الأحد، 11 ديسمبر 2011

Chinese Islamic Scrolls: A Conservation Case Study

Chinese Islamic Scrolls: A Conservation Case Study
By Aristoteles G. Sakellariou, Lalit Kumar Pathak, and
Siti Yuhainizar


This article presents a case study from the Islamic Arts Museum of Malaysia's experience with Chinese Islamic Scrolls. What makes Chinese Islamic scrolls so unique is the combination of Arabic script applied on a scroll with the principles of Chinese brush painting. The conservation team started with historic research, then examined the scroll and decided for the best treatment in respect of Eastern and Islamic disciplines. The conservation stages were documentation, removal of the old backing, cleaning, relining, drying, repairs and retouching. Once the treatment was performed, the storage had also to be considered. The parameters affecting both the treatment and storage are based on the staff experience with similar scrolls, the environment and the restrictions relating to the museum's geographic location. Through this treatment, the conservators discovered more about the history of the artistic movement that produced, and still produces, these scrolls. This article is the outcome of observations and decisions that were made for this rather unusual object, that the IAMM conservation team wishes to share.

The Islamic Arts Museum of Malaysia (IAMM) is located in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia's capital city. At just 3° north of the equator, its climate has all the characteristics of a tropical equatorial region. It is hot and humid all year round, with lot of rain [1].

The IAMM's collections currently consist of more than eight thousand artefacts. Moreover, the IAMM is the custodian of the historic collections of JAKIM (Department of Islamic Affairs of Malaysia). Some of the most spectacular objects in display there are the large model of Mashjid Alharram in Makah and a complete ottoman period reception room from Damascus. In comparison with most of the Islamic Art museums around the world, the IAMM gives equal attention to the art from the Mogul India, the South East Asia and the Muslim Communities of China. The last ones are well represented in IAMM [

The Islamic Chinese scrolls collection is one of the museum's most unusual (Figure 1). This article explains briefly the technology of these objects and discusses a case study of a scroll, including observations and the practical solutions found for its treatment.

What makes Chinese Islamic scrolls so unique is the combination of Arabic script applied to a scroll with the principles of Chinese brush painting. Literature on the subject is rather limited and the majority consists of artistic references and photographic depictions, rather than its technology or history. A recent bibliographic search by the authors to find any similar case studies proved unfruitful.

The 1300-year history of Islam in China began at the end of the VIII century with the arrival of the first Muslims. Since that time, Muslim merchants followed the back and forth movement of caravans on the Silk Road [
3]. There are ten official Muslim minorities in China, but not all of them would produce this kind of artwork. Members of the Hui ethnic group (with the greatest population) and the Dongxiang are more likely to make these scrolls than other ethnic groups, such as the Tajiks or the Uyghurs [4].

In contrast with other Arabic scripts such as Naskh or Thuluth, which are written by calligraphers throughout the Muslim world, the Chinese Islamic scrolls bare inscriptions in the Arabic-Chinese script or Khat Sinni. It is commonly used to refer to one with thick and tapered effects, much like Chinese calligraphy. It is used extensively in mosques and houses in north eastern China. According to Liu Baojun [5], the imam of the Habrin mosque Jing Zhai (1879-1949) has produced marvellous pieces of this particular artwork.

The Chinese Islamic scrolls are produced mainly on paper. The Chinese Shaun paper, popularly known as rice paper, has been extensively used to create these artworks [
6]. Shaun paper has good absorbance of inks and colours, even though it is rather weak and fragile. In most cases, black Chinese carbon-based ink, made of carbon soot or lamp black (pigments) and mixed with animal glue (binder), is used for calligraphy. The Chinese carbon ink is very durable and does not fade in time; this is perhaps one of the reasons that this ink was preferred. After completing his writing, the calligrapher would stamp one or two seals in red colour. Generally, the shape of most of these stamps is square. The seal may contain the artist name, wishes, his logotype, a date or studio name. This tradition continues until our days. Hanging scrolls appear mostly in vertical format, while horizontal format of the calligraphy is usually meant for framing. After its composition, the paper artwork is either mounted or framed or sometimes simply placed on the wall as it is.

