tribute offerings sent by some foreign State was a lion-cat, as white as snow. This cat was accordingly put into the room where the rat usually appeared; and, the door being closely shut, a secret watch was kept. By-and-by the rate came out of its hole and rushed at the cat, which turned and fled, finally jumping up on the table. The rat followed, upon which the cat jumped down, and thus they went on up and down for some time. Those who were watching said the cat was afraid and of no use; however, in a little while the rat began to jump less briskly, and soon after squatted down out of breath. Then the cat rushed at it, and, seizing the rat by the back of the neck, shook and shook while its victim squeaked and squeaked, until life was extinct. Thus they knew that the cat was not afraid, but merely waited for its adversary to be fatigued, fleeing when pursued, and itself pursuing the fleeing rat. Truly, many a bad swordsman may be compared with that rat!


Such anecdotes really give a detailed look into how life was lived in those times. While many of the stories were contemporary of Pu Songling, many speak of earlier times in China. As is always the case with Chinese storytelling, there is a moral to be had in the outcome of the stories. I have a vague memory of having a book of Chinese ghost stories in my childhood, so this seems to be a recurring phenomenon for me.

Another way to get hold of details of lifestyles and civilisations now gone is to view their artwork. Luckily, in the case of China, many scrolls and painted silks have been preserved. Here are some I have come across:-

Peach Blossom Painting_silk.jpg
Peach Blossom Painting - on silk

Public backlit artwork scroll.jpg
Public back-lit artwork on a scroll

thHG1U4XD5.jpg d02788e9b6d4174e3e5202.jpg
Small detail of a larger scroll depicting town life (see below). The transport includes ox-drawn carts, people carrying loads on shoulder yokes, donkeys, horses, and men carrying palanquins (usually with one rich person inside - the elite of the day), the peasant's way of getting about (on foot) and on the river, large boats manoeuvred by oars, and water barges.

Peach blossom trees and formal gardens, and busy river traffic

One of these boats appears to be double-hulled, and appears to be being pulled on a rope by people onshore on the far bank

This could be the original scroll that the inset above of a busy bridge has been taken from. In the inset, the sun umbrellas appear to be coloured red.

Pavilions, pagodas, ornate bridges and ornamental gardens seem to be a theme.

(Inset from painted scroll below). The houses all have moulded terracotta (clay) tiles on their roofs

Here again is the same bridge detail, so this might be the whole scroll in its entirety.

Different flora from the region painted on silk scroll

For those who can read the script, the story of the image is fully outlined.

Hailstones Melt

Hailstones Melt

Realized Sentience
Staff member
Board Moderator
It makes one feel that the people who painted these scrolls perhaps studied as apprentices under great masters for much of their life. The images have the feel of having been practiced many times, and although quite realistic, they are quite iconic in their imagery as well. You see the antique ink wells and brush pots come up for sale, or presented in such places as Antiques Roadshow (BBC production). Imagine being the recipient of the brushes and brush pot of your master, after you had lived with him for 70 years!

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