This fine jade table-screen would have provided inspiration for the scholar in whose study it was placed, as well as including auspicious wishes. It has been suggested that tables-screens may have developed from the cut and polished plaques of figured white marble which were framed and hung in a scholar's studio. A decorative marble plaque of this type is mentioned by the Tang dynasty poet and painter Wang Wei (AD 701-761 in one of his poems. Evidence of plaques which were framed so that they could stand upon a table appears to be lacking prior to the Ming dynasty. However, in his Shi you tu zai, Illustrated Praises of my Ten Friends, the Suzhou author Gu Yuanqing (AD 1487-1565) provides descriptions of ten of his possessions which he regards as his 'inseparable friends' (see C. Clunas, Superfluous Things - Material Culture and Social Status in Early Modern China, Cambridge, 1991, p. 52). Among the ten valued possessions is a slate table-screen. A table-screen can be seen in the background of two of the four large painted screens entitled Eighteen Imperial Academicians, attributed to Du Jin (active c. AD 1465-1500) now in the collection of the Shanghai Museum (illustrated in Power and Glory: Court Arts of China's Ming Dynasty, San Francisco, 2008, p. 230 (upper right and lower), no. 131), and the collection of the Percival David Foundation contains two Longquan celadon ceramic table-screens bearing dates equivalent to AD 1492 (see Illustrated Catalgoue of Celadon Wares in the Percival David Foundation of Chinese Art, Revised Edition, London, 1997, pp. 55-6, nos. A206 and A207), suggesting that by the 15th century table-screens were well established items for the Chinese scholar's studio.
The 1643 edition of Ruan Dacheng's Xueyuntang bidian yanzi jian, Illustrated Xueyuntang Edition of Swallow Messenger of Love, includes an illustration showing a table-screen in a scholar's studio (illustrated in The Chinese Scholar's Studio - Artistic Life in the Late Ming Period, New York, 1987, p. 98, no. 28 (lower right)). Preserved in the Shanghai Museum is also a collection of 14 scholar's accoutrements excavated in 1966 from a Wanli period (AD 1573-1620) tomb in Gucun, Baoshanxian, Shanghai, belonging to Zhu Shoucheng. This includes a table-screen with integral brush stand (see ibid., no. 69G). Significantly, the Ming dynasty literatus Wen Zhenheng (1585-1645) declared that table-screens were appropriate for use so long as they were relatively small, and could actually stand on a table.
By the Qing dynasty table-screens were made in a wide range of materials, including porcelain, lacquer, ivory and jade. Jade table-screens, like the current example, were particularly valued by connoisseurs. The paleness of the stone used for the current table-screen adds an elegant subtlety to its decoration, which has been chosen both for its aesthetic appeal and also for its auspicious elusions. Both sides of the screen are carved with mountainous landscapes. On one side a pavilion stands high above two figures, who appear to be climbing towards it. One is an immortal carrying a ruyi sceptre, signifying 'everything as you wish it' and also a reference to longevity, who is shown crossing a rock bridge over a stream accompanied by a servant who carries a lingzhi fungus of immortality. A further lingzhi fungus is shown growing out of the rocks to one side of the bridge. Also growing from the rocks are a pine tree and a cypress tree, while trailing fronds above the entrance to the cave, which the immortal and his servant are about to enter, could be willow branches. The willow liu is seen as a symbol of spring, while the pine song, and the cypress bai are both symbols of longevity and together suggest the phrase songbai tongchun 'may you, like the pine and cypress, enjoy eternal spring'. This motif can also suggest longevity for a married couple.
On the other side of the screen clouds, which may be a reference to luck, are depicted floating amongst the mountain peaks. Once again the pine and the cypress trees suggest a wish for longevity, and two deer are shown one on an upper ledge and one on a lower. The deer is a symbol both of longevity and of an official salary. In addition, because the word for deer is lu, two deer suggest the phrase lulu shunli 'may all the roads be smooth'. Thus the iconography of this table-screen wishes its recipient a long, successful, fortunate and peaceful life.