Traditionally, these scrolls are framed or mounted on paper rather than on silk, like ordinary Chinese scrolls. Two or three layers of paper lining are used to give the scroll shape. The scrolls are lined with dyed dan yuan zhi paper and mian lian paper and dried over a flat wooden drying board for several weeks. Traditionally, various types of adhesives, papers and brushes could be used for each different stage of mounting process. However, unlike the traditional ways, the commercial mounting in Malaysian contemporary workshops (with limited knowledge to the subject) uses rice starch paste and only one type of Chinese paper (commercially known as rice paper) for all purposes.

Islamic Chinese scrolls are sometimes mounted on silk, particularly since the 1990's. In silk mounting, the silk is lined on paper with an aqueous adhesive. After drying, it is cut into several pieces (e.g. for side strips, top and lower panels). Chinese silk is available in different colours. In fact, its considerable index of transparency makes the colour of the lining paper an important factor to the final hue. The anticipated result can vary in colour and motives. Flying birds on white silk is a typical motif widely used.

The typical relining procedure is as follows. After attaching various pieces of lined silk to the calligraphy piece using slightly thicker paste, the object is left to dry. In order to ensure a nice and regular shape, the mounting craftsman folded the composition half way bringing the one end over the other, and then a hole was pierced on every corner with a needle. The composition was opened flat again and by using a ruler and a knife, guided by the newly pierced holes, the edges were trimmed. At that point, the paper and silk fibres of the trimmed edges were exposed. The mounting craftsman folded a millimetre at the back in order to secure the edges. Pockets are provided on top for the wooden stick and at the bottom for the roller by using thick paper. The scroll is then lined with mulberry paper and left to dry over a drying board.

The IAMM Scroll

History of the Scroll

The object of this case study was most certainly used for decoration. This opinion can be supported by the Malaysian Ministry of Culture, Arts & Tourism research on Muslim communities of China, on similar artworks [
7]. It is composed of several pieces of different types of paper, including a central one which bears the calligraphy (Figure 2). The scroll dimensions before treatment were 161.8 x 68.9 cm. The paper pieces are white, or off-white, and the inks are predominantly black and red for the two seals. The decorated surface may be divided in three sections. The first is the main calligraphy part, which reads Basmallah (or Bismillah, which means 'in the name of God, the most Graceful and most Merciful', Figure 2d), written with black ink, and shapes a motif that could be considered to be inspired by a dragon. The second is the two red seals, one of which is square (figure 2b) and mentions the name of the artist (Kuai Qing), while the other is oval (Figure 2c) and presents a wish (Wan Gu Chang Chun, which literally means 'living till thousands of ages as long as a forever spring season' and can be interpreted as 'forever young' or 'everlasting to a long life'). The third section of the decorated surface is a roughly written Arabic inscription, above the seal of the artist: "Written [by] Abd Eldhayeq [who was or which was] found at the sea" (Figure 2e).

From left to right:
Figure 1. General view of the China Gallery of the Islamic Arts Museum of Malaysia where the scrolls can be seen at the rear.
Figure 2. The scroll before treatment: a) general view; b,c) red stamps with Chinese characters; d) crown shaped Basmallah (or Bismillah); e) rough Arabic inscription.

The scroll presented in this case study is a piece of a wider collection of Chinese Islamic scrolls belonging to the IAMM. This collection was kindly donated by Puan Sri Sharifah Zarah Al-Bukhary, member of the board of directors of the Albukhary Foundation which funds the museum. Our information regarding the history of this particular collection is limited to some names of the artists and the date of their production (around 1950).

Once the scroll came under IAMM's custody in 1998, it went through the standard procedure that applies to all new acquisitions. First, it was taken to a special quarantine room, known as the Handling Room, for observation. The time for this process differs, depending on the nature of the object. In this particular case, the scroll was examined for less than a week.

The scroll was taken from the Handling Room directly to the museum exhibition halls as there was no Conservation Department at that time. It was exhibited until the year 2000 at the China Gallery. This gallery was redesigned in 2003 which involved the rotation of some objects, including this scroll. The scroll remained in storage for more than nine years, when finally the conservation staff took the initiative to treat it. One of the reasons for choosing it was the availability of restoration materials at the laboratories, which matched the estimated needs of this particular object.



