The Imperial Qianlong poem, which is also found on a lapis lazuli mountain in the National Palace Musuem collection, Taipei, may be translated:
"The Luohans appear idle, but their magical power is infinitely resourceful. When they open their eyes, they can see everything in the light; when their eyes are closed, they can still see everything in the dark. How can they prove their ways in their hearts? They show their perfect original forms like magic. They may appear and they may fade away. A painter who depicts them, he, himself, becomes part of their meditation."
An inscription following the poem states that it was respectively copied by Qianlong's servant, Yong Gui, who was a high-ranking official of the Qianlong period.
This charming and skillfully carved table screen depicts nine of the Eighteen Luohans shown gathered in a wooded setting of rocks and pine trees, with four of them either standing or sitting on a natural stone bridge that spans the river. The Eighteen Luohans, or Arhats, are individuals in Buddhism, who, having followed the Eightfold Path, have attained the Four Stages of Enlightenment, and are free of worldly cravings. They are protectors of the Buddhist faith and await the coming of Maitreya, the Future Buddha. Their origins were in India, and gradually their number grew from ten to sixteen, the number introduced to China during the 7th century AD. Sometime in the late Tang or early Five Dynasties period the number grew to eighteen, the number still revered in China today.
During the 9th century the monk Guan Xiu, who was residing in Chengdu, had a dream in which he was visited by the Eighteen Luohans, and according to legend they asked that he paint their portraits. The portraits portrayed them as eccentric foreigners, many with bushy brows, prominent noses and sagging cheeks. In 1757 the Qianlong Emperor, who was a great admirer of the Eighteen Luohans, visited these paintings preserved in the Shengyin Temple (in present-day Hangzhou). Afterwards he wrote a eulogy to each image, and copies of these eulogies were presented to the monastery and preserved. Not all representations of the Eighteen Luohans depict them with exaggerated features, as with time the features became more sinized, which is true of the luohans depicted on the present screen.
The unusual method of construction of the stand for this screen, including the scroll-shaped base without an apron, is similar to that of a table screen in the Qing Court Collection in the Zhonghua Palace, Forbidden City, Beijing. See Ming Qing Shinei Chenshe Beijing, 2004, p. 94, no. 84. (Fig. 1)