Emperor Khan's Traveling Dining Room Scroll

(Detail from panel 17, Emperor Khan's Traveling Dining Room Scroll, "Shrike with vole atop pole on snowy steppe." Attributed to Quan T'rang Sh'i circa 1226 CE. Handscroll; ink and color on silk. 11 x 18 in [27.9 x 45.7 cm]. Reproduced by permission of the Alfred Hawthorne Estate).

Although scholars believe the date for Emperor Khan's Traveling Dining Room Scroll is correct, the identity of the artist or artists who created the handscroll is less certain. Quan T'rang Sh'i was in the service of Emperor Khan around the time the scroll was created, but certain matters of the scroll's style seem to contrast with other works that have been linked directly to T'rang Sh'i's hand, such as the famous Emperor Khan's Saddle Cover Scroll and the stylistically and thematically matching Emperor Khan's Saddle Cover Scroll Cover Scroll, both of which were painted in 1223 CE and hint, yet again, at the Emperor's fastidiousness and concern with dressing not only his wives but even his horse tack in multiple layers to protect against chafing under the harsh conditions of the Central Asian steppe.

The accompanying colophones shed little light on the issue of the scroll artist responsible for creating Emperor Khan's Traveling Dining Room Scroll, though the poem in black ink on the right side of this panel clearly reads as follows:

Emperor Khan went to the shrike and asked
"Shrike! Why do you eat?"
Shrike was silent.
Emperor Khan asked once again,
"Shrike! Why do you eat?"
In reply the shrike spoke to him in the third person and said thus:

"Shrike: kirshe! --
ershki! ekirhs!"

Satisfied with the answer, the Emperor executed 1,000 scholars.

There is no record of Emperor Khan having ordered the execution of 1,000 scholars, though he did have 500 killed on separate occasions; the poem could be apocryphal or it could be an example of what passed for humor on the great Central Asian steppe, circa the first quarter of the thirteenth century.

Additional, though admittedly scant, evidence for Quan T'rang Sh'i having been the painter who executed this particular scroll lies in the delightful and droll puns set up between the image of the shrike perched upon a "pole" barely taller than the length of the bird--a reference to a joke popular among nomadic peoples of the era and locale, which is impossible to translate today--as well as the inference, again, based on interpretations of one of the accompanying colophones, that the shrike has already eaten the vole rather than delivering it to the Emperor, as was the custom Emperor Khan demanded of all the creatures he encountered on the steppe, no matter how mean or humble they might be.


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