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These screen panels present a window into the culture of China. There is a tremendous contrast between the more masculine (Yang) front sides with stone carved ritual vessels for ancestor worship and stately rituals to the more feminine (Yin) artwork on the reverse sides with its fortuitous paintings of flowers, birds and fruit.
On the front side each black lacquered panel is divided into four components. The first three components have gold framed stone carvings of archaic style ritual vessels. The fourth and bottom carved vessels are framed with shell mosaic, and includes a coin. A mosaic of shell provides décor on top and bottom of the panels.
While each ritual vessel is attractive as a decorative artifact in its own right, there is also powerful symbolism of power, authority and spiritualism. To understand this, it is necessary to go back into Chinese history. Bronze was used in China long before most other cultures, beginning in the Xia dynasty of 2000 to 1771 BC. The screens’ carved ritual vessels were copies of vessels in use at the time, and thus also adopted the same functional and ritual roles.
Modern archeology has deciphered the unique casting and mass production of archaic bronze vessels in China. Specifically, decorative dried clay moulds were place around a hard core with a space for the pouring of the metal alloy bronze and when set the vessel was produced.
In particular, Yu, the founder of the Xia dynasty, had nine sacred vessels cast in bronze, each with three legs, which became the symbol of the right to rule. (Please note the 3 legged vessels in the screen). Bronze vessels were associated with royalty, leaders, and elite families.
Thus over several thousands of years ritual vessels became a popular decorative motiv on a variety of materials, be it painting, textiles, porcelain and furniture, a fine example as we see in these screens.
A fortuitous touch is the inclusion of coin motifs in the bottom panels: the round coin with a square centre represents not only wealth but the union of heaven and earth.
The pomegranate, known to the West as the Chinese Apple, is not in fact native to China but arrived with the Han dynasty from Central Asia. It symbolizes abundance and the wish for many sons
The humble apple is symbolic of peace by virtue of the homonym in Chinese of both words. It is also used to express the beauty of the female, with apple blossom being one of many flowers that connote feminine beauty. Going further, there is a classical chinese rebus “yu tang fu gui”, being a combination of wild apple “hoi tang” and magnolia, “yu lan”, which has the meaning “may you be rich and honoured”.
Magnolia itself symbolizes fertility and feminine beauty with its petals likened to a woman’s lips.
The peach blossom represents the female beauty as well, while the peach itself represents spring, marriage and immortality. The rose represents everlasting spring and enduring youth.
Birds are also used in the decoration of the reverse. Of particular note are the long tailed birds which express a wish that every generation of the family should enjoy longevity. Interestingly, the pheasant is one of the twelve symbols of the emperor, and thus a symbol of authority, official power and literary refinement.
A distinctive and rare find, with great visual presence made all the more fascinating with its manifold symbolism. Besides the art form of standing screens, these panels can be used as exquisite wall hangings.
“These screen panels present a window into the culture of China. There is a tremendous contrast between the more masculine (Yang) front sides with stone carved ritual vessels for ancestor worship and stately rituals to the more feminine (Yin) artwork on the reverse sides with its fortuitous paintings of flowers, birds and fruit.”