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From The Hands of Many Imperial Craftsmen:
A Folding Imperial Screen
International Academic Director Asian Art
This magnificent screen displays the remarkable talents of some of the most accomplished artists in a variety of imperial ateliers. These artists included the finest lacquer painters, kesi weavers, embroiderers, painters on silk, painters on paper, wood carvers and gilders. One can imagine each group of artists working in their own studios and then bringing all their efforts together to create a glorious screen. It appears that no other imperial screen decorated with this wealth of materials and techniques has been published. Its design combines a rich slightly European-influenced style with intricate traditional Chinese elements to create an opulent and impressive item of imperial furniture, reflecting court taste of the high Qing.
Such a screen, which required the cooperation of craftsmen from such diverse workshops, would have been a specific imperial commission, probably to commemorate a special occasion. A comparison may be made with the pair of massive screens, preserved in the Palace Museum, Beijing, which was made for the celebration of the sixtieth birthday of the Kangxi Emperor (see fig. 1).1 Each panel of this latter screen has a zitan frame, embellished with mother-of-pearl and polychrome lacquer, inset with panels of calligraphy executed by the imperial princes. It is also interesting to compare a huali nine-fold screen, also in the collection of the Palace Museum, Beijing, which is inset with kesi panels depicting flowers and rocks in a similar style to those on the current screen. This Beijing palace screen, which has been dated to the Yongzheng-Qianlong period, is illustrated in The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum - 54 -Furniture of the Ming and Qing Dynasties (II), Hong Kong, 2002, p.220, no. 189. Painted polychrome lacquer designs and intricately carved details, of similar quality to those seen on the current
screen, appear on an superb imperial throne, which was sent to the home of Prince Ji in order that the Qianlong Emperor could be seated upon it during his visit to the prince.2
At either end of the current screen on the reverse side is an ornately framed panel containing sixty shou longevity characters delicately embroidered with great precision in silk thread. Each of the characters is different and many are depicted in distinctive archaistic seal script. Interestingly, similar archaistic seal script characters can be seen on a large blue and white porcelain vase from the Kangxi reign decorated with ten thousand versions of the shou character in the collection of the Palace Museum, Beijing.3 In the case of both the screen and the porcelain vase the reference is to the traditional imperial birthday greeting: wan shou wu jiang, ‘ten thousand years of long life without end’, which appears in similar archaistic characters within the border of the famous ‘birthday’ plates, believed to have been made for the sixtieth birthday of the Kangxi Emperor in AD 1713.4 The sixty shou at each end of the current screen also suggests the celebration of an imperial birthday, possibly that of the Kangxi Emperor’s sixtieth birthday in 1713, or perhaps that of his son the Yongzheng Emperor.
Imposing imperial five-clawed dragons have been painted both by artists working in ink and colours on paper and those painting in gold lacquer on a dark lacquered ground. In the case of the dragons painted on paper, each panel contains five dragons amongst clouds above rocks rising out of turbulent waves. Dragon are often depicted amongst clouds as it is said in the Book of Changes: ‘Clouds come from dragons, while wind comes from tigers’; the idea being that the breath of the dragons turns into clouds. The rock beneath the dragons, emerging from the waves, which is also seen on Qing dynasty imperial robes, provides a rebus for ‘may the kingdom be unified’ - shanhe yitong or jiangshan yitong. The waves symbolise a river - either he or jiang in Chinese - while the rock stands for a mountain - shan. They combine to give either jiangshan or shanhe, both of which refer to the lands of a kingdom. Thus the imperial dragon surveys his unified country.