When observing the condition of the scroll (Figure 2), it is easily assumed that the object was not given the appropriate attention when handled in the past, before it arrived to the museum. Moreover, it was obvious that it was not kept under adequate conditions. The scroll was examined thoroughly and it was found that it was trimmed in the past, perhaps due to lack of storage space. The object suffered a number of tears and loose areas. The left and right edges and corners were weak and damaged. A blue strip of machine-made paper applied along the edges was detached on several parts. A possible reason for attaching the blue paper could be for protecting the scroll edges.

The scroll had two lining layers, one made of thin and the other of thick handmade paper. The thick one has long fibres. There was no indication of using silk for either layer. The object had lost its elasticity due to the paper fibres aging, which was accelerated by the lining paste. Dust and dirt embedded on the lining paper affected further the physical properties of the artefact. The lining quality is not excellent, which is the reason that it is assumed that the object was made at a workshop with poor experience.

Works of art on paper become more fragile with aging. Once the paper degrades it is difficult to restore back its flexibility by chemical treatment. In order to prevent the artwork from breaking into pieces, aqueous treatment and relining with more appropriate materials is usually recommended.

One of the major aesthetic problems of the scroll is the extensive water stains. These stains 'run' all along from the top left to the lower left side. Its pattern leads us to the assumption that they might have occurred when the scroll was rolled. The most likely scenario is that water came in contact with one side of the object (either accidently or deliberately) and penetrated it forming a repetitive design of stains after a regular interval. Additional water stains were found as well at other places. There were also some stains of red ink. The paper was slightly acidic, with pH 6. Brown spots and other forms of discoloration, present on the centre left side of the Arabic characters, may have been caused by acidic activity. A solubility spot test proved that the black ink was insoluble in water while red ink was slightly soluble.



The object was thoroughly documented before any action was taken. The IAMM standard documentation form was completed and photographs were taken before, during, and after every treatment.

Removal of the old backing

Before the intervention, attention was given to the selection of the most appropriate materials for the treatment and the final display of the object. As this scroll was not originally mounted with silk, it was not considered to add it now.

A thin sheet of polyethylene was adhered to the cleaned table top using water. The areas that contained red ink were fixed with 1% Paraloid B-72 in acetone. The object was humidified carefully from both sides with a water sprayer and placed facing up. As the object was thin and fragile there was a risk that it would be torn if the thick backing paper was removed at this stage. For this reason, it was decided to provide a temporary lining to the entire surface with lens tissue paper (facing), using a weak solution of methyl cellulose (Figure 3). Afterwards, it was left to dry.

The scroll was humidified from both sides by spraying it gently with distilled water and kept over a polyethylene sheet. Then, it was covered with another polythene sheet. Air bubbles and creases were removed using a sponge, which was slightly moisturized to slip with ease on the polyethylene. After some minutes, a small part of the object was exposed uncovering the polyethylene sheet. An attempt was made to remove the backing paper with forceps but without success. Therefore some more water was sprayed over the object and it was left for more time to soften the old adhesive. At the same time, the condition of inks was examined by lifting the lowermost polyethylene sheet. Two layers of backing were removed carefully with a tweezers and a scalpel (Figure 3).

From left to right:
Figure 3. During the removal of the backing.
Figure 4. Application of solution during the cleaning procedure.
Figure 5. Removal of the polyethylene sheet after lining the scroll.


The scroll was placed over the washing table in a supine position. A solution was prepared with 80 parts of deionized water and 20 parts ethanol with a few drops of hydrogen peroxide and a few drops of ammonia (Figure 4). Hydrogen peroxide worked as a bleaching agent for the stains and was used ammonia to neutralize it [


8]. The solution was applied on the paper and blotted after some time. This process was repeated twice until the stains were hardly visible. The object was rinsed with deionised water. In order to make the object more durable its acidity was counterbalanced with calcium hydroxide solution (pH 8) resulting in a final pH was almost neutral.

The scroll border was treated separately in a similar manner. To dry, it was kept between blotters in semidry conditions, pressed under light weight.


Parts of the scroll borders were lined over the Japanese machine-made tissue (9 g/m2) yellowish in colour using diluted Japanese wheat starch paste in order to give some strength. Japanese wheat starch paste is preferred due to its good physical properties and mould growth resistance. Following the classic preparation technique, after cooking the paste was passed through a strainer to eliminate lumps and create a homogenous texture [9, 10].

