Chinese six fold lacquer screen

Chinese six fold lacquer screen

c. 1820 China

Offered by Mallett & Son (Antiques) Ltd

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A Chinese six fold lacquer screen, the six leaves richly embellished with applied ivory stained in warm tones of red, blue and grey, depicting scenes from the Ming Dynasty novel ‘Romance of the Three Kingdoms’, with a continuous scene of three rafts with military generals, most notably Guan Yu, Zhang Fei, Liu Bei, and Zhuge Liang, accompanied by attendants, flag-bearers and boatmen, and three further rafts with groups of refugees loading goods. The six lower panels having various dramatic scenes from the novel such as saving Lady Mi and child A'dou, Wei Yan interrupting Zhuge Liang's meditations to prolong his life, Zhuge Liang on top of the walls taunting Sima Yi to attack, presenting the head of General Zhang Fei at a doorway, Zhang Fei fighting on horseback and conversing with a scholar in a grove, all on a red lacquer ground with gilt painted details; the reverse lacquered black and painted with groups of red and yellow flowers and double gourds with green leaves.

The screen depicts the events surrounding the battle of Changban (AD 208) fought between the two warlords Cao Cao and Liu Bei. In the famous Ming novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms the battle was romanticised as an example of bravery and benevolence to the people.

It was during this era of civil war that the warlord Liu Bei was leading thousands of civilians with him to safety. Although the thousands of refugees and their carts slowed down his force, he refused to abandon them to the enemy. For this, Liu Bei was greatly respected by the people. Instead he ordered his general, Guan Yu (who can be recognised on the screen from his red face and halberd), to sail ahead down the Han river with a detachment of troops where they would rendezvous.

However, the warlord Cao Cao caught up with Liu Bei at Changban, where Liu was defeated and barely managed to escape. But he was separated from his wife Lady Mi and infant son A'dou during the chaos. In one of the lower panels, we can see his loyal retainer Zhao Yun charging through enemy lines in search of Liu Bei's family. He eventually found Lady Mi and A'dou beside a well, whereupon Lady Mi was happy to see Zhao Yun and entrusted A'dou to him. Lady Mi then threw herself in a well to avoid becoming a hostage.

Another panel shows the retainer Wei Yan rushing in to inform the great military strategist Zhuge Liang of the situation of the campaign. At the same time however, Zhuge Liang was seriously ill and meditating to prolong his life.

Zhuge Liang's genius for military strategy may be exemplified with a story that is also found on the lower panels. According to Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Zhuge Liang had recently captured a walled city but was not strong enough to keep it from the warlord Sima Yi. Zhuge Liang knowing Sima Yi to be suspicious by nature, ordered the gates of his city to be opened and unguarded, while he himself pretended to be drunk on the walls. Sima Yi seeing the open door as well as Zhuge Liang's strange behaviour, believed it to be a trap and so retreated; the city was saved. This became known as 'The Ruse of the Empty City' which is a popular theme in Beijing operas to this day.

It is very unusual to find a screen depicting such a complex narrative; this screen utilises the ancient technique of combining different episodes from a single story, thus providing a visually dramatic re-telling particularly suited to complex battle scenes. It is also extremely rare to find such lively individual figural carvings: for related figures from the British Museum (ref nos.OA.6616, 6617, 6516 and 6515), also designed for application to a screen and each dated to the 18th/early 19th century, see W.Watson (ed.) Chinese Ivories from the Shang to the Qing, London, 1984, no.165-168.

A related twelve-leaf screen with inlaid ivory showing a single wide landscape scene of Guangdong is illustrated in The Complete Collection of Treasure of the Palace Museum: Bamboo, Wood, Ivory and Rhinoceros Horn Carvings, Hong Kong, 2002, no.197. Other screens inlaid with ivory can be found in the Qing Court Collection, but much smaller and designed to sit atop tables, and depicting more peaceful pursuits; see ibid., 189, 191, 192, 193, 194, 195 and 196.
According to the John Sparks Ltd., London invoice dated 27 October 1982, the screen was acquired in the 1920s in Beijing by J.W. Jagger.
Acquired from John Sparks Ltd., London on 27 October 1982.
According to the Sparks invoice, the screen was on loan to the Victoria and Albert Museum, London between 1965-1981
Height 67.40 inch (171.20 cm)
Width 90.70 inch (230.38 cm)
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