behold, using pictures in popular storytelling

Long before YouTube, television, and even magic lantern shows, storytellers used sequences of painted images as part of their storytelling performances.  Storytelling as a service that non-elite itinerants hawked on the street probably arose with the concentration of person in cities, occupational differentiation, and the development of a currency.  As the business of storytelling became more competitive, adding painted images to storytelling is a plausible business strategy.  Painted images would be a capital investment for a storyteller.  That investment would enhance and differentiate a storytelling performance, and also increase barriers to entry for others to create a similar performance.

Over the past millennium, pictorial storytelling seems to have been practiced in Japan, Malaysia, and Indonesia, across central and south Asia, Mesopotamia, Northern Africa, and through to Western Europe. The Hamzanama is a lavish artifact of pictorial storytelling from the 16’th-century Mughal Empire under Akbar.  However, pictorial storytelling was typically a low-status, popular practice. Hence one should expect it to be relatively poorly documented in the (elite) historical record.  Japanese picture storytelling called kamishibai achieved huge popularity in mid-twentieth-century Japan.  Kamishibai was technologically possible across Asia three thousand years earlier.  Large scrolls or sheets containing multiple images arranged across a single surface provide a cheaper means for displaying multiple images.  A variety of evidence exists for the use of such technology in pictorial storytelling.[1]


Manuscripts found in Dunhuang (northwestern China) indicate that a vibrant trade in pictorial storytelling existed in China about 1200 years ago.  Among the 40,000 manuscripts found at Dunhuang are a small number of non-canonical, non-classical, non-documentary texts.  These manuscripts, which are called bian-wen, are vernacular Chinese narratives with Buddhist themes.  Relatively unskilled lay scribes wrote the bian-wen.  They typically have alternating prose and verse, and they are linked to secular, professional pictorial storytelling.[2]  References to pictures seem to be coded with the conventional phrase “this is the place” (ch’u):

Look at the place where Maudgalyāyana sits meditating deep in the mountains — how is it?

This is the place where he goes forward and asks the reasons for this situation [3]

A similar coding occurs in Indian pictorial storytelling, which probably was an important source for bian-wen.  Moreover, the same phrase ch’u appears in cartouches in Dunhuang wall paintings showing scenes in stories.[4]

A similar implicit deictic in Jewish and Christian sacred texts suggests an earlier practice of pictorial storytelling.  In Hebrew scripture, in both narrative and in prophetic passages, the Hebrew word hen/hinnē (variously translated into English as “behold,” “look,” and “see”) marks passages:

And God said, “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed which is upon the face of all the earth….” (Gen 1:29)

Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. (Isaiah 7:14) [5]

A similar marker occurs in Christian scripture, both in quotations of Hebrew scripture and in new text.[6]  Scholars do not understand clearly the textual function of this marker. Perhaps it is a legacy of early pictorial storytelling.[7]  In any case, in subsequent Christian devotional art, scenes marked in this way — the Annunciation (“Behold the handmaid of the Lord”) and the presentation of the scourged Christ (“Behold the man”) — became highly popular images.

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[1] See Mair (1988), which describes pictorial storytelling historically across Asia and Europe.  Sequential image art (narrative art) has been attested in an early Mesopotamian city about 5000 years ago.  Hellenistic epigrams artfully manipulated the narrative framework of Greek sculpture and paintings.  While pictorial storytelling is related to these forms, pictorial storytelling involves using oral narrative and pictures to perform stories for a popular audience.  By popular audience, I mean low-status persons attracted to the performance by its personal appeal to them.

In Rome about 1440, an assistant to a clerk apparently referred to pictorial storytelling:

To support this opinion {that everyone thinks different}, one of the assistants told a fable that he had seen in Germany both written and in pictures.

{ Tum quidam ad eam sententiam fabulam retulit, quam nuper in Alemannia scriptam pictamque vidisset. }

Poggio Bracciolini, Facetiae 100, “The humorous story of an old man who carried his donkey on his back {Facetissimum de sene quodam qui portavit asinum super se}, Latin text from Poggio (1879) vol. 1, p. 156, my English translation based on the translation in id., but tracking the Latin more closely.

[2] Mair (1988), esp. Ch. 4, describes Dunhuang bian-wen.  Mair transliterates bian-wen as pien-wen and Dunhuang as Tun-Huang. Mair also calls bian-wen / pien-wen “transformation texts.”

[3] From Dunhuang, Transformation Text on Mahamaudgalyayana Rescuing His Mother from the Underworld (S2614), trans. Mair (1983) pp. 90, 92.

[4] Mair (1989) pp. 73-4.  Mair (1995) pp. 33-4 notes that shih (“the time when…”) is more common on Dunhuang wall paintings.  He observes:

Genres which use shih as their narrative marker would appear to have a closer affinity to textual and doctrinal sources, whereas those which use ch’u as their narrataive marker seem to be based more on illustrations and the oral tales that accompanied them.  .. in general, the shih (“time when…”) type belonged to the religieux and their patrons, while the ch’u (“place where…”) type belonged to the folk.

[5] Trans. King James Version (KJV).  Isaksson (2000) p. 388 reports 1,157 occurrences of hen/hinnē in Hebrew scripture.  KJV regularly translates these words as “behold,” which occurs 1,104 times in the KJV of Hebrew scripture.

[6] The Hebrew hen/hinnē is translated into Greek as idou/ide, and into Latin as ecce.  In English translations, it becomes “behold,” “look,” see.”  Modern English translations tend to smooth over the supra-textual, implicitly deitic aspect of this marker.  Isaksson (2000), p. 389, notes:

The effect of the particle hinnē is that the chain of events in the main narrative thread is interrupted, a dissociation is introduced, and the following text is marked as an impression of some kind, not necessarily visual. … We could say that hinnē as a macro-syntactic marker tells the reader or listener, “Be watchful now, the narrative chain is being interrupted by an impression, but only temporarily, it will soon be continued!”

This marker occurs 222 times in Christian New Testament scripture. It occurs mainly in the Gospels and in Revelation (170 occurrences in total).  That it is not common in the genre of letters suggests its performative associations.

[7] That each instance of hen/hinnē and idou/ide in Jewish and Christian scripture was associated with an image that a storyteller displayed seems highly unlikely.  It is much more plausible that the source of this textual convention was pictorial storytelling in the highly competitive verbal markets of the Hellenistic world.


Isaksson, Bo. 2000. “Expression of evidentiality in two Semitic languages — Hebrew and Arabic.”  In Johanson, Lars, and Bo Utas. 2000. Evidentials: Turkic, Iranian and neighbouring languages. Empirical approaches to language typology, 24. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyterj, pp. 383-400.

Mair, Victor H. 1983. Tun-huang popular narratives. Cambridge studies in Chinese history, literature, and institutions. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Mair, Victor H. 1988. Painting and performance: Chinese picture recitation and its Indian genesis. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

Mair, Victor H. 1989. T’ang transformation texts: a study of the Buddhist contribution to the rise of vernacular fiction and drama in China. Cambridge, Mass: Council of East Asian studies, Harvard University by the Harvard University Press.

Mair, Victor H. 1995.  “Sariputra Defeats the Six Heterodox Masters: Oral-Visual Aspects of an Illustrated Transformation Scroll (P4524).”  Asia Major v. 8, n. 2, pp. 1-55.

Poggio. 1879. Gian Francesco Poggio Bracciolini. The facetiae or jocose tales of Poggio, now first translated into English with the Latin text. Paris: Isidore Liseux (vol. 1, vol. 2).

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