After relining, the scroll and its borders could be handled safely. To give the hanging scroll the desired length, a final lining of Japanese machine-made tissue (19 g/m2) was added. Thus, the scroll was lined on a long, single sheet of that tissue over the terylene cloth which was fixed over the working table. Japanese wheat starch paste was diluted with water to get the desired viscosity, and was used for relining (Figure 5). The facing tissue papers were then removed carefully. After drying, the pieces of the border were pasted back to their original place. A thin cream-coloured Chinese paper was placed all around the object in order to provide equal thickness to the entire surface and to tone down the frame's brightness. The blue strip was placed at its original place as it is considered part of the object's history.


The lined scroll was placed over a table for a total period of two months in order to allow all its components to set together in relation with the surrounding atmosphere. This period was required because of the different drying times of each type of paper and also the prevailing conditions.
Repairing and retouching

The scroll's missing parts were patched up using thin Japanese paper of a matching colour. Minor retouching was done on spots of missing ink with coloured pencils. Certain stains were also retouched for aesthetic improvement. The materials used to repair and to retouch the scroll can be easily removed with safety or even retreated.

Finishing touches

A wooden stick was added to the top of the scroll and a roller with two wooden knobs at the lower part. The stick was flat at the front and semi-circular at the back. This is to make a small gap between the scroll and the wall allowing the air to circulate freely.


The final step would be to exhibit the scroll (Figure 6) in IAMM's China Gallery. However, that was not feasible at the moment since the exhibition space devoted to Chinese Islamic scrolls is full. Therefore, the scroll will be exhibited when the gallery will be rearranged, or perhaps when the objects will be rotated.

From left to right:
Figure 6. General view of the scroll after treatment.
Figure 7. The concept and implementation of the storage box.

Until this decision is to be taken by the curatorial and display staff, the scroll should remain in storage. One of the most common forms of deterioration for Chinese, Japanese and Tibetan scrolls is creases or cracks from rolling [11], which meant that a suitable solution had to be found. Our preference was to place it flat on a mount. Nevertheless, this solution proved to be unpractical due to the large size of the object and also the lack of storage space.

The best system for storing rolled scrolls is the Japanese system: it consists of a box and a rolling cylinder made of a seasoned, light and durable wood such as paulownia or kiri. The scroll's edge is fixed in an ajar gap alongside the cylinder, and then it is rolled around it. The box includes two hollow semicircle 'stands' on its two interior sides. This is where the cylinder sides are fixed preventing the scroll from laying on its own weight.

Even though this method seems to be the most suitable, it proved to be economically unaffordable for the amount of Chinese Islamic scrolls there are in the collection. This includes the costs of buying and shipping the materials from Japan to Malaysia, plus potential implications at the customs office.

Thus, an alternative solution had to be found. The solution came from our experienced box making staff. We would try to imitate the Japanese scroll boxes, making one from paper and cardboard (Figure 7). Our box had similar properties to the Japanese system in that it held the scroll safe from handling, light and vibrations. However, there is a possibility that our box does not meet the humidity buffering properties of the Japanese wooden boxes. This is a subject that must be investigated in the near future.

Planning for conserving this object triggered the conservation staff to search more about the Chinese Islamic Scrolls' history. This research provided a fascinating insight to their rather obscure past. This article shows some of the scarce bibliographical resources in English.

Almost ten years ago, the museum followed the trend of 'sandwiching' the scrolls between two sheets of Perspex. However, when the conservation department was established not only focused on their conservation, but also to their historical context. Therefore, the 'scroll' had to be on a scroll form for a better historical interpretation.

This object was exceptional challenging for the conservation staff due to its dimensions. The conservation staff handling skills were tested, especially when the scroll was wet. The object had been quite acidic, weak and fragile. Particular attention had to be addressed to remove the hard 'glue dipped' backing without damaging the painted surface. A temporary lining from the front side with lens tissue paper (facing) protected the painted paper. Finally, the choice of materials and methods was also tested and proven suitable after observing it for 4 months.

Generally, there has been little attention given to Islamic Chinese scrolls by conservation experts and researchers. With this article, we hope to contribute to a corpus of understanding for this distinctive artistic expression which brings together the Art from East and West.


The authors of this article would like to thank to Mrs. Britt Spyrou for the English editing, curator Rosmawati Ahmad Zakharia for the archival information, researcher Assim Quisho for reading the Arabic inscription, and the Deputy director of Centre for Malaysian-Chinese Studies Chiam Yan Tuan for reading the Chinese seals. We acknowledge Pauline Webber for providing notes on remounting and restoration of Chinese paintings. We also thank the Director of IAMM, Tuan Syed Mohammad Albukhary, for his ample support.