The single dragons in roundels painted in lacquer on the other side of the screen appear to rise from the waves, in reference to the belief that the dragon rises from hibernation amongst the waves at the spring equinox in order to bring the rain needed to water the crops and ensure a bountiful harvest. The lacquer dragons are shown amongst clouds, like those painted on paper on the other side of the screen, but are also accompanied by a flaming pearl and emblems, such as coral, which is one of the Eight Treasures and a symbol of the first rank. In addition, sprays of the flowers representing the Four Seasons - peony, chrysanthemum, lotus and camellia are scattered amongst the clouds. The lacquer painting on these panels is exceptionally well executed in a style that was particularly admired by the Yongzheng emperor.5
The front of the screen has exquisite panels depicting flowers and rocks. The lower, fan-shaped, panels are worked in the finest kesi woven silk, while the rectangular upper panels are delicately painted on silk in a style reminiscent of the famous artist Yun Shouping (1633–1690). Yun Shouping, who was one of the ‘Six Masters’ of the early Qing dynasty is especially known for his delicate depictions of flowers, which he preferred to paint using the so-called ‘boneless’ style, without ink outlines. Many of the flowers contained in the panels on the current screen can also be seen on Yun Shouping’s Scroll of Flowers, now in the collection of the Hunan Provincial Museum, on his Hundred Flowers in the Style of Xu Chongsi sold by Christie’s in 2003 (see fig. 2),6 or among the flowers of Yun Shouping’s album of flowers in the collection of the Shanghai Museum. However, these exquisite flower paintings were not chosen for their beauty alone, but for their auspicious meanings.
Amongst the painted panels, for example, one includes a nandina plant with fluttering leaves and brilliant red berries, which in China is known as tianzhu or heavenly bamboo. It is often displayed at the New Year, but is also used for birthday greetings, since it is a rebus for ‘heaven’ and ‘to congratulate’. The red berries of the nandina are tianzhuzi and therefore symbolize the emperor, who is the Son of Heaven, tianzi. Sometimes nandina is shown with blossoming wax plum, but on this panel it appears in combination with plum blossom meihua, which is regarded as a harbinger of spring. The five petals of the plum blossom make it an auspicious plant since five is a sacred number in China. The five petals also suggest the Five Blessings of long life, health, wealth, love of virtue and a peaceful death. Thus a branch of plum blossom can represent the wish ‘May the blossoms bring you the Five Blessings’, which is an appropriate wish both the for New Year and also for a birthday.
Another of the painted panels is decorated with an attractive combination of peach blossom and white hydrangeas. The peach blossoms, taohua, which in this case have double petals, are symbols of both love and spring. The peach fruit is a symbol of longevity, while the multi-petalled peach flower is called the ‘immortal flower’, shenxianhua, also suggesting longevity. The white hydrangea has the common name of xiuqiu or ‘embroidered ball’ in China, but it is also known as Baxianhua ‘Eight Immortals flower’ (a name it shares with one of the varieties of viburnum). The emphasis of this decoration is therefore a wish for longevity. Another rectangular panel is painted with tree peonies and morning glory. The morning glory is a symbol of marital happiness. It is called labahua or qianniuhua in China. The latter name, which means ‘leading an ox’ derives from a legend that says that the seeds of the plant once cured a sick farmer of his illness, and he led his cattle into the field in order to give thanks to the plant which had saved his life. Thus it is associated with good health. The tree peony is known in China as the ‘king of flowers’ and is associated with royalty since it was grown in the imperial gardens as early as the Sui dynasty. It is also known as the ‘flower of riches and honours’. This panel therefore contains wishes for marital happiness, good health, riches and honours.
The painted panels naturally include two more of the most popular flowers - lotus and chrysanthemum. The painting of lotus flowers and leaves is especially fine, with charming details such as the browning and slightly insect-eaten look of the older leaves. Lotus is the flower which represents summer. It is an important symbol within Buddhism, providing the shape of thrones for Buddhist deities and being particularly associated with the Bodhisattva Guanyin. Lotus flowers are also symbols both of feminine beauty and of purity - the latter because the blossoms rise unsullied from the mud. The open seed pod of the lotus is also regarded as auspicious in China, symbolising the early arrival of children. One of the Chinese words for lotus is he, which is a homophone for the word for harmony, also he, and so provides a wish for harmony in a number of contexts, but particularly marriage.
Along with lotus, orchid and bamboo, the chrysanthemum is regarded as one of the ‘Four Gentlemen of Flowers’, and chrysanthemums also appear on one of the painted rectangular panels of the current screen. The admiration of chrysanthemums has a very long history in China, and they are even mentioned in the ancient Chinese classic work the Book of Odes. From the Eastern Jin period chrysanthemums have also been closely linked to the famous reclusive poet Tao Yuanming (AD 372-427), who is noted for his love of chrysanthemums and for references to them in his poetry. They have remained popular in art and literature ever since. Apart from its beauty, the chrysanthemum is valued for the fact that it blossoms at a time of year when most flowers fade with the onset of cold and frosty weather, and for the health-giving properties of infusions made with its petals. In the Han dynasty chrysanthemum wine was drunk on the ninth day of the ninth lunar month to promote longevity. Another reason that they are associated with longevity is because the word for chrysanthemum ju sounds similar to the word jiu, meaning ‘long enduring’. The chrysanthemum has thus become a symbol of longevity and good health, as well as being the flower representing autumn.
