It is very rare to find a Coromandel screen of this exceptional quality and carved entirely with calligraphy panels on one side. Each of the panels bear a signature of the calligrapher at the end of the inscription, including that of two well known masters, Dong Qichang (1555-1636) and Cheng Sui (1605-1691) [the first and seventh panel from the right respectively]. Interestingly, the calligraphy on the rest of the panels is all by unrecorded or minor artists. Furthermore, two of these panels are each filled with fifty shou characters written in fantastic archaistic scripts, each character different in appeareance, and not two are exactly alike. The existence of the shou characters indicates that the screen was commissioned as a birthday gift, and their numbers (50) on each panel possibly allude to the age of the receipient, or make up the number one hundred as a wish for the receipient's long life. The curious juxtaposition of the work of two master calligraphers and that of other minor, unknown calligraphers can probably be explained by the assumption that these minor artists were acquaintances of the recipient and commissioned the screen themselves. It is unfortunately not possible to identify these calligraphers except one, by the name of Qiang Weiliang (the fifth and last panel from the right), who was briefly mentioned in an 18th century literary record, Jie'an Oubi, as native of Jiangdu (central Jiangsu province) and active in the late Ming early Qing period. This record further confirms the dating of this screen.
The carving on this screen exemplifies the excellent skills of early 18th century carvers, and is especially delightful in its rendering of Dong Qichang's calligraphy (detail 1). The calligraphy is written in running script (xing shu) in the style of the Song master Mi Fu (1051-1107). Its content, Baizhuge (White Linen Song), by the Tang poet Li Bo, describes beautiful young girls performing the 'White Linen' dance. Dong Qichang's fluid brushstrokes recall the image of a young girl, dressed all in white linen, 'with long sleeves covering her face, rising to dance for a gentleman...'; as she dances 'with her eyebrows raised, her white sleeves churn in the air like snow flakes'. The fluidity and spontaneity of his calligraphy is masterfully rendered on the hard material of wood, with each brushstroke faithfully depicted -- even the broken lines of a dry brush are captured (detail 2).
The other side of the screen is carved with the paradisiacal world of Immortals. Centred on the God of Longevity, Shoulao, seated in front of a gated cave, the landscape opens up to the vast Eastern Sea to the right, where the heavely Penglai Island is situated (represented by a building here), and rises to the undulating Kunlun moutain ranges to the left, where the Queen Mother of the West, Xiwangmu, resides. This scene is an extremely auspicious image, depicting the Immortals gathering for Shoulao's birthday from all corners. Apart from Xiwangmu arriving from the left (West), bringing a large peach as a present, the guests also include Laozi on his white ox, Dongwanggong (King of the East) arriving on the clouds behind him, the Eight Daoist Immortals crossing the sea on the lower right corner, Xiangshan Jiu Lao (The Nine Elders of Xiangshan) gathering to read a scroll, and Luoyang Qi Ying (The Talented Elders of Luoyang) offering their tribute below Shoulao among others. Originating from Song dunasty plays, variations of this image have been a favourite recurrence in Chinese art ever since, and became especially popular on lacquer during the Ming and Qing period. Compare a twelve-leaf Coromandel screen in the Victoria and Albert Museum, where a similar but less detailed scene is depicted, illustrated by de Kesel and Dhont in Coromandel, 2002, pp. 64-65. Compare also a screen decorated with birds in the central scene but with a similar border design profused with antique or auspicious objects, sold in our Monaco Rooms, 17 June 2000, lot 108.