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...screens incorporate the ever present symbolism in Chinese life...

Chinese screens have existed ever since people first sat on the ground. An early example of a painted lacquer screen was excavated from a tomb in Wangshan and dated to the Warring States period of 476-221 BC. Screens are also mentioned in many early manuscripts; various illustrations and paintings depict them the way they were used amongst the more prosperous families.

The screen became utilitarian, used for a large variety of functions: protection, concealment or more commonly as a partition within the Chinese courtyard house or Hutong. Here they defined spaces, afforded privacy, shaded from the sun, and, when lined with paper, gave shelter from cold winds.

Pingfeng is the generic word for screen, but this term changes for different types of screens. Chapingfeng, for example, describes the screen that can be moved from its base, while Zuoping describes those that cannot. Weiping refers to multiple folding panelled screens, while wall panels are Guaping.

As with any language, when multiple words are used to describe what appears to be a generic, it indicates the importance of that generic within the culture of that language. Screens were indeed omnipresent, and functioned not as furniture but as part of the structure and architecture of the house.

The screens and panels we are able to find today come from Hotung compound houses, which have given way in Chinese cities to the ubiquitous multistory apartments. Screens become superfluous and are saved where we can. Weiping, or folding panelled screens, are the most commonly found.

Panels of Screens

Within the screen, panels were used , with elaborate latticework being carved at the top. Often these are magnificently made, the design of the lattice work creating a strong visual aesthetic, while incorporating the ever present symbolism within Chinese life.

Given the screens we see today are essentially a small component of the doors or mobile walls within a large house, they can only inspire curiosity and admiration of the beauty and ordered grandeur of the houses from which they came.

The complexity and symbolism within the patterns create an intriguing puzzle, while the grain of the woods is displayed to good effect as a result of the intricacy of the carving.

Interestingly, as China’s population becomes wealthier, there is a growing awareness of the loss of cultural treasures in the demolition of the old courtyard houses, and there are examples of Chinese as well as foreigners buying the remaining traditional courtyard houses to preserve them, and ensure that the humble and not so humble screens and doors are preserved in their original place.