[1] A. G. Sakellariou, "The Fungus Trolley", News in Conservation 18, IIC, June 2010, p. 3


J. Berlie, Islam in China: Hui and Uyghurs, Lotus, Bangkok, 2004, p. 1




[11] N. Yosiyuki, "Maintenance of East Asian Painting", The Book and Paper Group Annual 12, AIC, 1993, p. 3, URL (accessed 08.06.2011)

About the authors

Aristoteles Sakellariou
Senior Preventive Conservator
Contact: a.g.sakellariou@gmail.com

Aristoteles Georgios Sakellariou has been Head of Conservation at the Islamic Arts Museum of Malaysia for the past two years. He has an MA in Preventive Conservation from Northumbria University, UK and a BA Hons in Conservation and Restoration from the University of Lincoln, UK. He worked as site conservator and as freelance conservation consultant for the University of Athens, the Hellenic Museum of Folklore Art and the Hellenic Society of Near Eastern Studies. He managed large projects for the Jordanian Ministry of Culture, and the Ministry of Tourism of Oman. His interest and research include strategies for the storage and display of objects in their original or historic context.

Lalit Kumar Pathak
Senior Conservator
Contact: lalit@iamm.org.my

Lalit Kumar Pathak  holds a BSc in Chemistry, a MSc in Geology and a Diploma in Museology. He trained in Paper conservation at India and abroad. Previously, he worked for several years as a senior paper conservator and project coordinator at the conservation laboratory of Rampur Raza Library, Rampur (India) under INTACH ICI project. His past experience includes working as a Senior Paper Conservator for Ossian's Connoisseurs of Art, New Delhi. He joined the Conservation and Research Laboratories of  IAMM, Malaysia in 2003. He has  restored several Chinese scrolls, Quran Manuscripts, Miniature Paintings. One of his most challenging projects was the treatment of a 700 pages 'Shahnameh', an illustrated Persian manuscript by Firdaus. During his 18 years long carrier in paper conservation he had restored hundreds of artifacts on paper.

Siti Yuhainizar
Contact: yuhainizar@iamm.org.my

Siti Yuhainizar Mohd Ismail received her BSc Science in Information Management (Hons) specialised in Record Management, in University Technology MARA Malaysia (2005). In her studies, she focused on Preservation of Archival Materials. She has received extensive training in paper conservation from conservation masters at the Conservation and Research Laboratories, Islamic Art Museum, Malaysia, where she currently works. In 2005 she was hired as a trainee conservator and then promoted to Assistant Paper Conservator.


                 Ph.D. in Technologies for the Exploitation
                 of the Cultural Heritage .
                 Senior Lecturer in the Dept. of ArchitectureE-mail:        emadhanee@yahoo.com
                 College of Engineering , University of Mosul 
                 Mosul - Iraq .

Tel :           +964 (0)770 164 93 74
N. Ash, "A Note on the Use of Magnesium Bi-carbonate in Hydrogen Peroxide Solutions", The Book and Paper Group Annual 2,  AIC, 1983,  URL (accessed 08.06.2011)
G. Harrison, Wheat Starch Paste, Indiana Uni-versity Libraries Preservation Department, URL (accessed 20.06.2011)
O. P. Agrawal, M. Barkeshli, "5.2.3 Aqueous Cleaning", Conservation of Books, Manuscripts and Paper Documents, INTACH, Lucknow, 1997
[6] J. Hough, Chinese Calligraphy and Painting Scrolls and Mounting: Introduction to Chinese Mounting & Scrolls, URL (accessed 06.10.2008)

[7] "Chinese Muslim Calligraphy", Muslim in China (English-Malay version), The Malaysian Ministry of Culture, Kuala Lumpur, 2003, pp. 33-37
[5] Y. Liu Baojun, A Glance at the Chinese Muslims, Malaysian Encyclopedia Centre, Kuala Lumpur, 1998
[4] M. Dillon, "Language and the Hui", The Hui of China, Curzon, Richmond Surrey, 1999, pp. 153-161
L. De Guise, Introduction, IAMM website, 2009, URL  (accessed 05.06.2011)


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