The technique of using mother-of-pearl as decoration on lacquerwares appears as early as the Shang dynasty. From its earlier stylised form, the designs became more detailed by the Yuan period with the shell carvings being used to render detailed images inspired by either paintings, popular dramas or themes from woodblock prints.
One the earliest written reference to mother-of-pearl lacquer is recorded by Cao Zhao in Ge Gu Yao Lun, 'The Essential Criteria of Antiquities', of 1388. This original work and an enlarged edition dated to 1462 were combined together and translated by Sir Percial David. An excerpt from Sir Percival David's Chinese Connoisseurship, London, 1971, pp. 148-149, reads:
Mother-of-pearl inlay [T'ien lo]
Those made in the past or for the Sung Imperial court were in solid lacquer. Some of them have copper thread inlays. They are very good. Those made recently at Chi-chou in Chiang-hsi are mostly made of putty, pig's blood, and t'ung oil. They are not solid wares, being easy to make and liable to damage.
[A] Section 6 Mother-of-pearl inlay (Idem, with hou-tseng but the texts differ considerably and are here translated in full)
Lacquer inlaid with mother-of-pearl is produced in Lu-ling hsien of Chi-an Fu in Chiang-hsi. The pieces made in the past or for the Sung imperial court were in solid lacquer. Some of them have copper thread inlays. They are very good.
In the Yuan Dynasty, rich families ordered this type of ware, but left the manufacturers to take their own time in their making. The products are in very solid lacquer, and the designs with human figures on them are delightful to the beholder.
The materials used in present-day Lu-ling products are mostly lime, pig's blood, and mixed with t'ung oil. They are brittle. Some makers even use arrowroot (in place of putty), which makes the objects even worse. Fine specimens are made only at the (buyers') homes under supervision if they are to be solid and durable.
Nowadays in old houses in the town of Chi-an Fu, there are beds, chairs, and screens inlaid with mother-of-pearl in designs with human figures. The work is beautifully finished and quite delightful to behold. Fruit boxes, message plaques, and [Chin] Tartar chairs recently made to the order of important families are almost as good as ancient articles, because they have been made under the buyers' personal supervision.
Early in the Hung-wu reign-period (1368-1399), Shen Wan-san's home in Su-chou was searched and his property confiscated. Among the belongings taken to the offices of the Six Departments of the palace [i.e. in suspensa sub judice] there were benches, chairs, and tables of either mother-of-pearl inlaid lacquer or carved red lacquer. They are very fine specimens, and are still there.'
One of the earliest extant pictorial examples dated to the Yuan period is a mother-of-pearl embellished fragment, possibly part of a screen, unearthed at Dadu and now in the Capital Museum, illustrated in Zhongguo Meishu Quanji, vol. 8, Lacquerware, 1989, no. 112. The excavated fragment depicts the Guanghan Gong, the palace of immortality from Chinese mythology which appears to be a popular imagery adopted by craftsmen of the Yuan and Ming periods. As with the present screen, it is interesting to note a clear delineation in the conception of space by using architectural walls in the near distance and distinguishing it from the far distance with clouds above lofty roof tops.
Early examples of mother-of-pearl inlaid lacquerwares that bear cyclical dates are rare. The present screen is unique in that it is inscribed with a cyclical date that appears twice: above the gateway on one side of the screen, and repeated on the banister on the reverse side. Undoubtedly, it is one of very few examples that bears a date and a full name, either recording the craftsman or the person who commissioned its production. From its stylistic theme, the table screen is most probably a special commission as indicated by the 'greeting' scene on one side of the screen and the two characters Zhuang Yuan engraved on the banner above the gateway. Zhuang Yuan is a title given to the highest graduate of the prestigious Hanlin academy, and it is possible that the present screen was made to commemorate a certain individual's astounding achievement when he returned from the Capital in the Jisi year to a celebratory home-coming.
It appears that besides the present screen, only two other examples bearing cyclical dates are published. The first is a low table from a private collection, included in the exhibition, The Colors and Forms of Song and Yuan China, Nezu Institute of Fine Arts, Tokyo, 2004, and illustrated in the Catalogue, no. 126. The low table is embellished with mother-of-pearl on its upper surface, depicting a busy town scene where figures are preoccupied in their various pursuits, either gathered outside or within dwellings. As with the present screen, the cyclical date, Xinchou, which corresponds to 1301, is neatly concealed as an inscription on one of the vertical banisters. The text also includes Weng dong yue Wu, which indicates that it was made in the first Winter month of 1301. The character Wu may designate the name of the craftsman.
The second dated example is a square box and cover from a private collection included in the exhibition Cyokoku no Raden, Chinese Inlaid Mother-of-Pearl, Tokyo National Museum, 1981, and illustrated in the Catalogue, no. 15. The cover depicts a vignette portraying an idyllic family life with a lady playing a qin in a garden landscape scene with children happily at play. The theme of playful children is clearly inspired by earlier Southern Song paintings such as those by Su Hanchan (active early 12th century). As with the low table and the present table screen, the inscription is inscribed on part of the architecture, and in this instance it appears on an outer vertical beam supporting one of the eaves of the house, see op. cit.,, 1981, p. 49, fig. 15-3 for detail. The inscribed characters read: Wuwu pei (Jun Bao) zhi, 'Commissioned by (Jun Bao) in the Wuwu year', corresponding to 1318. It is interesting to note that the Tokyo box records the name, although the two characters are not entirely legible, of the person who had instructed its production.