Chrysanthemums also feature amongst the flowers that appear in the in the beautiful fan-shaped silk kesi panels set below the painted rectangular panels. All the flowers on these kesi panels have also been chosen with care, for their auspicious meaning.
Another kesi panel has a design of daylilies. These flowers have a number of common names in China including wangyoucao ‘herb that dispels grief ’ and yi’nancao ‘boy-favouring herb’. It was believed that if a woman wore daylilies throughout her pregnancy, she would have a son. Thus, the daylily also represents many descendants. In addition it is a symbol of longevity and a metaphor for ‘mother’. In this panel the daylilies are shown with ornamental rocks. These two symbols combine to extend the auspicious wishes, as daylily and rock suggest the wish: yi’nan yishou ‘May you have sons and live long’, or xuanshou yanling ‘May the daylily and rock extend your years’.
Another popular flower, osmanthus, appears in one of the woven silk panels on this screen. The tiny flowers of the osmanthus, which come into blossom in autumn around the time of the Moon Festival, are very fragrant and are used to flavour both tea and wine. More significantly, osmanthus guihua provides a rebus for the Chinese word gui, meaning ‘noble’ or ‘distinguished’. This flower also suggests scholastic success, representing the passing of the civil service examinations at the highest level. Folklore suggests that Chang E on the moon presents such a successful scholar with a branch of osmanthus, hence the phrase changong zhegui ‘to pluck the guihua from the Moon Palace’. The inclusion of this flower usually implied a wish for sons who distinguished themselves through noble accomplishments.
A particularly attractive kesi panel depicts blossoming white magnolia and crab apple. The majestic white magnolia flowers are used to great effect by craftsmen in the Chinese decorative arts, and the flowers are emblems of purity. In Chinese they are often called either yulan ‘jade orchid’ or baiyulan ‘white jade orchid’. The white magnolia is therefore often used as a rebus for jade. Crab apple is haitang in Chinese, and thus combines with the white magnolia to provide a rebus for the Jade Hall yutang. This was an elegant way of referring to the Hanlin Academy, which was an institution of scholars who were responsible for both administrative and literary undertakings on behalf of the court. Thus, in addition to the suggestion of purity implicit in the white magnolia, the combination of these two flowers provide a wish for entrance to this revered academy.7
These, and all the other flowers included in the painted and woven silk panels on this splendid screen are not depicted merely for their delightful appearance, but also for their auspicious wishes. As with all aspects of this superb screen, the designs have been carefully selected, and have then been prepared by the most skilled artists in each field.
1 The Complete collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum - 54 - Furniture of the Ming and Qing Dynasties (II), Hong Kong, 2002, pp. 228-231, no. 196-7.
2 This throne was formerly in the Philippe Berthelot and Regency collections. It is illustrated by M. Beurdeley in Chinese Furniture, Tokyo/New York/San Francisco, 1979, p. 130, pl. 176 and subsequent colour detail.
3 Illustrated in The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum - 36 - Blue and White Porcelain with Underglaze Red (III), Hong Kong, 2000, pp. 8-9, no. 5.
4 An example from the collection of Sir Percival David is illustrated by Rosemary Scott in Elegant Form and Harmonious Decoration - Four Dynasties of Jingdezhen Porcelain, London, 1992, p. 116, no. 126.
5 This is discussed by Zhu Jiajin, ‘Yongzheng Lacquerware in the Palace Museum, Beijing’ Orientations, March 1988, pp. 28-39.
6 Christie’s Hong Kong, Fine Classical Chinese Paintings and Calligraphy, 6 July 2003, lot 2137.
7 For further discussion of flower symbolism see T. Tse Bartholomew, Hidden Meanings in Chinese Art, San Francisco, 2006.